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Work Sarcophagus of the Muses

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

Sarcophage des Muses

© 1993 RMN / Hervé Lewandowski

Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities
Roman Art

Astier Marie-Bénédicte

Celebrated by artists for centuries, the decoration of this sarcophagus illustrates the ideal of the cultivated man as manifested in Roman funerary art of the second to fourth centuries CE. Each of the nine Muses is endowed with a distinctive attribute. According to a belief attested in Greece as early as the fourth century BCE, the practice of literature and the arts under the inspiration of the Muses eased the passage of the dead into the hereafter and ensured the salvation of their souls.

A source of inspiration for modern artists

The Sarcophagus of the Muses has long been held in great esteem by artists. Aquila's engravings, reproduced in Lord Coleraine's album, did much to ensure its fame in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It has also served as a source of inspiration to later painters and poets: in 1911, Pierre Vuillard included it in his painting "La Bibliothèque" (Musée d'Orsay, Paris), and it inspired the first of Paul Claudel's "Cinq Grandes Odes."

The significance of the Muses in funerary art

By the early second century CE, burial had taken the place of cremation, and the Romans began to make use of sarcophagi decorated in relief, firstly with garlands - a motif borrowed from first-century funerary altars - and later with narrative scenes. Some of these evoked the life of the deceased: this is no doubt the case with the banquet depicted on the lid against a draped background. Generally, however, artisans turned to Greek mythology, drawing an implicit connection between the subject chosen and the beliefs of the deceased. The decoration of this sarcophagus illustrates one of the ideals found exemplified in Roman funerary art of the second to fourth centuries CE: that of the cultivated man, the "mousikos aner" in Greek, represented in portraits of Socrates and of the poet Hesiod (or perhaps Homer). According to a belief attested in Greece as early as the fourth century BCE, the practice of literature and philosophy, or daily intercourse with the Muses, ensured immortality and the soul's salvation. The nine Muses, daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne (Memory), are depicted on the front, each with her distinctive attribute. From left to right they are Calliope, the muse of epic poetry, who holds a scroll; Thalia, muse of comedy, holding a comic mask; Terpsichore, muse of dance; Euterpe, muse of lyric poetry, holds a double flute; Polymnia, muse of hymnody, leans on a rock; Clio, muse of history, has a writing-tablet; Erato, muse of love poetry, holds a cithara; Urania, muse of astronomy is shown with a globe at her feet; and finally Melpomene, muse of tragedy, wears a tragic mask.

The Influence of Greek Art

Created around the mid-second century CE, this sarcophagus was probably made for a cultivated Roman anxious to demonstrate his attachment to Greek culture, with models drawn from Greek art. The composition of the frieze, the neutral background and the retrained attitude of the Muses all evoke the classical art of the fifth and fourth centuries BCE. This impression is sustained by the very discreet employment of the drill and the rounded forms of the carefully polished surfaces. The elongated figures of the young women and their almost statuesque appearance, suggested by the depth of the relief, also recall Hellenistic art.


Fr. Baratte, C. Metzger, Musée du Louvre. Catalogue de sarcophages en pierre d'époques romaine et paléochrétienne, Paris, Editions de la Réunion des musées nationaux, 1985, pp. 171-5, n 84

J. Marcadé, "Deux reliefs romains de l'époque impériale. Problèmes d'iconographie", Revue du Louvre, 5/6, 1985, pp. 345-7

M. Wegner, Die Musensarkophage, Berlin, Mann, 1966, n 75, p. 36-7 et passim, pl. 3, 5-6, 13a, 135, 143a and b

Technical description

  • Sarcophage des Muses

    Première moitié du IIe siècle après J.-C.

    Via Ostiense

  • Marbre

    H. : 0,92 m. ; l. : 2,06 m. ; L. : 0,68 m.

  • Ancienne collection du cardinal Albani ; puis musée du CapitoleSaisie napoléonienne ; échangé en 1815 , 1815

    Inventaire MR 880 (n° usuel Ma 475)

  • Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities

    Denon wing
    Ground floor
    Roman art. Rome and the provinces in the 3rd century AD
    Room 413

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