Depictions of Dining in Early Christian Art

Depictions of banqueters seated at semi-circular tables are common to both Christian and Greco-Roman art. These are sometimes found in domestic contexts but most frequently in funerary settings. Although most scholars interpret these scenes as alluding to the funerary banquets held in honor of the deceased or perhaps referring to post-death picnics in a paradisiacal setting, the suggestion that they depict actual sacred ritual meals lingers (e.g., a Christian eucharist or agape meal). This paper will explore the components of these images in some detail. It will examine surviving scenes of dining from secular or non-funerary contexts, noting the visual representations of certain dining customs that appear to be most emphasized thereon. It will then compare the Christian with non-Christian parallels, particularly in funerary art, and explore the ways that Christians may have reinterpreted a conventional Greco-Roman funerary motif as pointing to explicitly Christian expectations for the afterlife. As context for these images, this paper will consider related material evidence, particularly decorated funerary tables (mensae) from both pagan and Christian settings, either those often attached to stele or elaborated with mosaic designs that were found, mainly, in cemetery churches. In some instances these objects depict the particular foods or types of dishes employed for these banquets. Others present iconography or epigraphic indications of the significance of the meal in Christian as well as non-Christian funerary rituals.