Ancient Art: Sarcophagi Research Paper

Length: 8 pages Sources: 6 Subject: Military Type: Research Paper Paper: #54746192 Related Topics: Rite Of Passage, Afterlife, Roman Art, Amazon
Excerpt from Research Paper :

¶ … Roman Sarcophagi sculptures, one sarcophagus of portraying Roman deity as portrayed on the Sarcophagus with the Indian Triumph of Dionysus' triumphal return from India, contrasted with the other the Sarcophagus Depicting a Battle between Soldiers and Amazon made for a military leader.

During the second and 3rd centuries, inhumation became more and more used than cremation, and this created a push for a greater need for sarcophagi, as the departed were placed inside these vessels. "Sarcophagi are of eminent importance for the study of Roman art, for they provide the largest single body of sculptural material in which we may study both the style and subject matter of the art of the tumultuous years of the later Roman empire, when there are few other monuments with pictorial relief to which we can turn… through sarcophagus reliefs we can trace and re-experience the profound shift in pagan religious thought, away from a primitive fear of death to a positive hope for immortality. A life in the beyond may be looked forward to with joy and anticipation, whether clothed in myth or symbolic allegory" (McCann, 20). This is precisely the overall meaning that The Indian Triumph of Dionysus represents. This Roman sarcophagus is covered with a certain amount of sculptural relief such as via scenes and references from imperial ceremony and triumphal processions. This sarcophagus features not just religious themes, but also fantastical ones as a means of exciting the spectator about the idea of life after death.

The Indian Triumph of Dionysus is another example of funerary art which focuses on mythology in a positive and almost celebratory manner: it consists of a white panel depicting the triumphant return of the god Dionysus after developing and distributing the miracle of wine culture to India and the East. This piece is indeed a masterpiece and it would have taken the place in the front of a sarcophagus, creating a sense of centerpiece for the final resting place of the departed. The white marble panel features Dionysus, wearing a headdress of grapes and grape leaves in the center of the piece. He takes a very languorous position and he is in a gentle state of undress which makes him appear extremely alluring and sensual. There are graceful female celebrants all around him, such as Satyrs who are followers with both human and animal characteristics, who attempt to push for the interest of the maenads. Sitting atop a donkey at the far right of the piece of marble is Silenus the old satyr, along with the forest creature Pan, who stares back at Dionysus, while small cherubs are at the god's feet, helping to guide the panthers which pull his cart. There are also captives taken in India who ride a striking elephant at the very back of this procession. Fundamentally, all the movement and life within this museum piece make it an incredibly dynamic image.

It's a presentation of mysticism, fantasy along with a strong sense of the rites of passage of a funeral processional. It's also important to remember that Dionysus is the god of wine and dramatic festivals, steeped with a strong sense of a choral attitude. This god assists in portraying a sense of revelry and exoticism, representing an overall triumph of India and the Indian celebration. One could argue that this presentation of a funeral procession can't help but portray a strong sense that death is but a transition and that they afterlife is actually something to look forward to and treat in an almost celebratory fashion. There is a strong sense of triumph and an allusion to the fact that Dionysus has been spreading a cult of joyous physical abandon. All of the people portrayed on this piece of marble are in charge of merry-making in some manner. In fact, it's worth noting that at the far right of the sarcophagus, is Hercules who recently lost a drinking contest to Bacchus, staggering forward toward a welcoming maened, a female follower who is also becoming him over with an implied sense of lust. There is a strong sense of the variety and vitality of the afterlife, and the sense of celebration with which the afterlife is presented: it is both a journey and a destination and something to be excited about.

As one critic explains, while there is fantasy within the block, there is also a strong sense of realism along with a reveling of the physical beauty of both animal...


