The tomb of Caecilia Metella on the via Appia near Rome. From the size of this tomb of the daughter in law of Crassus, one can’t help but think that this sort of ostentation paved the way for populists like Marius and Julius Caesar. A monument like this might as well have borne a legend saying “hate me because I’m filthy rich.”
Yesterday afternoon I took a bike ride with my trusty Canon G1X. It’s that ugly little camera with a large sensor- about six times as large as the ones in most cameras its size. Full of compromises though, it’s expensive for its size and is neither cool-retro not cutting edge. It’s too big for most pockets, doesn’t do instagram tricks, and the lens partially obscures the view from its optical finder. But it has an optical finder – essential for half the shots in this series – and it fits into the back pocket of my bike jacket.
Below are some shots from my ride over the Golden Gate Bridge and through the Marin Headlands. The highlight was happening on a snoozing bobcat. I see bobcats often in the Marin headlands, but rarely get this close to them; they’re pretty timid. The clouds and wind were dramatic on the way home, sun transitioning suddenly to dense fog right at the middle of the Golden Gate Bridge.
Thick fog on the Coastal Trail
Photography is stimulating. A decade ago I first visited Rome with a digital camera. Overwhelmed by the vast collections of the museums holding ancient collections, I shot everything in sight, realizing I could later take my time viewing the exhibits in detail on my computer screen. I’ve since visited Rome a lot, accumulating around 60,000 photos of ancient artworks, mostly imperial marble portrait heads and early Christian artifacts.
The photos moved me to study some of the obscure corners of antiquity – Christianity in particular – that don’t mesh all that well the customary view. One such case is this curious Christian grave slab. A Columbian student working on a project saw this photo on my website and asked if I could explain the subject matter. I wrote her a response, which I’ll summarize here.
The grave slab, possibly a sarcophagus lid, celebrates the life of a woman named Severa. Her hair style indicates she lived in about 325 AD. Her posture says she was a scholar and Christian philosopher, and was proud of it. Romans, like others at the time, had a habit of not breaking words on their natural borders. The inscription actually reads, “Severa in Deo vivas” (Severa in God lives – Severa may you live in God).
In this Christian scene, Mary, sitting on a wicker chair, is made to look like Severa, holding the toddler (not infant) Jesus, who, inconsistent with the New Testament gospels and Christian tradition, reaches out to receive the gifts brought by the magi. The magi wear tunics and Parthian caps, to indicate their oriental origin. The man standing behind Mary is almost certainly the prophet Balaam (Numbers 24:17: ”I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near; A star shall come forth from Jacob, A scepter shall rise from Israel, And shall crush through the forehead of Moab, And tear down all the sons of Sheth”). Esoteric reading of the Old Testament – seeing obscure and subtle connections between old and new Testament – was very common in the writings of all forms of Christianity of that era.
The imagery is clearly Christian, though not totally orthodox. The epiphany scene points either to the Gospel Matthew version of the story (where it is implied that the magi show up sometime before two years after the birth) or, more likely, to a version considered heretical by later Christians, from a book commonly called the Protoevangelium of James. Epiphanius of Salamis, wring in the late 4th century, promoted Matthew’s implication (Panarion, Book 51, Chapter 9) of a two-year-old Jesus, arguing that Luke’s account was incorrect. In the Protoevangelium, Jesus is explicitly stated to be two years old.
The Vatican’s placards on pieces like this are conveniently silent on what should be apparent to scholars of ancient Roman iconography. The message in stone is clear, and points to the root of what has been likely redacted and sanitized in early versions of the writings that became the gospels. The magi incident is not a celebration of the birth of a spiritual ruler by adoring astrologer-soothsayers. It is an overt surrender by the magi to a newborn divine super-magician. The gifts are not simply random items of high value. They are instruments these magi used to cast spells, now rendered impotent in the presence of Jesus’s stronger magic.
Christian writers of the time of Severa had no problem with seeing Jesus as a magician. The pagan writer Celsus, as quoted by the Christian writer Origen, asked whether we should regard all the other magicians trained by the Egyptians as son of God also. Origen, in his multi-volume diatribe against Celsus, denied that Jesus’s magic itself was unique. He instead argued about its source. Clement of Alexandria and the non-canonical Acts of Peter describe contests of magic between Peter and Simon the Magus. Justin Martyr made desperate attempts to differentiate Jesus’s magic from that of other magicians. Athanasius of Alexandria, writing in the era when Severa lived, tied himself in a bit of a logical knot, explaining that Jesus was not a magician, but that his magic triumphed over that of other magicians.
I’m glad I shot that photo ten years ago.