Sol Invictus
God of the sun
A relief of Sol from Roman Lugdunum, 2nd–3rd century CE
Other namesElagabalus
Major cult centerTemple of the Sun
AbodeThe sky
SymbolsSunburst, halo, radiate crown
FestivalsDies Natalis Solis Invicti (25th December)
Greek equivalentHelios
Palmyran equivalentUtu

Sol Invictus (Classical Latin: [ˈsoːɫ ɪnˈwɪktʊs], "Invincible Sun" or "Unconquered Sun") was the official sun god of the late Roman Empire and a later version of the god Sol. The emperor Aurelian revived his cult in AD 274 and promoted Sol Invictus as the chief god of the empire.[1][2] The main festival dedicated to him was the Dies Natalis Solis Invicti ('birthday of the Invincible Sun') on 25 December, the date of the winter solstice in the Roman calendar. From Aurelian onward, Sol was of supreme importance, and often appeared on imperial coinage. He was often shown wearing a sun crown and driving a horse-drawn chariot through the sky. His prominence lasted until the emperor Constantine I established Christianity as the Imperial religion.[a] The last known inscription referring to Sol Invictus dates to AD 387,[4] although there were enough devotees in the fifth century that the Christian theologian Augustine found it necessary to preach against them.[5]

In recent years, the scholarly community has become divided on Sol between traditionalists and a growing group of revisionists.[6] In the traditional view, Sol Invictus was the second of two different sun gods in Rome. The first of these, Sol Indiges, or Sol, was believed to be an early Roman god of minor importance whose cult had petered out by the first century AD. Sol Invictus, on the other hand, was believed to be a Syrian sun god whose cult was first promoted in Rome under Elagabalus, without success. Some fifty years later, in AD 274, Aurelian established the cult of Sol Invictus as an official religion.[7] There has never been consensus on which Syrian sun god he might have been: some scholars opted for the sky god of Emesa, Elagabal,[3] while others preferred Malakbel of Palmyra.[8][9] In the revisionist view, there was only one cult of Sol in Rome, continuous from the monarchy to the end of antiquity. There were at least three temples of Sol in Rome, all active during the Empire and all dating from the earlier Republic.[10][11][12][13]

Invictus as epithet

Dedication made by a priest of Jupiter Dolichenus on behalf of the well-being (salus) of the emperors, to Sol Invictus and the Genius of the military unit equites singulares Augusti[14]

Invictus ("unconquered, invincible") was an epithet utilized for several Roman deities, including Jupiter, Mars, Hercules, Apollo, and Silvanus.[6]: 124  It had been in use from the 3rd century BC.[13]: 18  The Roman cult to Sol is continuous from the "earliest history" of the city until the institution of Christianity as the exclusive state religion. Scholars have sometimes regarded the traditional Sol Indiges and Sol Invictus as two separate deities, but the rejection of this view by S. E. Hijmans has found supporters.[15]

An inscription of AD 102 records a restoration of a portico of Sol in what is now the Trastevere area of Rome by a certain Gaius Iulius Anicetus.[13]: Chapter 5: pp483–508  While he may have had in mind an allusion to his own cognomen, which is the Latinized form of the Greek equivalent of invictus, ἀνίκητος (anikētos),[13]: 486, footnote 22  the earliest extant dated inscription that uses invictus as an epithet of Sol is from AD 158.[b] Another, stylistically dated to the 2nd century, is inscribed on a Roman phalera (ornamental disk): INVENTORI LUCIS SOLI INVICTO AUGUSTO ("I glorify the unconquerable sun, the creator of light.")[18][c] Augustus is a regular epithet linking deities to the Imperial cult.[20] Sol Invictus played a prominent role in the Mithraic mysteries, and was equated with Mithras.[21][22][23] The relation of the Mithraic Sol Invictus to the public cult of the deity with the same name is unclear and perhaps non-existent.[23]: 203 


