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Work Sarcophagus with the Myth of Dionysos and Ariadne

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

Sarcophagus with the Myth of Dionysos and Ariadne

© Photo RMN / Hervé Lewandowski

Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities
Roman Art

Author(s):
Astier Marie-Bénédicte

This Roman sarcophagus, found in Saint-Médard-d'Eyrans in 1805, reflects the evolution of funerary themes in the early third century AD. On the box, Dionysos and his cortege of maenads and satyrs come upon the sleeping Ariadne, who has been abandoned by Theseus on Naxos. He falls in love with her, and promises her the immortality reserved for the gods. At a time when Roman society was undergoing a profound spiritual crisis, this myth represented the deceased's hope for salvation after death.

Roman sarcophagi exported to Gaul

This sarcophagus was found in a tomb in Saint-Médard-d'Eyrans, near Bordeaux. It forms a pair with the sarcophagus Ma 1335, which represents the legend of the shepherd Endymion, visited by the moon goddess Selene during his sleep. These two sarcophagi were made in the same workshop, circa AD 235, and were destined 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 by river or sea. The unfinished decoration was undoubtedly adapted to the customer's requirements once the sarcophagus reached its destination.

The dual role of mythology

At a time when Roman society was in the throes of a profound spiritual crisis, funerary reliefs took their inspiration from Greek mythology, with a preference for myths that were directly related to the deceased's personal preoccupations. The relief on this box shows Ariadne, abandoned by Theseus on the island of Naxos, then found sleeping by Dionysos and his cortege of satyrs and maenads. The god fell in love with the young woman and promised her happiness and survival in the afterlife. Dionysos was a favorite with Roman artists; the drunkenness he procured through wine echoed the happiness to be found after death. The hope of salvation after death was also expressed by associating the deceased with legendary characters - heroic victims of a tragic fate or mortals destined to immortality through the love of a deity. To complete this identification, Ariadne's face and that of the male bust featured on the lid were roughly hewn, no doubt so that the portraits of the deceased couple could be sculpted in their place. 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; 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. These sumptuous sculptural effects suggest the exuberance of the Dionysian procession. Yet the swarming crowd does not detract from the legibility of the composition, designed in a fan shape around Dionysos. The style of the relief bears the stamp of the baroque aesthetics that influenced Roman art during the period of crisis in the late second and early third centuries AD.

Bibliography

R. Turcan, Messages d'outre-tombe. L'iconographie des sarcophages romains, Paris, 1999, p. 98 et suivantes, fig. 107.
Fr. Baratte, L'Art romain, Manuels de l'Ecole du Louvre, Paris, 1996, p. 189, fig.
Fr. Baratte, Metzger (C.), Musée du Louvre. Catalogue de sarcophages en pierre d'époques romaine et paléochrétienne, Paris, 1985, p. 138-142, n 67.
R. Etienne, "Les sarcophages romains de Saint-Médard-d'Eyrans", Revue des Etudes Anciennes, 54, 1953, II, p. 365-368.

Technical description

  • Sarcophagus with the Myth of Dionysos and Ariadne

    Circa AD 230-35

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

    Rome

  • Low and high relief, marble

    H. 0.98 m; W. 2.08 m; D. 0.62 m

  • Purchased in 1817 by Count de Forbin for Louis XVIII

    N° d'entrée LL 49 (n° usuel Ma 1346)

  • 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 1335 (legend of Selene and Endymion)