Scala/Art Resource, NY

Son of God or sun god? In a late-third- or early-fourth-century mosaic from a mausoleum beneath St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, Jesus is depicted in the guise of the sun god Apollo, driving a quadriga (four-horsed chariot) across a golden sky. Other mosaics in the same tomb depict distinctly Christian scenes, so we know that this was indeed Jesus and not the Roman deity. One of the younger generation of Roman gods, Apollo was generally shown unbearded and youthful, and Jesus thus assumes a youthful aspect in this mosaic. By using classical iconography for their representations of Jesus, Christian artists expressed the symbolic victory of their new god over the pagan deities he was vying with. By showing Jesus as a solar deity, the artist showed that Jesus was Apollo—and more. Indeed by having Jesus assume their different aspects and roles, artists showed that Jesus could be all the pagan gods rolled into one.