According to the Historia Augusta, Elagabalus, the teenaged Severan heir, adopted the name of his deity and brought his cult image from Emesa to Rome. Once installed as emperor, he neglected Rome's traditional State deities and promoted his own as Rome's most powerful deity. This ended with his murder in 222. The Historia Augusta equates the deity Elagabalus with Jupiter and Sol: fuit autem Heliogabali vel Iovis vel Solis sacerdos, "He was also a priest of Heliogabalus, or Jove, or Sol".[24] While this has been seen as an attempt to import the Syrian sun god to Rome,[25] the Roman cult of Sol had existed in Rome at least since the early Republic.[6][28][12][13]


Roman Imperial repoussé silver disc of Sol Invictus (3rd century), found at Pessinus (British Museum)

The Roman gens Aurelia was associated with the cult of Sol.[29] After his victories in the East, the Emperor Aurelian thoroughly reformed the Roman cult of Sol, elevating the sun-god to one of the premier divinities of the Empire. Where previously priests of Sol had been simply sacerdotes and tended to belong to lower ranks of Roman society,[13]: 504–505  they were now pontifices and members of the new college of pontifices instituted by Aurelian. Every pontifex of Sol was a member of the senatorial elite, indicating that the priesthood of Sol was now highly prestigious. Almost all these senators held other priesthoods as well, however, and some of these other priesthoods take precedence in the inscriptions in which they are listed, suggesting that they were considered more prestigious than the priesthood of Sol.[d] Aurelian also built a new temple for Sol, which was dedicated on 25 December 274,[32] and brought the total number of temples for the god in Rome to (at least) four.[e] He also instituted games in honor of the sun god, held every four years from 274 onwards.

The identity of Aurelian's Sol Invictus has long been a subject of scholarly debate. Based on the Augustan History, some scholars have argued that it was based on Sol Elagablus (or Elagabla) of Emesa. Others, basing their argument on Zosimus, suggest that it was based on the Šams, the solar god of Palmyra on the grounds that Aurelian placed and consecrated a cult statue of the sun god looted from Palmyra in the temple of Sol Invictus.[33] Forsythe (2012)[34] discusses these arguments and adds a third more recent one, based on the work of Steven Hijmans. Hijmans argues that Aurelian's solar deity was simply the traditional Greco-Roman SOL INVICTUS.[34]


Coin of Emperor Constantine I depicting Sol Invictus with the legend SOLI INVICTO COMITI, c. 315

Emperors portrayed SOL INVICTUS on their official coinage, with a wide range of legends, only a few of which incorporated the epithet INVICTUS, such as the legend SOLI INVICTO COMITI, claiming the "Unconquered Sun" as a companion to the Emperor, used with particular frequency by Constantine.[f] Statuettes of Sol Invictus, carried by the standard-bearers, appear in three places in reliefs on the Arch of Constantine. Constantine's official coinage continues to bear images of Sol until 325/326. A solidus of Constantine as well as a gold medallion from his reign depict the Emperor's bust in profile twinned (jugate) with Sol Invictus, with the legend INVICTUS CONSTANTINUS[g]

Constantine decreed (March 7, 321)[h] DIES SOLIS – the day of the Sun, "Sunday" – as the Roman day of rest

On the venerable day of the Sun let the magistrates and people residing in cities rest, and let all workshops be closed. In the country however persons engaged in agriculture may freely and lawfully continue their pursuits because it often happens that another day is not suitable for grain-sowing or vine planting; lest by neglecting the proper moment for such operations the bounty of heaven should be lost.[38][39]

Constantine's triumphal arch was carefully positioned to align with the colossal statue of Sol by the Colosseum, so that Sol formed the dominant backdrop when seen from the direction of the main approach towards the arch.[40]

Sol and later Roman Emperors

Berrens (2004)[12] deals with coin-evidence of Imperial connection to the Solar cult. Sol is depicted sporadically on imperial coins in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD, then more frequently from Septimius Severus onwards until AD 325–326. SOL INVICTUS appears on coin legends from AD 261, well before the reign of Aurelian.[i]

Identical reverse as the coin of Constantine I but with Emperor Licinius on head
Coin of Emperor Probus, c. 280, with Sol Invictus riding a quadriga, with legend SOLI INVICTO, "to the Unconquered Sun": the Emperor (at left) wears a radiated solar crown, worn also by the god on the obverse
Aurelian in his radiate crown, on a silvered bronze coin struck at Rome, 274–275

