Visualizing Christian Marriage in the Roman World
Ellison, Mark D.
Married Christians in Rome in the third and fourth centuries commissioned works of visual art containing their portraits accompanied by Christian motifs and symbols. This visual evidence, found in sarcophagus reliefs, catacomb painting, gold glass medallions, gems, seals, jewels, and other personal items, is examined as a means of articulating the little-known views of the non-celibate majority of late antique Christians who continued in traditional patterns of Roman life, including marriage and childrearing. Lay Christians adopted marital iconography found in Roman art, including the dextrarum iunctio, wedding scenes with a mediator figure, intellectual sphere portraits, and double-portraits in circular frames. They also adapted these forms and used new iconography, including coronation images and figures of spouses worshiping at Jesus’s feet. The emergence of these distinctive images coincides with the development of a nuptial blessing and early forms of marriage liturgy. Images of Adam and Eve often appear in marital contexts and correspond to discourse using the story of the first parents to conceptualize marriage and married life. Both funerary art and literary sources give evidence of spousal devotion after death, the idea of a marital bond that endured beyond death, and hopes that spouses would reunite in an afterlife. The visual art of married Christians shows their participation in discourse on marriage and celibacy, and their contributions during a formative period in the Christian conceptualization of marriage and family life.