Wooden doors of Santa Sabina

Type: Doors
Date: ca. 421–40
Location or Findspot (Modern-Day Country): Italy
Medium: Wood
Dimensions: 5.35 × 3.35 meters
Description: The carved doors of Santa Sabina in Rome were likely made between the pontificates of Celestine I (r. 421–31) and Sixtus III (r. 431–40). Eighteen of the original twenty-eight cypress panels survive on the outer face of the doors, although their original arrangement is now uncertain. The stylistic variations in the carving indicate that the panels were made by multiple carvers.

While images of the crucifixion of Christ exist on earlier amulets and gems, the crucifixion on the Santa Sabina doors is the earliest extant representation of the scene in a public context. Jesus and two robbers stand in distinctively orant poses. The carver may have been inspired by similar representations of the three youths in the fiery furnace from the book of Daniel, which appeared on earlier sarcophagi and in catacomb painting (e.g., at the Catacomb of Priscilla in Rome).

These visual echoes of the Old Testament in representations of the New also dictated the choice of narratives on the doors themselves. The carvings feature a variety of Old Testament scenes with typological connections to scenes from the life, ascension, and resurrection of Jesus. For example, the doors include a panel with a series of miracles performed by Moses as well as a similar panel with the miracles of Jesus, encouraging viewers to view Moses as a prefiguration of Jesus. Similarly, viewers might have seen the ascension of Elijah on a chariot, itself adapted from older iconography of the apotheosis of an emperor, and associated it with the subsequent narrative of Christ's own ascension after the crucifixion.
Relevant Textbook Chapter(s): 2
Image Credits: Nick Thompson

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