Sculpture: Funerary Imagery

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Sculpture: Funerary Imagery


Honoring the Dead. Many Roman relief sculptures survive in the form of sarcophagi for private patrons. Cremation seems to have been the dominant means of disposing of the dead from the time of the late republic to about 100 C.E., but by the time of Hadrian’s rule a change in burial customs led to the use of large stone or marble caskets on a more widespread basis than before. While some late republican examples are known, such as the tomb of the Gessius family (30-13 B.C.E.), most funerary sculptures date from the second century C.E. onward. These give further glimpses of sculptural forms and techniques within the Roman world, and may well have been produced by the same workshops that worked on public monuments. Subjects varied widely, and Greek myths seem to have been popular, as do generic scenes of war, hunting, marriage, sacrifices, and so on, which likely refer to events in the deceased’s life or reflect his or her perceived attributes or station in life. Some imagery seems obscure and hard to relate to an individual’s life—for instance, the appearance of minor sea gods and goddesses known as Tritons and Nereids. It has been suggestedthat such imagery is of perhaps allegorical relevance, signifying a journey to the next world, but this is not certain. It is quite possible the images are part of the stock repertoire of sculptors’ workshops; again, they may signify something lost forever to modern eyes.

Sarcophagus Styles. Two types of sarcophagi are generally identified. There is the so-called Attic type, which involves sculptures on three sides of the coffin and across the front of the lid and which was set against the wall of a tomb. The Asiatic type had sculpture on all four sides often set up in cemeteries by the road. Asiatic reliefs are sometimes more ornate than Attic ones and are notable for the inclusion of sculpted columns all the way around which divide the action into specific episodes; the events in the life of a hero like Hercules performing his twelve labors fit well into a medium like this. As well, figures in Asiatic reliefs are often depicted in classical style in even higher relief than found in Attic reliefs; sometimes they are almost in the round. So-called strigil sarcophagi were widely in use in the second century C.E. and later, too. These have few, if

any, of wavy lines like an elongated “S” that resemble a curved instrument used by ancient athletes to scrape off oil and dirt after exercise. These sarcophagi could be mass produced and made more affordable to a larger market aside from aristocratic patrons. Indeed, many sarcophagi have been found in shipwrecks in various parts of the Mediterranean, which testifies to their wide dissemination in antiquity, despite their bulky and unwieldy nature.

Relief Carvings. Scenes from the life of Achilles appear on a marble “Attic” sarcophagus dated circa 250 C.E. once thought to belong to the emperor Alexander Severus, who ruled from 222-35 C.E. The main relief (1.3 meters in height) depicts the discovery of Achilles at the court of Lycomedes, where he had been sent by his mother, Thetis, to live in disguise as a girl because she knew he would die at Troy. Achilles gives himself away by wielding the sword that has been laid aside for him when Odysseus goes to find him—the moment depicted here. The figures are elegantly carved with complex overlaps and varied poses in a crowded scene, yet with a clear focus on the central action. Also of interest are the two figures on the lid who are naturally taken to represent the deceased couple. Their presence and, indeed, their pose recalls the Etruscan habit of depicting reclining figures on sarcophagus lids, as typified by a terracotta sculpture from Cerveteri, datable to the sixth century B.C.E.; this feature is found in later models down to at least the second century B.C.E. Many aristocratic sarcophagi from about the mid-second century C.E. depict complex battle scenes replete with figures on a number of different levels, and with energetic, almost chaotic action. Some of these recall the action and energy of the Alexander Sarcophagus (made for the king of Sidon circa 325-311 B.C.E.), which depicts battle scenes and lion hunts. As well they seem to parallel scenes on the Column of Marcus Aurelius which depict the chaos of battle with arguably greater ferocity and immediacy than do the images on Trajan’s Column.

Two Traditions. Just as official art produced under Constantine contained much that was embedded in the pagan past as well as looking forward to developments in later Christian iconography, so too the sarcophagus of Junius Bassus (circa 359 C.E.) is comprised of elements from both traditions. The status of this man who was prefect of the city, and second only to the emperor, is clearly reflected in this elaborate marble coffin, measuring 1.17 meters in height and 2.41 meters in length. The design develops the Asiatic technique of dividing scenes with columns, and replaces pagan content with Christian and biblical imagery, while retaining forms from the classical past. Scenes from the Old and New Testaments are represented: moments from the life of Christ, Adam and Eve, St. Peter, St. Paul, Abraham, and Isaac appear between elaborate Corinthian columns, and ornate architectural frames. The figures are deeply rendered, and although more squat than on earlier monuments such as the Ara Pacts, the drapery is typically Roman as are the faces and many of the poses— for instance, St. Peter under arrest. The central image of Jesus on the upper panel recalls the image of Constantine on his imperial arch in the frontality of the sitter and symmetry of the vignette. And the allegorical appearance of Heaven beneath Jesus’ foot is akin on one level to the figure of the Danube on Trajan’s Column. In this rich and elaborate sarcophagus is an early glimpse of the legacy of pagan Roman art, which is now being adapted to preach the message of canonical texts and is conveying new meanings through a tried and trusted technique of visual allegory and narrative.


Diana E. E. Kleiner, Roman Sculpture (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1992).

Jerome J. Pollitt, Art in the Hellenistic Age (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986).

Nancy and Andrew Ramage, Roman Art: Romulus to Constantine, third edition (London: Laurence King, 2000).

Donald E. Strong, Roman Imperial Sculpture (London: A. Tiranti, 1961).

Mario Torelli, Typology and Structure of Roman Historical Reliefs (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1982).