Sarcophagus

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A large sarcophagus of the type known as strigillated sarcophagi; whose production was extremely popular in Rome from 130 AD until the 6th century. Academic sources consider that there are some thousand extant sarcophagi or remnants of this type.

This rectangular example is decorated in relief on the front and two sides. The back, which was up against the wall of the funerary building where the sarcophagus was originally placed, displays no decoration. The decoration on the front panel, as is usual in this typology of sarcophagi, is significantly deeper than that on the sides. These sarcophagi were to be placed in hypogea and family mausoleums. Here various of these were placed touching laterally or placed in narrow niches. The relief on the sides was lower to avoid breakage if the piece was touching others or the walls of the niche. A good example of this can be seen in the Z mausoleum “of the Egyptians” in the cemetery of the Vatican, where sarcophagi were placed in niches, or in Tomb 11 of the “Isola Sacra” (the Holy Isle) in Fiumicino, Italy, where the sides of the sarcophagi are touching each other.

The decorative scheme of the sarcophagus is characterised by two big framed areas in the front panel completely covered by strigillated design, carved fluting in the form of an S which resemble the curved strigil, the object used by athletes in the Greco-Roman world to scrape off the oil that covered their bodies, after they had taken part in sports like wrestling. In the zone between the strigillated panels a temple can be seen. This is supported by two columns with the mythological figure of Meleager (in a position derived from the creation of the Greek sculptor Scopas). He appears naked wearing only a chlamys. There is another figure whose identity cannot be made out at his feet. To his right there is the figure of a wounded hunter, also naked and with a chlamys.

Shields and double axes have been worked on the sides of the sarcophagus, in allusion to the battle between the Greeks and the Amazons, a motif repeated in the metropolitan Roman production, as well as work done in Ostia from the decade of 160 AD until the second half of the 3rd century AD.

The nearest parallel to this piece, as concerns the decorative scheme, is a sarcophagus conserved in the National Museum of Rome and dated in the decade of 160 AD. This has almost identical decoration although it is relatively more modest in size (125 X 35 X 41 cms) and in execution. Three more sarcophagi with the same theme are known to scholars including one with Meleager. This piece is from a later epoch (circa 250 AD) and can be found at Wilton House, Salisbury, having been acquired in Italy by a noble English family (as was the case with this piece being described here). This type of collectionism in the 17th to 19th century was habitual amongst European nobility in the period known as the “Grand Tour”. Indeed, the strigillated decoration was adapted to artistic creations by the English in these centuries.

The sarcophagus probably comes from a metropolitan Roman workshop, although the possibility that it is from Ostia cannot be discounted. The production was served by the quarries at Luni-Carrara and those of Proconnesus. In our example the marble came from the latter, and is a variety of marble which was one of the most used in the art of Ancient Rome. It is characterised by its white colour with a cerulean sfumatura. It is uniform or exhibits grey-blue veining including large-sized crystals.

The quarries, the property of the Roman Empire, were to be found in Turkish localities of Monastyr, Kavala and Saraylar, on the island of Mamara and Proconnesian island of Propontide which in Roman times was administered from the ancient city of Cizico, on the Anatolian coast.

The marble was used locally in Greek times, but in the second half of the 1st century it began to be exported. One of the prime examples of its use in Italy was in the ampliation of the Temple of Venus in Pompeii, which was being carried out at the time of the eruption of Vesuvius (79 AD). In the 2nd and 3rd centuries the use of the marble spread to the Eastern regions of the Empire as well as being used in Rome and in regions along the Danube. In the 4th century it appears as one of the cheaper marbles in the list of prices of Diocletian, which corresponds to the fact that it was one of those found most widely used due principally to the ease with which it could be transported, as the quarries were near the sea. It was used massively in the construction of Constantinople, continued to be used in the Byzantine and Ottoman eras and indeed up to the present day. It was used in the murals on the interior of the Basilica of San Marcos in Venice and for the columns of the Basilica of San Juan and San Pablo in Rome. From antiquity in the quarries themselves a series of architectonic elements, decorative sculptures, and sarcophagi were produced. Initial work was also started on material following the instructions of the contracting parties, work which would be completed after transport.

These large sarcophagi, which weighted around two tons before completion, were roughly cut and transported from Turkey to the port of Ostia, and from there they were to go to be worked in the workshops of Rome to serve the metropolitan market. Wreckage exists near present-day Tarento with good examples of these unfinished sarcophagi which were being transported to Rome.

Various studies point to the fact that they could have been polychromed in decoration or even gilded in antiquity to give them the appearance of metal. The lateral shields were painted blue and the strigillated zones covered with gold leaf. Unfortunately, no examples are now conserved with these colours, although traces of them have been found in analysis.

The cost of a sarcophagus of these characteristics implied an important investment for whoever commissioned its construction. The price in the era of Diocletian (284-305) for a sarcophagus without decoration could be more than 15 solidi, 150 argenteum or 15,000 denarii of copper (after the monetary reform of Diocletian). There are no concrete studies in respect of the value of a sarcophagus of the characteristics described here but it was not less than the annual salary of a head of the Pretorian Guard. Its use was limited to the financially elite of Rome and of the very well-off in the provinces of Gaul and Hispania.

In Spain some examples of strigillated sarcophagi of Roman production have been found in different contexts, such as that of the Pedagogue or the Sarcophagus of the Lions from the Paleo-Christian necropolis of Tarragona or those found in Turiaso (Tarazona) or Cordoba. These are mostly of smaller size and were imported in antiquity. The typology of strigillated sarcophagi is not to be found in the collections in the Prado or the National Museum of Archaeology. The few we know of in private collections are to be found only in a fragmentary state.

Blithfield Hall:

“Blithfield Hall” is a country house in Staffordshire, some 14 kilometres east of Stafford. It is catalogued as a building of extraordinary historical interest. From the 14th century it was the residence of the Bagot family. The buildings date from the period of Queen Elizabeth I (1558 -1603) with additions by the artist John Bucker in the 1820s. The grounds (260 hectares) were the property of the Bagot family until 1945 when they were sold to the Staffordshire Water Company with the intention of building a water reservoir. This is still in existence and is known as the Blithfield Reservoir (opened by the Queen of England in October 1953).

The house and a part of the lands were bought back by Nancy (Lady Bagot) in a public auction in 1959. At the present time, the main building where the sarcophagus was earlier to be found is rented out for events, but can be visited during guided tours.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

- HUKINSON, Janet. Roman Strigillated Sarcophagi. Oxford. 2015.
- KOCH, G. Die mythologischen Sarkophage, Pt. 6: Meleage. 1975. Nº 144-147.
- NANCY, Lady Bagot. Blithfield Hall, A Country House Saved. 2011.

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