In Ancient Greece the cista was a recipient to be used to hold a variety of objects. In rural areas, these used to be wicker baskets and would store the fruits of the harvest. The name, however, was also used to denominate all small containers present in everyday life, designed to hold pieces of a game, objects of personal hygiene, etc. The presence of a lid made this container an ideal box to hold objects of value such as jewellery and coins. The piece thus acquired a new symbolism as something holding valuables. In this way, a cista turned into an omnipresent element in rituals of mystery, especially those held in honour of Demeter and Dionysus. In these liturgies, cistas opened and revealed their contents only to the initiated. Thus the image of a cista became a symbol of these beliefs.

In Etruria between the 4th and 3rd century BC, cistas became part of the usual funerary goods. Around 120 examples of these containers in bronze have been found in necropoli, although most of them are from Praeneste, Palestrina, 37 km from Rome. With some exceptions most were cylindrical or oval. Those of angular forms were less common. The covers, handles and feet became small ornamental applications, while the body was transformed into a surface on which Greek and Etruscan artists, copying the style of red-figure pottery with incised decoration, represented various myths. A small chain joined the handles, a vestige which evoked the function of a container of dressing-table objects, and which hung from the wall. The technique used to produce these luxury objects reached its height in Etruria, as the manufacturing required different artisans for their creation: to carry out the metal work, the decoration and finally, the assembly of the pieces.

A procession of figures from right to left can be seen on the body of this example: a winged horse held by reins by a naked male figure, wearing only a chlamys and carrying a spear. He may be a soldier or a warrior. Beside him we find a person, with a Phrygian cap and a small cape, turning towards him. Further forward there is a seated and veiled female figure wearing heavy clothing along with a beautiful young woman with an intricate hairdo, who is holding a patera and a praefericulum, objects used habitually to carry out libations and simple sacrifices. Another figure with a Phrygian cap is face-on to viewers but with the head turned slightly towards the young woman. Vegetal elements can be seen on the cap along with some type of sun rays in the upper area. The scene seems to take place in the open given that we can see doves and countryside. Between the warrior and the person turning towards him there is a strange symbol, a semi-circle from which hangs three pairs of pendants. This may be a sort of shield or ornament.

The winged horses do not belong to the Etruscan repertoire. They were adopted from the Greeks, from the representation of Pegasus, the winged horse of Bellerophon. Their incorporation into the repertoire possibly has its origin in the taste for Hellenic attributes and in its decorative effect. This motif appears, for example, in the funerary chariot from Spoleto in the 6th century BC (Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY n. 03.23.1), in the decoration of the pediment of the main temple of Tarquinia (4th-3rd century BC, National Museum of Tarquinia, s/n) and in the stele of Certosa (5th century BC, National Museum of Bologna inv. Ducati 168). In the first case, the chariot shows an iconographic series related to Achilles: the struggle between the hero and Hector, Prince of Troy. We see the hero’s mother giving him his arms and, finally the apotheosis of Achilles, in a chariot pulled by winged horses. The great temple of Tarquinia would have been decorated by two winged horses in terracotta in brilliant colours and high relief. Archaeologists believe that it would have been part of a chariot of a god, although there is no clear consensus as to his identity. In the Certosa stele a chariot pulled by winged horses guides the deceased to the underworld. It is possible, therefore, that the winged horse is related to the funerary world and that the scene on the cista is probably of this nature.

The male figure with the chlamys and spear is associated with that of the heroic soldier, represented in the Greek manner, that is, naked. The figure could also be Laran, the god of war, generally portrayed as a naked youth with helmet and spear, although in the present representation the helmet is missing. Laran was married to Turan, goddess of love, whose image is usually one of a beautiful winged young woman, always accompanied by birds, especially doves. The figure turning towards the naked youth, is reminiscent of the daimons of the underworld represented in the Certosa stele, already mentioned, and in that of Vel Kaikna (5th century BC, Bologna Museum Duc 10). In both examples the person is turning towards the deceased, as if obliging him to enter the underworld. If we take into account that Charun, the daimon who guards the gates of Hades, used to be portrayed wearing a manner of Phrygian cap (Tomb of François de Vulci, 350-330 BC) we can maintain, without any doubt, that we are dealing with funerary iconography. Although the iconic tradition of Charun offers us an image of a monstrous daimon with zoomorphic features and carrying diverse weapons, in later epochs his image was “hellenised”, his face was embellished and he was assimilated into the Greco-Roman Charon.

The female figures, both the seated and the standing one, could be interpreted as family members or servants of the deceased, who are offering libations in his honour and accompanying him to the gates of Hades. This type of depiction is usual in Etruscan tombs, as can be seen, for example in the Tomb of Baron in Tarquinia (c. 510 BC). In the mural painting two mounted riders can be seen facing each other with a veiled figure between them. The latter appears to be receiving an offering from a male figure accompanied by a person playing an aulos. The scene is completed with vegetal elements and garlands, in an atmosphere similar to that depicted on the cista in question.

Therefore, it can be concluded that this piece takes up the iconographic tradition of Etruscan tombs, sepulchres and funerary steles of different epochs, from the 6th to the 3rd century BC, in which the deceased as hero is received by Charun while being given a farewell by his relatives, and that these are celebrating the pertinent funerary rites to assure his good fortune in the Underworld.


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