A coffin, usually of limestone, that was considered by the ancients as consuming the flesh (óσρξ, flesh, and φαγε[symbol omitted]ν, to eat) of the corpses laid in it. The best of this particular type of limestone was quarried at Assos in the Troad.
History. The use of a coffin, whether of wood, lead, or stone, came from the ancient East and was intimately connected with veneration for the dead. Traces of prehistoric sarcophagi have been found among the Egyptians and Cretans, who used wood, earthenware, and stone, and fitted the vessel with a cover. From Egypt in the 5th century b.c. the anthropoid type of sarcophagus spread. This coffin was shaped like a human being and usually crowned with a mask. The Greeks created the artistic sarcophagus, decorating one or several of its sides with figures and ornamentation. Etruscan sarcophagi of stone or terra cotta frequently had covers made in the form of a bed or couch with a representation of the deceased stretched out in various poses.
In Rome with the spread of rites for inhumation instead of urn burial of the ashes (2d century a.d.) the construction of artistic marble coffins utilized the experience of the Greeks and Etruscans. The quadrangular type dominated, exhibiting the sculptured face of the deceased, but otherwise with top and sides plain. Sometimes the front was extended above the top of the coffin and sculptured with a fresque. In the age of Hadrian myths and Amazonian battle scenes were frequent depictions. In more simple types there was a central slab in front with a likeness of the deceased, while the rest of the frontispiece was decorated with wavy lines. Frequently this frontispiece contained mythological or biographical representations, e.g., husband and wife, often in a tragic attitude capable of inciting pity, scenes of battles between Romans and barbarians, or lion-hunting scenes. In the age of Gallienus the philosopher figure became usual (253–268), and this was included on the first Christian sarcophagi.
The Christians from the beginning buried their dead in the ground or in surface coffins or mausoleums, following Hebrew practices. Along with the early cemeteries, the sarcophagi constitute the richest documentation for the history of art in the late empire as well as for the illustration of Christian ideas. Rome was the chief center of production and influenced communities in North Africa, southern Italy, southern Gaul, and Spain. The influence of ravenna and Salonika on sarcophagi came later.
The style of the figures followed variations in the artistic current of the period from pictorial representation rich in classical reminiscences, as in the Sarcophagus of Jonas (Lateran Museum), to expressionism as on that of Adam and Eve (Lateran Museum) and the abstract art of Ravenna. It is possible to establish certain art styles and trace their influences and to characterize them as Severian, Gallienic, Tetrarchian, Constantinian, and post-Constantinian. The earliest Christian types have been difficult to date precisely (end of 1st century down to c. 225). Furthermore, sarcophagi were frequently reused by later generations.
The repertory of Christian sarcophagal art reveals certain popular traditional styles as well as cycles. While Christian funerary representation had as its purpose the demonstration of particular beliefs relative to death and the future life, the types changed. In earlier times symbolic and allegorical themes predominated: the myth of Amor and Psyche for the status of the soul; Orpheus playing to the beasts for Christ attracting sinners; Prometheus for Creation, more particularly in an idealistic representation of the Garden of Eden, enriched with the well-known figures of the Good Shepherd, the Orans, Christ as the Fisher, etc., as on the Sarcophagus of the Rams (Lateran Museum) or in the church of S. Maria Antiqua.
Under the tetrarchy (284–312) the influence of popular art is evident in scenes of rural and animal life. In the early 4th century appear passages from the Old and New Testaments about Jonah, Noah and the ark, Daniel among the lions, the sin of Adam and Eve, Baptism, resurrection of Lazarus, entrance into Jerusalem. The Constantinian period is rich in fresco decorations, representing the miracle cycle of Christ as a youth, a Peter cycle, Old Testament scenes. The so-called Trinity Sarcophagus (Lateran Museum) is from the Arch of Constantine. After 313 appeared frontispieces and side walls separated into sections by columns and decorated with scenes of the Passion of Christ, or of Peter and Paul, or of the Presentation of the Law (c. 330–350). This type seems to derive from Sidamara in Asia and is best represented by the sarcophagus of Junius Bassus (d. 359).
In the Theodosian period a series of costly single pieces betray Eastern influences with elaborately developed Biblical scenes (St. Sebastian Sarcophagus); it ushers in a new type of composition in the Traditio legis, acclamation, and the crown-bearing Apostle. The Miracle and Passion scenes recur, but seem to disappear c. 420. In Gaul there is a rich flowering of Roman-inspired sarcophagi; toward the end of the century ornamental motives predominate, as in the sarcophagus of the Good Shepherd (Lateran Museum) or that of St. Constance.
