Artist: Roman
Title: Sarcophagus (250-300 ACE, Marble, 6 x 8 x 59 in., Gift of Walter P. Chrysler, Jr., 77.1276)


Looking Questions

What do you think this was used for?  What makes you say so?

What draws your eye?  Why?

The Chrysler Museum of Art has another sarcophagus, one from Ancient Egypt (click here to view).  How are these two similar?  Different?


About the Art

The lid of this sarcophagus has a full-length portrait of a woman reclining on a kline, a bed-like seat used at banquets.  This style was inspired by earlier Etruscan funerary monuments adopted by the Romans.  There was possibly a male figure lying near the woman, which was almost certainly chiseled off in antiquity and replaced by the box. Although the lid and base were not made to fit together, they were united at some point in the past.

The scene on the base suggests children acting out the contests of adult wrestlers in a Roman athletic event. To the left is a judge, or referee, who hands the palm of victory to the winner, whose arms are raised.  He has just knocked down his adversary, who is the seated figure on the left side.  In the center is another victor receiving a palm, and to the right are a pair of contestants in action.  The sides of the sarcophagus are also decorated with figures.  One side shows three figures, including one holding a torch with the flame pointed downward, a symbol of death.  The opposite end of the sarcophagus shows figures holding an unfinished portrait.


A sarcophagus is a coffin for the deceased designed to be above ground, not buried within the earth.  In Greek, the word means “flesh eating stone”, referring to the chemical reaction between the limestone and the body inside.  Many civilizations have used sarcophagi to inter their dead, such as the ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans.  However, unlike the Egyptian sarcophagus, which was designed to be concealed in a tomb, the Roman sarcophagus was easily accessed by the public.  Wealthy Romans were laid to rest in marble coffins decorated with elaborate scenes of hunting, battles or images of events that took place during the life of the deceased.  Less expensive sarcophagi were made from lead, limestone and wood.  The trend to be buried within a sarcophagus replaced cremation, and the use of these coffins spread throughout the empire, creating a large demand for the production of sarcophagi.

Discussion Questions

Of the information shared about this sarcophagus, what interested you the most? 

As mentioned, the lid and the base were not made at the same time.  Does this matter?  Why or why not?