Sarcophagus lid fragment: sea monsters

Roman
Late Roman Imperial Period
Late Roman, about A.D. 350


Catalogue Raisonné

Sculpture in Stone (MFA), no. 273; Sculpture in Stone and Bronze (MFA), p. 113 (additional published references).

Dimensions

21.5 x 48 cm (8 7/16 x 18 7/8 in.)

Accession Number

76.750

Medium or Technique

Stone, marble from western Asia Minor

Not On View

Collections

The Ancient World

Classifications

Coffins and sarcophagi

The design of this fragment is almost sketched rather than carved in low relief. Below the flat band of molding at the top appears the large, fishy tail of a sea beast swimming over the waves to the right. This creature is being followed by a pair of sea lions or leopards, the closer beast having his forepaws raised.
Because of its impersonal symbolism, this motif was popular on the lids of pagan sarcophagi in the third century and of Judeo-Christian reliefs as late as 400 of the Christian era. The linear qualities increase at the same time, becoming more and more stylized toward the end of the Latin imperial world. Generally speaking, mythological sea creatures of various types (from hippocamps to just plain dolphins) were thought to refer to the means by which souls journeyed to the Isles of the Blest. There is no specific type of sarcophagus with which these symbols of eternity were identified. They are often found in connection with strigilar sarcophagi having busts of the deceased in the center.

Provenance

By date unknown: Charles C. Perkins Collection; gift of Charles C. Perkins to MFA, 1876

Credit Line

Gift of Charles C. Perkins