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Saturday, April 11, 2015

Types of Roman Sarcophagi

A sarcophagus is a coffin (the word means “flesh-eater”).  They were generally made of stone, sometimes of clay, and rarely of wood.  The Etruscans made sculptured sarcophagi of stone or clay from the sixth century BC; these were usually covered with a gabled lid or a reclining effigy of the deceased.  In the Roman world cremation was the normal burial practice (in cineraria or ash urns) until the beginning of the second century AD, when a dramatic reversal in their burial practice took place.  Inhumation in sarcophagi, once rare, was becoming the norm.  By the middle of the century, the use of sarcophagi was widespread.  The preferred material was marble.

Here we consider neither the reasons for this shift from cremation to inhumation (this is controversial) nor the subjects depicted on the sarcophagi and what they meant for those who made and visited them (also controversial).  Instead, we are going to look at the three basic types of second- and third-century sarcophagi, which correspond to the three main centers of their production in Rome, Greece, and Asia Minor.  The next time you see a sarcophagus from that period, you should be able to make an educated guess about its place of manufacture.

Marble sarcophagi of the second and third centuries were generally made from a single piece of marble.  And of course they had a lid.

First, the Western (Italian) type.  On Western sarcophagi only the front and short ends were carved (usually in lower relief than the front).  The back was left plain, because it was generally meant to be set against the wall of a tomb.  The lid usually had a front rising above the lid, which sloped back to the rear or was flat.  This front was decorated and often included a panel with an inscription.   There was often a mask at either end of the front.  Shown to the right is a sarcophagus carved in Rome c. 190, showing the triumphal march of Bacchus through India, representing the triumph of the deceased over death.  Note the decorated front and the masks at each end.

Second, the Attic (mainland Greek) type—made in Athens or elsewhere in mainland Greece.  The Attic type was carved on all four sides in a continuous frieze and in equally high relief, because it was not intended to be set against a wall.  Its lid was usually in the form of a gabled roof.  A sub-type features a lid in the shape of a funerary couch (kline), with a reclining effigy of the deceased on top (recalling the older Etruscan sarcophagi).  This sub-type is known as a kline sarcophagus.  Shown to the left is an Attic kline sarcophagus dating to c. 180: a married couple reclines on a lid in the form of a couch, and the frieze shows Greeks fighting Amazons.

Third, the Asiatic type.  This type resembles the Attic, except that the decorative carving on its sides does not form a continuous frieze but is divided into frames by columns.  Sometimes the figures seem to be standing in their own niches.  Asiatic sarcophagi were usually large, ornate, and in high relief.  Shown to the right is an Asiatic kline sarcophagus dating to c. 170.  The deceased woman reclines above gods and heroes in architectural frames.

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