Wandering through Rome, the Eternal City, any visitor has the opportunity to witness the convergence of two empires: the Roman Empire, with its arches and ruins in the Forum, and the Christian empire, with numerous churches in the city and, of course, the Vatican.
This confluence of pagan and Christian is even manifested in the Vatican Museums. There visitors naturally gravitate to various galleries featuring Italian Renaissance artists, culminating in a quick and crowded foray into the Sistine Chapel. However, near the escalator from the main entrance is a habitually overlooked gallery of early Christian art: the Museo Pio Cristiano. The collection contains many of the oldest recovered carved sarcophagi in the early Christian visual canon. Although many guidebooks suggest it interests only specialists, visitors 042 would be well served to reject their guidebooks and explore this treasure trove of early Christian imagery, including early visualizations of Jesus.
Viewers find a clean-shaven Jesus, mirroring the cultural norm of ancient Rome, where men usually wore no beard, rather than the bearded figure typical in later representations (after the late fourth or early fifth century C.E.). In many of these early examples, Jesus is depicted performing miracles, such as dividing loaves, changing water into wine, and raising Lazarus from the dead, as on the Sarcophagus of Sabinus. What may perplex viewers is the object in Jesus’s hand: a tapered instrument.
To many, it appears Jesus is holding a magic wand!
The earliest Christian art appeared in a funerary medium, meaning it was art in the context of burials, be it catacomb paintings in Rome or sarcophagi carvings. Considering this context, it becomes clear why these early images depict Jesus performing healings and miracles. An image of Jesus raising the dead shows him as being more powerful than any other competing god or goddess. Exhibiting a feat of wonder such as this gave comfort to the viewers honoring the dead, reinforcing faith in the life to come.
Viewers will not find early images of a 043 crucified Jesus. In late antiquity (between the third and eighth centuries C.E.), showing Jesus as powerful and having authority over life and death was more palatable than featuring Jesus dying or dead on a cross, an execution method for the poor and fallible. Images of Jesus performing miracles tout Christian supremacy and emphasize the future resurrection. The curious magic wand Jesus wields plays a part in that effort.
The implement that Jesus holds (sometimes called a virga or rabdos) is portrayed as either thick and ruddy, such as on the sarcophagi, or thin and reed-like, such as in catacomb paintings. He uses it in the performance of a miracle, leading several scholars to conclude that early Christians understood Jesus as a magician. The problem with this identification is that early Christians greatly maligned magic.
Magicians certainly existed, but their power was not in a wand-like tool but in spells. There are a great number of spells and incantations, collectively known as the Greek Magical Papyri. They mostly deal with exorcisms, healings, and love spells. Although some mention the use of a wand-like instrument as part of the spell, the tool is always of secondary importance. The power of late antique magic was in the proper execution and vocalization of the spell.
Moreover, early Christian figures such as Origen, Augustine, and John Chrysostom all vociferously attacked magical practice. Origen even defended Jesus against accusations that he was a common magician.
Finally, there is no recovered visual evidence of a late antique magician doing his or her job in the manner these images portray Jesus. It would seem strange then that these images were meant to depict Jesus as a magician.
Viewers approach images like these through the lens of centuries of understanding magicians 044 or wizards as wielding wands in the performance of their spells. The popularity of the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling lends a strong recent influence. Many modern viewers would even suggest that the wand makes Jesus look like Harry Potter. Our cultural landscape conditions us to make similar associations through literature, film, and popular culture. Yet the tool Jesus wields is not a magician’s wand but a staff.
Significant clues for this interpretation can be gleaned from the Bible, which mentions miracle-working implements—in particular, the staff of Moses.
Moses is granted the power to perform miracles by the God of Israel in the Exodus narrative with his staff (Exodus 4:2). Early Christians understood Moses to be the most powerful miracle worker of the Hebrew Bible, next to Elijah. In his diatribe Against Celsus, the third-century Christian thinker Origen calls Moses the greatest miracle worker before Jesus. It is no coincidence that in the synoptic gospel accounts of the Transfiguration, Jesus is seen with Moses and Elijah (Mark 9:2-8). The valence of miracles continues into the Jesus movement, as Jesus is associated with the greatest miracle workers from the Bible.
The staff of Moses is a way to connect Jesus to the miracle-working tradition of Moses. Occasionally in early Christian art, images of Jesus with the staff appear alongside images of Moses performing miracles with the staff. The fifth-century church in Rome, Santa Sabina, boasts some of the earliest Christian wood carved doors with images. On one panel, Jesus performs miracles with the staff, including the raising of Lazarus. On a nearby panel, Moses turns the staff into a serpent.
In the catacombs in Rome, the association between the staff of Moses and the staff of Jesus 046 is clear, often due to the images’ proximity to one another. On one side of the wall paintings in the Red Cubiculum of the Catacomb of Domitilla, Jesus uses the staff in the raising of Lazarus, touching the tiny burial house that holds the wrapped body. On the opposing side, Moses strikes the rock with his staff to draw water.
In other scenes involving the miracles of Jesus bearing a staff, particularly on fourth- and fifth-century relief sculpture, Peter is included in this exclusive cast of staff bearers, effectively replacing Moses. On the Sarcophagus of Sabinus, for instance, Peter strikes water from a wall with the staff and also holds the staff as he is arrested in the neighboring scene. These scenes recall an early Christian noncanonical text (from the late second century), the Acts of Peter, where Peter is arrested. While in his jail cell, he strikes the wall 047 and baptizes his Roman jailers with the water that miraculously comes out of it (Acts of Peter 5).
Early Christian art reveals the popularity of the Peter’s jail story, but it also fits with the larger theological intent involving the staff. The miracle-working tool connects Peter to Moses—to the point that, in the relief sculpture, Peter takes Moses’s place and is cast as the “new Moses.” With the inclusion of Peter in miracle imagery involving staff use, Jesus allows Peter, the leader of his church and feeder of his sheep, to inherit the symbol of his miracle-working ability and carry the tradition forward.
In the fourth century, following Emperor Constantine’s recognition of Christianity as a religion, the Church grew at an exponential rate. Yet the power and understanding of miracles remained crucial for the laity and, thus, for the hierarchy of the Church. The rise of relics, reflected in the circulation of fragments of the true cross from Jerusalem and relics of the saints, realized the importance of miracles for a Christian audience.
In an otherwise harsh existence in late antiquity, the laity could find solace, comfort, and connection in relics and objects of reliquary devotion. The miracle images of Jesus and Peter reflect this desire to be close to the sacred and holy. The staff images emphasize the Church as the repository of miracles and the physical location where miracles can happen.
Although not a magic wand, the staff that Jesus wields and bequeaths to Peter does insinuate a type of Christian “magic.” However, the magic implied is not the magic of modern pop culture; rather, it inspires the understanding of miracles, miracle working, and Church authority. For early Christians, Jesus performing miracles with the staff was not magical. Rather, it was intrinsically biblical (recalling Moses) and innately ecclesial (touting the supremacy of the Church).
Jesus often holds a stick or staff in early Christian depictions of him performing miracles. If not a magician’s wand, what is it? Explore the tradition and meaning of the miracle-working tool.