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Work Funerary Urn

Department of Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities: Etruscan Art (9th-1st centuries BC)

Urne cinéraire

© 1988 RMN / Pierre et Maurice Chuzeville

Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities
Etruscan Art (9th-1st centuries BC)

Astier Marie-Bénédicte

A great number of alabaster funerary urns similar to the one seen here were made in the Volaterrae workshops during the Hellenistic period. The deceased person is shown as a young woman with a fan, half reclining on the lid, in the traditional pose of a banqueter. The decoration of the body of the urn illustrates the legendary abduction of Helen on the ship of the Trojan prince, Paris, a crucial episode in a love affair that would have dramatic consequences for Troy.

Volterra funerary urns

Made in the second half of the second century BC, the urn is typical of the funerary monuments made by craftsmen at Volaterrae. The workshops of the Etruscan city were already expert in the abundant and varied production of alabaster funerary urns for the ashes of the deceased from the second half of the fourth century BC onward. The Etruscans practiced both incineration and burial until the end of the Hellenistic period. The form and iconography of these urns are fairly conventional: the containers are generally decorated with a mythological or funerary scene in high-relief, with the deceased portrayed on the lid in the traditional, semi-recumbent position of a banqueter.

Effigy of the deceased

The portrait here is of a young woman wearing jewelry and holding a fan in her right hand and, in the left, an object considered to be either a pomegranate (a symbol of immortality), or a small flask of perfume with a domed lid. The effigy is not a true portrait. The features are little individualized and very similar to those on other Volterra urns (such as Ma 2357, on display in the same room). The two urns also depict the human body in a very similar manner. The sculptor has stressed the significant details at the expense of the formal perfection of the whole. This results in physical deformations such as shortened legs and a head that is much too large in proportion to the rest of the body. The attributes (the fan, the jewels, and the object held in the left hand) are also imposingly large.

The abduction of Helen

The subject depicted on the body of the urn is the legendary abduction of Helen, queen of Sparta and wife of Menelaus and Paris, the Trojan prince.
Celebrated very early on in literature and art, the story of the love affair of Helen and Paris was very popular in antiquity. The craftsmen of Volaterrae, however, seem to be the only ones in Etruria to have shown an interest in it. The urn depicts the abduction of the young woman by her lover, a crucial episode the dramatic consequence of which was the Trojan War. The composition and the positions of the figures display moderation and simplicity, and their feelings are restrained. Guided by two sailors, Helen joins Paris, who sits waiting for her by the boat that is to take them to Troy.


Briguet M.-F., Les urnes cinéraires étrusques de l'époque hellénistique, Editions de la Réunion des musées nationaux, Paris, 2002, n 63, p.152-157.

Technical description

  • Urne cinéraire

    Dernier quart du IIe s. av. J.-C.

    Provenance : Volterra (?)

    Production : Volterra, atelier des Petites Patères

  • Albâtre

    H. : 40 cm. ; L. : 69,50 cm. ; l. : 24 cm. (cuve)H. : 50 cm. ; L. : 71,50 cm. ; l. : 24 cm. (couvercle)

  • Collection Micali, 1827 , 1827

    The Abduction of Helen

    MA 2355

  • Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities

    Denon wing
    Ground floor
    Etruria III
    Room 423

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