"Standing before Dionysus' chariot is a devotee depicted as a nude athlete in a classical contraposto pose. Beside Dionysus' chariot trot his signature pets, a pair of panthers. It used to be his panthers that proudly drew his chariot. But now they've been replaced by those big Indian elephants. For this demotion Alexander the Great is to blame. For it was Alexander who brought the cult of Dionysus with him when he crossed over into ancient Bactria, modern Afghanistan and on into India. And though Alexander and his armies were dehydrated and decimated by their ordeal, it is Dionysus who returns here with his retinue in almost a parody of a victory parade, a Roman Triumph. The elephants and panthers are preceded by a lion and a camel" (AW Staff, 2012). One of the most striking aspects of this sarcophagus is that there is a high level of accuracy among the animal figures, particularly when one considers that many renaissance artists had a great deal of ignorance about them.

In order to better understand these sarcophagi, one also needs to understand that god Dionysus. Dionysus is generally considered to be the god of vegetation in general: this is his connection to the vine, the grape and the making of wine. But in the most fundamental manner, his personage actually turns out to represent a great deal more. As some scholars have illuminated, there is an aspect of Dionysus who has come to represent the inescapable and the times (Morford, 206). In this manner, it makes plenty of sense that Dionysus would thus be selected as an image for a sarcophagus, because he has come to represent so much more than just merriment. A funerary item such as a sarcophagus is one which all too importantly connotes the passage of time and the sense of all that is fleeting and all that is inescapable. Thus, it makes plenty of sense that Dionysus be selected to portray such aspects of the sarcophagus and the rite of funerals in general.

Another element which is so strongly present within this sarcophagus is the profound and concerted element of dynamism. "Perception oscillates between the poles of whole and part: the synoptic view of the whole, dominated by its compositional pattern of forms, dissipates with the recognition of the subjects represented and the individuation of the distinct scenes. As the narrative movement of each scene's figures merges into the overall compositional pattern, focus on the segments gives way to the perception of a single totality" (Koortbojian, 43). In this sense the sarcophagus is able to represent the dynamic within the funeral procession which is participating and witnessing the funeral. Each of the families, friends and individuals has their own collective and personal meaning to ascribe to the one who has departed. There is both a highly individual and highly communal component of the funeral procession. The images depicted on this sarcophagus are able to mirror this back: all the distinct personages portrayed have their own back-story and agendas and the art is able to convey that, along with the collective sense of gaiety and triumph. The rite of passage thus becomes marked by an element of the individual and the tribal.

Finally, this sarcophagus is a highly representative of a new way of viewing death and the afterlife at a particular period in Roman culture. It's important to realize that quite often, "…the myths shown on sarcophagi are often the same as those chosen to decorate homes and public spaces, but they can acquire different meanings when viewed in a funerary context. Some scholars think the images are highly symbolic of Roman religious beliefs and conceptions about death and the afterlife, while others argue that the images reflect a love of classical culture and served to elevate the status of the deceased, or that they were simply conventional motifs without deeper significance" (Awan). For example, in the myths of Eros and Psyche represent tales of mortals who are loved by divinities and given immortality: in funerary art, these scenes generally express the desire for a happy afterlife in the heavens: Dionysian scenes like the one portrayed on this sarcophagus are generally viewed as a desire for happy afterlife in the heavens with a sense of celebration, a release from the cares of this world and an afterlife which is riddled with pleasure (Awan).

In a similar fashion, the sarcophagus which depicts a battle between soldiers and amazons is one which also treats the afterlife in a somewhat celebratory fashion,…

Sources Used in Documents:

Works Cited

Awan, H.T.. "Roman Sarcophagi." The Metropolitan Museum, n.d.

Web. 1 Apr 2014.

Koortbojian, Michael Myth, Meaning, and Memory on Roman Sarcophagi. Berkeley:

University of California Press, 1995.
Staff, A. The Triumph of Dionysus on an Ancient Sarcophagus. 2012, February. Retrieved from

Cite this Document:

"Ancient Art Sarcophagi" (2014, March 31) Retrieved May 23, 2022, from

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"Ancient Art Sarcophagi", 31 March 2014, Accessed.23 May. 2022,

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