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Work Fragments from the Arsinoeion of Samothrace: marble coping and part of the parapet

Department of Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities: Hellenistic Art (3rd-1st centuries BC)

Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities
Hellenistic Art (3rd-1st centuries BC)

Author(s):
Astier Marie-Bénédicte

These architectural fragments were originally part of the rotunda built in Samothrace in about 280-270 BC at the request of the Egyptian queen Arsinoe II. The coping stone is richly decorated with palmettes, lotus blossoms, and egg and dart moldings. On the parapet, bucrania decorated with sacrificial garlands of wool alternate with rosettes, evidence of the building's likely religious function, probably linked to rites held on the island, although its exact purpose is unclear.

The Arsinoeion rotunda in Samothrace

During archaeological digs led by C. Champoiseau and G. Deville from 1863 to 1892, a number of architectural fragments were found in the sanctuary of the Great Gods on the island of Samothrace in the northeast of the Aegean, near the Thracian coast. Some fragments made of marble from the neighboring island of Thasos were originally part of the Arsenoeion, a rotunda built between 280 and 270 BC on the orders of the Egyptian queen Arsinoe II. This exceptional monument, built when the sanctuary was at the height of its influence, is a rare example of royal evergetism in the Hellenistic period. In the Louvre collection are blocks of coping stone, or epicranitis (MA 2376), and fragments of the parapet from the upper level (MA 2375).

The ornamentation of the architectural fragments

The coping stones are decorated with ornate moldings, richly decorated with a frieze of alternating palmettes and lotus blossoms, topped with a line of egg and dart motifs. The parapet is decorated with rosettes and semi-skeletal bucrania ornamented with sacrificial garlands of wool. The bucrania are placed on either side of a Doric pilaster and set against a background of draped cloth.

A building possibly related to the cult of the Great Gods

While the purpose of the building is not known with certainty, it is likely to have had a religious function, probably linked to the mysterious rites of the cult of the Great Gods, celebrated in addition to the traditional ceremonies. The ornamentation that has survived tends to confirm this hypothesis. The bucrania with their sacrificial garlands doubtless refer to some initiatory rite, while the drapery evokes the red belts worn by those initiated into the rites celebrated on the island. A large relief from Cyzicus, also in the Louvre (MA 2854), appears to depict a miniature reproduction of the building, in the form of an unusual cylindrical box held by a young serving girl, which may be intended as a scale model of the Arsinoeion.

Bibliography

Martinez J.-L., Les Antiquités grecques. Guide du visiteur, Musée du Louvre, Paris, 2002, p.87.
Hamiaux M., Les sculptures grecques, II, Paris, 1998, p.244-246, n 276 et 278.
Mc Credie J.R., Roux G., Shaw S.M., Kurtich J., Samothrace VII, The rotunda of Arsinoe, Princeton, 1992, p.46, note 93, p.172, fig.115.

Technical description

  • Fragments from the Arsinoeion of Samothrace: marble coping and part of the parapet

    C. 280-270 BC

    Arsinoeion, island of Samothrace, northern Greece

    Samothrace, northern Greece

  • Thasos marble, sculpted in bas-relief

    Coping: H. 37 cm; L. 1.34 m; parapet: H. 51 cm; L. 1.35 m

  • Champoiseau and Deville archaeological missions, 1864 (MA 2375) and 1879 (MA 2376)

    Ma 2375, Ma 2376

  • Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities

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