Cultures & Traditions

Roman Sarcophagi

Like portrait sculpture, the popularity of carved marble sarcophagi for burials in the Roman Empire reflected religious beliefs. The Romans of the Republican Period burnt their dead and buried the ashes in urns, which were left in family tombs. Under the empire, the dead were buried in elaborate coffins of lead, marble, or limestone. The production of richly carved sarcophagi ornamented with mythological scenes, portraits, and decorative motifs related to the cult of the dead formed an important sculptural industry. Relief scenes on Roman sarcophagi achieve a dramatic three-dimensional narrative power. The luxuriant carving is related to similar narrative and ornamental work in fresco paintings, architectural details, and decorative metal work. The subjects illustrated in these reliefs came from Greek myth and symbolized ideas of death, fame, and the cycle of nature. Battles, whether real or mythological, hunting scenes, marriage ceremonies, Dionysiac figures, Cupids, and sea deities celebrated the rhythm of life, death, and rebirth in the natural world.

Adapted from

DMA unpublished material, thematic label copy, Ancient Mediterranean and European Art, Education files.

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