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Work Sarcophagus with the Legend of Selene and Endymion

Department of Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities: Roman Art

Sarcophagus with the Legend of Selene and Endymion

© 2007 RMN / Hervé Lewandowski

Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities
Roman Art

Author(s):
Astier Marie-Bénédicte

This sarcophagus was found in 1805 in Saint-Médard-d'Eyrans in the Gironde region of France, together with the sarcophagus Ma 1346. On the box, the legend of the shepherd Endymion reflects the evolution of funerary themes during the early third century AD. The moon goddess Selene has obtained immortality for Endymion and visits the young man, who is plunged into eternal sleep. For the Roman world, in the throes of a deep spiritual crisis, this myth evoked the soul's survival in the afterlife.

Imported Roman sarcophagi

This sarcophagus was found in a tomb in Saint-Médard-d'Eyrans, near Bordeaux. It forms a pair with the sarcophagus Ma 1346, which represents the myth of Ariadne, rescued by Dionysos after being abandoned by Theseus on the island of Naxos. These two sarcophagi were produced in the same workshop circa AD 235, and intended for a couple whose skeletons were found inside the boxes. The space in the center of the lid reserved for the inscription of the names of the deceased (the "tabula inscriptionis" in Latin) was left blank. These sarcophagi were produced in Roman workshops, then exported to Gaul by sea or river. The decoration was left unfinished - no doubt so that it could be adapted to the customer's desires once the sarcophagus reached its destination.

The dual role of mythology

The decoration on the lid depicts the Judgment of Paris and a country scene of peasants making garlands. The decoration on the box, however, is more closely related to the personal preoccupations of the deceased. The moon goddess Selene is in love with Endymion, and comes upon the young shepherd who has been granted immortality and plunged into eternal sleep by Hypnos (Sleep). At a time when Roman society was undergoing a profound spiritual crisis, funerary reliefs took their inspiration from Greek mythology. This legend evokes the survival of the soul - especially since, according to an ancient belief, the souls of the dead went to the moon (the decoration on the altar of Iulia Victorina, Ma 1443, also in the Louvre, stems from the same belief). The hope of salvation after death is expressed by the personalization of the decoration: the deceased is likened to a mortal being who acquired immortality through the love of a deity. The heads of Selene and Endymion were roughly hewn so that the deceased couple's features could be added later, but the portraits were never finished. During the precedent (Julio-Claudian) dynasty, only members of the imperial family could be represented as gods, usually after their death. But from the third century (during the Severan dynasty), this phenomenon extended to all classes of society.

Sumptuous sculptural effects

This sarcophagus is a work of remarkable quality in which the marble is so highly polished that it is translucent in places. The figures stand out in strong relief, thanks to effects of drapery and contrasts of light and shade. The swarming figures, dynamic fan-shaped composition and skillful relief work reflect the baroque sensibility that influenced Roman art during the period of crisis in the late second and early third centuries AD.

Bibliography

H. Sichtermann, Apollon, Ares, Bellerophon, Daidalos, Endymion, Ganymed, Gigantem, Grazien, Die Mythologischen Sarkophage, II, Berlin, 1992, p. 125-127, n 72, pl. 86, 1 ; 88, 1, 2 ; 89, 1-3 ; 94, 1-4 ; 113, 2, 3.
R. Amedick, Vita privata, Die Sarkophage mit Darstel lungen aus dem Menschenleben, I, Berlin, 1991, p. 139, n 111, fig. 106, 2.
Fr. Baratte, Metzger (C.), Musée du Louvre. Catalogue de sarcophages en pierre des époques romaine et paléochrétiene, Paris, 1985, p. 71-75, n 25.
Bordeaux. 2000 ans d'histoire, Bordeaux, 1973, p. 108-109, n 96.
R. Etienne, "Les sarcophages romains de Saint-Médard-d'Eyrans", Revue des Etudes Anciennes, 54, 1953, II, p. 361-376.

Technical description

  • Sarcophagus with the Legend of Selene and Endymion

    Circa AD 230-35

    Found in 1805 in Saint-Médard-d'Eyrans (Gironde, France)

    Rome

  • Low and high relief, marble

    H. 0.95 m; W. 2.09 m; D. 0.6 m

  • Purchased in 1817 by Count de Forbin for Louis XVIII

    N° d'entrée LL 50 (n° usuel Ma 1335)

  • Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities

    Denon wing
    Ground floor
    Roman art. Rome and the provinces in the 3rd century AD
    Room 26

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Additional information about the work

This sarcophagus forms a pair with the sarcophagus Ma 1346 (the myth of Ariadne and Dionysos).