Connections between the imperial radiate crown and the cult of Sol are postulated. Augustus was posthumously depicted with radiate crown, as were living emperors from Nero (after AD 65) to Constantine. Some modern scholarship interprets the imperial radiate crown as a divine, solar association rather than an overt symbol of Sol; Bergmann calls it a pseudo-object designed to disguise the divine and solar connotations that would otherwise be politically controversial[41]: 121–123 [42][13]: 80–84, 509–548  but there is broad agreement that coin-images showing the imperial radiate crown are stylistically distinct from those of the solar crown of rays; the imperial radiate crown is depicted as a real object rather than as symbolic light.[41]: 116–117 [13]: 82–83 

Hijmans argues that the Imperial radiate crown represents the honorary wreath awarded to Augustus, perhaps posthumously, to commemorate his victory at the Battle of Actium; he points out that henceforth, living emperors were depicted with radiate crowns, but state divi were not. Hijmans believes this implies that the radiate crown of living emperors is a symbolic link to Augustus. His successors automatically inherited (or sometimes acquired) the same offices and honours due to Octavian as "saviour of the Republic" through his victory at Actium, piously attributed to Apollo-Helios.

Furthermore, radiate crowns were not solely worn by emperors: The wreaths awarded to victors at the Actian Games were radiate.[j]

Festival of Dies Natalis Solis Invicti

Coin depicting Sol / crescent moon and seven stars

In AD 274, the emperor Aurelian instituted the festival Dies Natalis Solis Invicti ('birthday of the Invincible Sun') on 25 December, the date of the winter solstice in the Roman calendar.[44][45] In Rome, this yearly festival was celebrated with thirty chariot races.[45] Gary Forsythe, Professor of Ancient History, says "This celebration would have formed a welcome addition to the seven-day period of the Saturnalia (December 17–23), Rome's most joyous holiday season since Republican times, characterized by parties, banquets, and exchanges of gifts".[45] In AD 362, the emperor Julian wrote in his Hymn to King Helios that the Agon Solis was a festival of the sun held at the end of the Saturnalia in late December.[46][47]

The festival is recorded in the Chronograph of 354 (or Filocalian calendar), which is also the earliest record of 25 December being the birthday of Jesus Christ. Historians generally agree that this part of the text was written in Rome in AD 336.[44]

Wallraff (2001) says there is limited evidence for the festival before the mid-4th century.[48][k][51]



Mosaic of Sol in Mausoleum M in the Vatican Necropolis[52]

A widely-held theory is that the Church chose December 25 as Jesus Christ's birthday (Dies Natalis Christi) to appropriate the festival of Sol Invictus's birthday Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, held on the same date.[44][45][53][54]

The early Church linked Jesus Christ to the Sun and referred to him as the 'Sun of Righteousness' (Sol Justitiae) prophesied by Malachi.[53] A Christian treatise attributed to John Chrysostom and dating to the early fourth century AD associates Christ's birth with the birthday of Sol Invictus:

Our Lord, too, is born in the month of December ... the eighth before the calends of January [25 December] ... But they [the pagans] call it the 'Birthday of the Unconquered'. Who indeed is so unconquered as Our Lord? Or, if they say that it is the birthday of the Sun, [we may say] He is the Sun of Justice.[55]

The theory is mentioned in an annotation of uncertain date added to a manuscript by 12th-century Syrian bishop Jacob Bar-Salibi. The scribe wrote:

It was a custom of the Pagans to celebrate on the same 25 December the birthday of the Sun, at which they kindled lights in token of festivity. In these solemnities and revelries, the Christians also took part. Accordingly, when the doctors of the Church perceived that the Christians had a leaning to this festival, they took counsel and resolved that the true Nativity should be solemnised on that day.[56]

Another theory is that Christmas was calculated as nine months after a date chosen as Christ's conception (the Annunciation): March 25, the Roman date of the spring equinox. This theory was first proposed by French writer Louis Duchesne in 1889.[44]