Ravenna. The influence of Asia Minor and Constantinople is prevalent in theme and style on the sarcophagi at Ravenna (columned sarcophagi in the church of S. Francesco). Figured scenes are depicted amid open spaces in rigid and symmetrical patterns, e.g., the Sarcophagus of Rinaldo in the cathedral. This anti-illustrative taste, based on abstract symbolism, led to the substitution of symbols for human figures, particularly in the age of theodoric the great: the lamb on the hill between two sheep; the goat at the mystical fount; the palms of paradise (Sarcophagus of Galla Placidia). From the end of the 6th century these figurations become more ornate, as on the Sarcophagus of Bishop Theodore, until they become pure ornamentation. This development reaches a climax in the simple representation of the cross or monogram of Christ, dating immediately before the full barbarian occupation, as on the Sarcophagus of Theodora (d. 720) in the Museo Civico of Pavia.
Bibliography: m. lawrence, The Sarcophagi of Ravenna (New York 1945). f. gerke, Die christlichen Sarkophage der Ukorkonstantinischen Zeit (Berlin 1940); Christus in der spätantiken Plastik (3d ed. Mainz 1948). j. bayet, Mélanges d'archéologie et d'histoire 74 (1962) 171–213. g. bovini, I sarcofagi paleocristiana (Vatican City 1949); "Sarcofagi costantinopolitani dei secoli IV, V e VI d. C.," in Corso di cultura sull'arte ravennate e bizantina, v.9 (Ravenna 1962); "Principale bibliografia su Ravenna romana, paleocristiana e paleobizantina," ibid. v.8 (1961) 7–37. r. farioli, "I sarcofagi paleocristiani e paleobizantini della Sicilia," ibid. v.9 (1962) 241–67. p. verzone, "La scultura decorativa dell'Alto Medio Evo in Oriente e in Occidente," ibid. v.10 (1963) 371–88. e. le blant, Les Sarcophages chrétiens de la Gaule (Paris 1886). g. m. gabrielli, I sarcofagi paleocristiani e altomedioevali delle Marche (Ravenna 1961). a. ovadiah, "A Jewish sarcophagus at Tiberias," Israel Exploration Journal 22:4 (1972) 229–32. l. m. martÍnez-fazio, "Eucaristía, banquete y sacrificio, en la iconografía paleocristiana," Gregorianum 57:3 (1976) 459–519. j. m.c. toynbee, "The Religious Background of Some Roman Sarcophagi of North Italy and Dalmatia," Jahrbuch für Antike und Christentum, Jahrgang 18 (1975) 5–18. r. turcan, "Les sarcophages romains et le problème du symbolisme funéraire," Principat 16/2; Heidentum (Berlin 1978) 1700–35. n. a. silberman, "Coffins in a Human Shape: A Short History of Anthropoid Sarcophagi," Biblical Archaeology Review 16:4 (1990) 52–54. j. huskinson, "The Decoration of Early Christian Children's Sarcophagi," Studia patristica 24 (1993) 114–18. j. martÍ i aixalÀ, "La escena pro tribunali, Jesus ante Pilatos, en los sarcófagos de pasión," Historiam pictura refert (Rome 1994) 1–14. j. p. pettorelli, "Péché originel ou amour conjugal: note sur le sens des images d'Adam et Ève sur les sarcophages chrétiens de l'antiquité tardive," Recherches Augustiniennes 30 (1997) 279–334.
sarcophagus (särkŏf´əgəs) [Gr.,=flesh-eater], name given by the Greeks to a special marble found in Asia Minor, near the territory of ancient Troy, and used in caskets. It was believed to have the property of destroying the entire body, except for the teeth, within a few weeks. The term later generally designated any elaborate burial casket not sunk underground. The oldest known examples are from Egypt; they are box-shaped with a separate lid, which sometimes has sculptured effigies of the corpses. The sarcophagus of Tutankhamen (14th cent. BC), which was rediscovered in 1922, is of red granite and ornamented with reliefs of spirits with outspread wings. Later Egyptian sarcophagi were sometimes shaped to the body they contained. Sarcophagi were not in common use in Greece earlier than the 6th cent. BC because of the previous custom of cremation. After that time they became numerous. Records reveal that the majority of sarcophagi were made of wood, but those that remain are of stone and terra-cotta, as evidenced in the early 6th-century examples (British Mus.) from Clazomenae. Many Greek and Etruscan sarcophagi are in the shape of a couch; others, such as the sarcophagus of Alexander the Great, are carved and painted in imitation of temple architecture. The marble sarcophagi (excavated in 1877) from Sidon, a chief city of ancient Phoenicia, are among the finest examples of Greek art. In Rome sarcophagi became popular before the Punic Wars. The earliest known example is that of the consul Cneius Cornelius Scipio of the 3d cent. BC, now in the Vatican. Under the rule of the emperors Roman sarcophagi became elaborate, with mythological scenes carved on the sides and statues of the deceased on the lid. The early Christians also used sarcophagi for their distinguished dead. The carvings, usually representing Bible stories, are the chief source of early Christian sculpture. In the Middle Ages sarcophagi proper were used only in rare instances for especially elaborate entombments. Although memorials in the shape and decoration of sarcophagi were erected during the Renaissance and later, the body itself was almost always buried underground.
See E. Panofsky, Tomb Sculpture (1964).