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Seasons Sarcophagus

Late Roman, 330-335 

Marble, 111.8 x 224 x 116cm


The carved front--the only sculpted side of this sarcophagus--presents a multilayered, symbolic program: a zodiac ring, containing bust length figures of a couple, is flanked by four winged youths representing the seasons: from left to right, Winter wears leggings and a crown of reeds; Spring has a crown of flowers; Summer, a crown of ears of wheat; and Autumn, a crown of vine leaves.Further figural groups are depicted on a smaller scale in between the seasons: betweem winter and spring, a shepherd milks a goat; between spring and summer, below the zodiac ring, children harvest grapes; and between summer and fall, a reaper gathers wheat. The seasons signify the perennial cycle of Nature, the cyclical renewal of life, and the pastoral scenes refer to the bounty of the earth that may be expected in the elysian fields where a happy after life will be led. The zodiac was a symbol of the realm into which souls might rise and exist in a disembodied state, corresponding to the less material substance expected by many Romans. The combination of concepts of time, space, and sustenance expressed by the images on this sarcophagus reflect a syncretic and intellectualized understanding of post mortal existence. The images are linked to each other in the hope for a happy afterlife (felicitas temporum).

The two "portraits" in the zodiac ring represent the deceased couple, but their features are missing. The husband holds a scroll, symbolizing the ideal of an educated man, homo literatus, while his wife has placed her hand on his chest. The faces are left unfinished, a state seen on many other sarcophagi which has led to various theories. Sarcophagi were ordered during the life time of the patrons, who may have wanted to see their facial details carved later by a portrait specialist. Or, the sarcophagi may have been prefabricated and kept in stock, with the rough busts prepared to be finished on demand. But this does not explain why so many were left unfinished. Another possibility is that the faces were finished to order in plaster and painted, and all this added material has been lost.

In the Roman Empire, seasons sarcophagi were fashionable from the second through the fourth century; the Dumbarton Oaks example stands out because of its exceptionally large size.

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