The charioteer in the mosaic of Mausoleum M has been interpreted by some as Christ. Clement of Alexandria had spoken of Christ driving his chariot across the sky.[57] This interpretation is doubted by others: "Only the cross-shaped nimbus makes the Christian significance apparent",[58] and the figure is seen by some simply as a representation of the Sun with no explicit religious reference whatever, pagan or Christian.[59][13]: 567–578 


Mosaic in the Beth Alpha synagogue, with the Sun in the centre, surrounded by the twelve zodiac constellations and with the four seasons associated inaccurately with the constellations

The traditional image of the Sun has also been used in early Jewish prophecy, poetry, and art. Psalm 19, begins "The heavens proclaim the glory of God, the firmament proclaims his handiwork", and likens the Sun to a bridegroom, to a warrior, and to the Torah.

An Aggadic legend found in tractate Avodah Zarah 8a contains the talmudic hypothesis that Adam the first established the tradition of fasting before the winter solstice, and rejoicing afterward, which festival later devolved into the Roman Saturnalia and Calenda.

A mosaic floor in Hamat Tiberias presents David as Helios surrounded by a ring with the signs of the zodiac.[60] As well as in Hamat Tiberias, figures of Helios or Sol Invictus also appear in several of the very few surviving schemes of decoration surviving from Late Antique synagogues, including Beth Alpha, Husefa, all now in Israel, and Naaran in the West Bank. He is shown in floor mosaics, with the usual radiate halo, and sometimes in a quadriga, in the central roundel of a circular representation of the zodiac or the seasons. These combinations "may have represented to an agricultural Jewish community the perpetuation of the annual cycle of the universe or ... the central part of a calendar". [61]: 370, 375 

See also


  1. ^ "Up to the conversion of Constantine the Great, the cult of DEUS SOL INVICTUS received the full support of the emperors: The many coins showing the sun god that these emperors struck provide official evidence of this."[3]: 155  and "the custom of representing DEUS SOL INVICTUS on coins came to an end in AD 323."[3]: 169 
    Publius Aelius Amandus dedicated this to the god Sol Invictus in accordance with the vow he had made, upon his honorable discharge from the equestrian guard of the emperor, during the consulship of Tertullus and Sacerdos;
    see[17][3]: 45
  3. ^ An illustration is provided in[19]: 383, fig.34 
  4. ^ For a full list of the pontifices of Sol see J. Rupke (ed.), Fasti Sacerdotum (2005), p. 606. Memmius Vitrasius Orfitus lists his priesthoods as pontifex of Vesta, one of the quindecimviri sacris faciundis, and pontifex of Sol, in that order.[30] In a list of eight priesthoods, Vettius Agorius Praetextatus puts Pontifex Solis in third place.[31]
  5. ^ The other three were in the Circus Maximus, on the Quirinal, and in Trastevere.[13]: Chapter 5 
  6. ^ A comprehensive discussion of all sol-coinage and sol-legends per emperor from Septimius Severus to Constantine can be found in Berrens (2004).[12]
  7. ^ The medal is illustrated in Toynbee (1944);[35] the solidus is illustrated in Maurice (n.d.)[36]
  8. ^ The civil edict of March 7, A.D. 321, was expressly issued by Constantine to command that "all judges and townships and all occupations of trade rest on the venerable day of the sun."[37]
  9. ^ The coins issued under Elagabalus do not use INVICTUS for Roman Sol, nor for the Emesan Solar deity Elagabalus.[12]
  10. ^ [13]: 509–548  A mosaic floor in the Baths of the Porta Marina at Ostia depicts a radiate victory crown on a table as well as a victorious competitor wearing one.[43]
  11. ^ "An inscription of unique interest from the reign of Licinius embodies the official prescription for the annual celebration by his army of a festival of Sol Invictus on December 19".[49] The inscription[50] actually prescribes an annual offering to Sol on November 18 (DIE XIV KAL(ENDIS) DECEMB(RIBUS), i.e., on the fourteenth day before the Kalends of December).


