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Sunday, April 12, 2015

The Niobid Sarcophagus

This sarcophagus was discovered in a tomb built c. AD 135 outside the Porta Viminalis in Rome.  If you read our previous post on sarcophagus types, you will be able to identify this one as Western.  It has a continuous frieze, but only on three sides; the back is plain because the sarcophagus was set against the tomb wall.  Its lid slopes back toward the rear, as the side view shows (see below).  The front has a blank panel in the center (probably for an inscription) but is decorated with archer figures at each end, behind whom, at the corners, are masks.
The subject of the frieze is drawn from myth: the killing of the children of Niobe.  Niobe boasted of her fertility (Ovid reports that she had seven sons and seven daughters), going so far as to say that she had outdone the goddess Leto, who had produced only two children.  The goddess punished Niobe by sending her children, Apollo and Artemis, to kill all those of Niobe.  On the front of the lid we see Apollo and Artemis aiming their arrows.  In the frieze below the composition is framed by Niobe’s husband Amphion at the extreme left, raising his shield in a futile attempt to protect his dying son, and Niobe herself at the extreme right, who attempts to protect her youngest children.  Between the parents there is terror and carnage.  In the center is a rearing horse, whose unseated rider has been slung down before the animal.  Everywhere else are children either shot or fleeing, their pedagogues or nurses unable to save them.

This is the right side of the Niobid sarcophagus.  It shows Amphion and Niobe in mourning at their children’s tomb.  Note how the lid slopes back toward the rear.

An arrogant mother causes the death of her children.  Why would anyone choose to put such a myth on a sarcophagus?  That is a great question.  Several sarcophagi with this theme have survived.  And other sarcophagi depict similar horrors: Orestes’ murder of his mother or Medea’s slaying of her own children.  The question has often been raised of late, as scholars have begun to turn their attention away from artistic technique toward the meaning of art within its cultural context.

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