Sarcophagus

Roman, mid-second century AD
Luna (Carrara) marble
1999.11.7
Carlos Collection of Ancient Art

The sarcophagus (literally flesh eater, so called because the lime in the marble dissolved the corpse over time) was an elaborate coffin. The tradition of stone sarcophagi can be traced to Egypt (a limestone one is exhibited in the Egyptian galleries); it enters the Greco-Roman world in the 4th c. BC.

Two themes predominate in the elaborate imagery. The seasons of the year, symbolizing the cyclical nature of life and death, appear along the front. They bring foods appropriate to the time of year: from the left, Spring, on a feline, carries a cornucopia; Summer, with a basket of corn, rides a bull; Autumn, riding a feline, has a basket of grapes; and Winter, muffled against the cold and riding a boar, bears an olive spray. They are separated by putti holding garlands, which are themselves composed seasonally: spring flowers, summer corn, autumn fruit and nuts, winter olives. The putti in turn introduce a Dionysiac motif that is stressed on the lid: the playful Pans, herms and actors' masks in the corners are all associated with Dionysos, Greek god of wine and theater.

Besides this, two mythological scenes appear on the lid. Romulus and Remus, founders of Rome, are suckled by the wolf. This is complemented by the infant Telephus, founder of Pergamon (Asia Minor) who is cared for by a deer. The motif of exposing children at birth, common in classical mythology, finds another example in the story of Melanippe, represented on a large ceramic krater in this gallery. The griffins at the ends of the sarcophagus are mythical monsters that preside apotropaically as guardians over the deceased.