  1. ^ "Sol | Roman god | Britannica". Retrieved 2022-12-12.
  2. ^ "Sol - Roman God". 2016-10-21. Retrieved 2022-12-12.
  3. ^ a b c d e f Halsberghe, Gaston (1972). The Cult of Sol Invictus. Leiden: Brill.
  4. ^ "Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum CIL VI, 1778 dates from AD 387"[3]: 170, n.3 
  5. ^ Augustine, Sermones, XII;[3]: 170, n.4  also in Ennaratio in Psalmum XXV; Ennaratio II, 3.
  6. ^ a b c Hijmans, Steven (1996). "The sun that did not rise in the east". Babesch. 71: 115–150.
  7. ^ "Sol Invictus and Christmas". Retrieved 2023-12-11.
  8. ^ The Oxford Classical Dictionary (4th ed.). 2012. s.v. "Sol".
  9. ^ Wissowa, Georg (1912). Religion und Kultus der Roemer (2nd ed.). Beck. pp. 365–368 – via
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  11. ^ Matern, Petra (2002). Helios und Sol: Kulte und Ikonographie des griechischen und römischen Sonnengottes (in German). Ege Yayınları. ISBN 978-975-8070-53-4. OCLC 53857589.
  12. ^ a b c d e f Berrens, Stephan (2004). Sonnenkult und Kaisertum von den Severern bis zu Constantin I. (193–337 n. Chr.). Historia-Einzelschriften (Wiesbaden, Germany) (in German). Vol. 185. Stuttgart, Germany: Franz Steiner Verlag (Geschichte). ISBN 978-3-515-08575-5. OCLC 57010712.
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  16. ^ Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum CIL VI, 715 "CIL-VI-715 photograph". Archived from the original on 2011-07-16. Retrieved 2009-11-12.
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  22. ^ Salzman, Michele Renee (2004). "Pagan and Christian notions of the week in the 4th century CE western Roman Empire". Time and Temporality in the Ancient World. Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. University of Pennsylvania. p. 192.
  23. ^ a b Alvar, Jaime (2008). Romanising Oriental Gods: Myth, salvation, and ethics in the cults of Cybele, Isis, and Mithras. Translated by Gordon, Richard. Brill. p. 100.
  24. ^ "Latin text". Historia Augusta. Translated by Thayer (English translation ed.). Loeb. 1, 5 – via Penelope, University of Chicago.
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  28. ^ [26][27]
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  30. ^ Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum CIL VI, 1739CIL VI, 1742
  31. ^ Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum CIL VI, 1779
  32. ^ Clauss, Manfred (2001). Die römischen Kaiser – 55 historische Portraits von Caesar bis Iustinian. C.H.Beck. p. 250. ISBN 978-3-406-47288-6.
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  34. ^ a b Forsythe, Gary, Professor (2012). Time in Roman Religion: One thousand years of religious history. Routledge. pp. 142–143. ISBN 978-0415522175.((cite book)): CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  35. ^ Toynbee, Jocelyn M.C. (1987) [1944]. Roman Medallions (reprint ed.). plate xvii, nr. 11.
  36. ^ Maurice, J. (n.d.). Numismatique Constantinienne. Vol. II. p. 236. plate vii, nr. 14.[full citation needed]
  37. ^ Odom, Robert L. (May 1950). "Pagan Sunday observance" (PDF). Ministry. Query column. Philippine Publishing House. pp. 18–19. Retrieved 6 March 2021.
  38. ^ Schaff, Philip (1867). From Constantine the Great to Gregory the Great, A.D. 311-600. C. Scribner. p. 380. Retrieved 6 March 2021.
  39. ^ Excellent discussion of this decree by Wallraff (2002) 96–102.[full citation needed]
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  43. ^ "Regio IV – Insula X – Terme di Porta Marina (IV, X, 1–2)". Archived from the original on 2008-11-09. Retrieved 2009-11-12.
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  46. ^ Elm, Susanna (2012). Sons of Hellenism, Fathers of the Church. University of California Press. p. 287.
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  48. ^ Wallraff (2001) 174–177 [full citation needed]
  49. ^ Hoey (1939) 480 [full citation needed]
  50. ^ Dessau. Inscriptiones Latinae Selectae. 8940.[full citation needed]
  51. ^ "Online text of inscription, Parts 6 and 12". Archived from the original on 2007-12-04.
  52. ^ "Necropolis (Scavi) Tomb M". Archived from the original on 2011-07-24. Retrieved 2015-08-25.
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