Date of Award

December 2013

Degree Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts


Art History

First Advisor

Richard Leson

Committee Members

Derek Counts


Art, Christian, Marble, Reliquary, Sarcophagus


This paper seeks to introduce a relatively unknown example of a small fifth or sixth century AD reliquary object in the shape of a sarcophagus now in the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Art Collection. Its material - mostly likely Prokonnesian marble - a highly prized stone in the Roman Empire - speaks to strength, permanence, endurance, and the concept of romanitas. The form, as derived from Roman burial practice, provides apotropaic powers for the viewer and for the holy person whose remains were contained within. Its design also facilitates the offering of votives and veneration, as well as requests for intercessions between the earthly and the divine - a sort of Christian proxy substituting eschewed pagan sacrifice. The sarcophagus shape reflects the emotional, cultural, and theological concerns of Roman and early Christian funerary practice, such as mourning, loss, fear, remembrance of the dead and hope for the afterlife. Its miniaturized scale suggests fragmentation of the body as well as portability and transfer, as attested to by a relic translation ceremony depicted on the Trier Ivory including a similarly shaped reliquary.

The absence of intricate carving of the piece has parallels in early Christian architecture, such as Saint Sabina, where exterior modesty opens up to reveal a precious interior - a spiritual metaphor underscoring the beauty of the inner soul. Very likely used to consecrate an altar or a newly built church, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee reliquary also testifies to the sanctification of sacred space and the expansion of holy topography in conjunction with the spread of the early Christian church.