Archaeology | Sacre and funerary Elements | Funerary Elements | Strigilated sarcophagus with lid decorated by genii of the seasons | Artwork profile

White marble

H. 60 cm; w. 219 cm; d. 64 cm; lid: h. 40 cm

Second half of the III century AD


Strigilated sarcophagus with lid decorated by genii of the seasons

Rectangular casket sarcophagus, with decorated front and sides, roughed out rear and smoothed lower margin. The front, with plain top and bottom margins, is divided in five panels: two are symmetrically carved with a strigilated pattern formed by double flutings with angle-shaped section that converge towards the centre, where there is a molded clipeus housing the bust of the deceased. The male bust has a frontal posture, wears the tunic and the toga, from whose sinus emerge four fingers of the right hand clasping the garment’s margin, while the left hand raised over his side holds a volumen; the face is only roughed out.

Under the imago clipeata, framed on the sides by fillets, there is the depiction of two seasonal cupids, naked, winged and placed at either side of a dog. Both figures are in a three quarter view, with the head brought upwards, one wing spread and one strongly bent leg pushed forward. They differ only in the attributes: one bears a rabbit, the other a fruit of the earth, objects that thus qualify the figures as genii of the seasons. The relief is high and deep, characterized by an accurate formal handling, rich in light and dark effects. The surface is densely grooved with small channels and holes left by the drill.

Both corners of the front are taken up by thin panels in which are symmetrically carved two other genii of the seasons, who are naked with a cloak pinned over the shoulder, winged and with soft childlike bodies. They stand on one leg, with the other pushed sideways, and gaze towards the deceased at the centre of the sarcophagus, holding the one a cornucopia the other a rabbit, thus symbolising the seasons of Spring and Autumn. The analysis of the figures’ faces helps in trying to set our example within a chronological frame. The face is rounded, with wide forehead, long curved eyebrows made of small strokes, big elongated eyes with well outlined lid; the nose, broken, has nostrils obtained with the use of the drill; the mouth is fleshy, while the chin and the cheek-bones are pronounced. The hair is flattened over the head, with a tied frontal lock that invades the superior fillet, while the rest of the hair frames either side of the face with long wavy locks – emphasized by deep drill grooves connected by small bridges – and, near the cheeks, with tight coils. These winged genii are comparable to others that show similarities both in the careful formal handling and in the presence of specific stylistic elements, such as the treatment and the type of hair, the eyebrows and the shape of the eyes, the light and dark effects obtained without an excessive use of the drill. They can thus be chronologically framed within the Gallienic age (240-270 ad). On the contrary, Hanfmann postpones such dating, considering the sarcophagi with genii holding dead animals or cornucopiae works of the beginning of the IV century AD.

The rear of the basin is worked with a toothed chisel.

Both sides of the sarcophagus are decorated by a figure of a griffin with lion body, carved in low relief but in a very careful manner and with attention paid to details. The griffins, with eagle wings, head and crest, are portrayed seated on their back legs with raised tail, in profile view, looking towards the front of the coffin.

Within the typology of strigilated sarcophagi, the artefact here examined belongs to one of the largest sub-types, the one with the front arranged in a central panel containing both an imago clipeata and below scenes of various kind, two strigilated fields and two further figured panels at the sides. Many iconographic elements of our example are well attested in the repertory of III century funerary art: cupids and genii with seasons attributes, as we have seen, but also the griffins on the sides, as well as the treatment of the surfaces, largely worked with the drill and with a relief carved so deep that the figures almost seem to be independent from the background.

The lid is flat, with the front decorated and framed by two slightly projecting fillets, while the rear is plain. The relief depicts the figures of the four seasons genii, each one characterized by the respective attribute. They are half-recumbent and symmetrically arranged in pairs at either side of an uninscribed epigraphic tabula, which has a square molded frame dividing the surface in two figured fields. Again dating elements are provided by the analysis of the faces. These show characteristics similar to those of the casket’s genii, especially in the treatment of the features with the wide forehead and in the hairstyle with thick curls, yet the eyes are here more elongated and sunken in the orbits, with bulky lid and with both iris and pupil drilled. These elements can be assigned to the post-Gallienic age, in the early years of the decade 270-280 AD. The four male figures wear a short sleeved chiton and a clamys that covers the chest and falls behind the shoulders, while the feet are shod with ankle boots; half-recumbent, their chest is shown in frontal view and the legs in profile: one is stretched, while the other is bent and crossed with an alternating pattern; symmetrically they lean with their elbow over a rock, each clasping a different attribute, while the other arm reaches the various seasonal fruits coming out from a high conic wicker basket, that the figures hold on their raised and flexed knee. The attributes and the accompanying animals vary from genius to genius.

Starting from the first couple to the left, we find the Winter genius, holding in his hand a swamp reed and flanked by a wild boar, recognizable by the thick hair and the tusks, while in the basket there were the seasonal fruits, now lost. In front there is the genius of Spring, who holds in his left hand a plant, in the basket the flowers – well outlined with drill holes – and is accompanied by a dear. In the second pair one could identify the Summer with the genius holding the pedum and the basket full of spherical fruits, even if the figure is faced by a panther, usually referred to Autumn; finally Autumn, clearly recognizable in the genius with the sickle and the ears of wheat in the conic basket who is faced by the bull, used for the work in the fields.

The relief is well outlined, deep, sharp and executed with a good plastic effect; several drill holes are visible, enhancing the light and dark play over both human and animal hair.

Our example belongs to a very common lid type – often preserved in fragmentary state – that is the one depicting the four seasons genii half-recumbent, symmetrically paired and with the relative attributes. The production of such lids with adult male genii belongs to a later period (from 270 AD according to Hanfmann; from the second quarter of the century and increasingly in the late Gallienic age according to Kranz), subsequent to that characterized by female figures, the Horai.

Thus, the scenes carved on both the basin and the lid, as well as the deep handling of the relief and the use of the drill for light and dark effects allow us to date our artefact around the middle of the III century AD, in Gallienic times of shortly after.


Bibliographic reference: Hanfmann G.M.A., The Season Sarcophagus in Dumbarton Oaks, I vol., Cambridge 1951, figs 69-70 n. 515; Delplace Ch., Le griffon de l’archaisme à l’époque impériale. Etude iconographique et essai d’interprétation symbolique, Bruxelles-Rome 1980, p. 309 ff.; Koch G. and H. Sichtermann, Römische Sarkophage, in Handbuch der Archäologie, 3, München 1982, p. 75, fig. 2,10; Idem, Die Jahreszeiten – Sarkophage, in ASR (Die antiken Sarkophagreliefs) V, 4, Berlin 1984, pp. 83 ff., 261 f., nn. 414-521; Kranz P., Die Jahreszeiten – Sarkophage, in ASR (Die antiken Sarkophagreliefs) V, 4, Berlin 1984, p. 220, n. 132, pl. 54, 2: Louvre sarcophagus dated 240 AD; p. 203 ff. n. 67, pl. 43,1: other Louvre sarcophagus dated 270 AD; Sapelli M., s.v. Frammento di sarcofago con testina di genio, (inv. n. 51782) in Museo Nazionale Romano, vol. I/10, Roma 1988, pp. 87-88; Eadem, Due frammenti di sarcofago con genio stagionale, (inv. nn. 115723-24) in Museo Nazionale Romano, vol. I/10, Roma 1988, pp. 165-168.