A Roman Marble sarcophagus fragment, ca. 190 – 210 CE - Sands of Time Ancient Art

A Roman Marble sarcophagus fragment, ca. 190 – 210 CE


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This fragment can be recognized from other intact examples as part of a sarcophagus on which the shield portrait bust of the deceased is displayed in a central tondo. Carved in high relief, the person commemorated here was a lady; her face serene with large almond-shaped eyes, a petite nose, bow lips, and cleft chin. She wears her hair in a style favored by members of the Severan dynasty, in particular, Julia Domna, wife of Septimius Severus, and Plautilla, wife of Caracalla. Although sarcophagi were mass-produced, the distinctive features of the woman's portrait make it clear that this particular sarcophagus must have been purchased and then prepared for a specific customer.

A sarcophagus (meaning “flesh-eater” in Greek) is a coffin for inhumation burials, widely used throughout the Roman empire starting in the second century CE. The most luxurious were of marble, but they were also made of other stone, lead, and wood. Prior to the second century, burial in sarcophagi was not a common Roman practice; during the Republican and early imperial periods, the Romans practiced cremation and placed remaining bones and ashes in urns or ossuaries. Sarcophagi had been used for centuries by the Etruscans and the Greeks;  both cultures had an impact on the development of Roman sarcophagi when the Romans eventually adopted inhumation as their primary funerary practice. The trend spread all over the empire, creating a large demand for sarcophagi during the second and third centuries. Three major regional types dominated the trade: Metropolitan Roman, Attic, and Asiatic.

Pliny the Elder (1st century CE) tells us that Rome’s first shield portraits were set up in temples by victorious generals and depicted their ancestors. Over time this portrait type made its way into the private sphere, both in the entry halls of wealthy homes and in the decoration of family tombs. In a funerary context, the heroic associations of shield portraits made them a popular way to honor the deceased on sarcophagi and tomb monuments.

Reference: Awan, Heather T. “Roman Sarcophagi.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000

Condition: Fragmentary as shown, in very good condition overall. Custom mounted.

Dimensions: Height: 5 1/2 inches (14 cm)

Provenance: J.L. private collection, Texas, acquired from Ariadne Gallery, NYC in 1992.

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