Roman Sarcophagus

This ancient Roman sculpture is unusual to begin with — a sarcophagus lid with a life-size bare chested, mature man and his wife languidly reclining on the marble top. Masterful copiers of Greek art, the Romans appropriated this lounging concept in death from the Etruscans. But the really unusual part of this 220 A.D. sarcophagi in the Metropolitan Museum is the wife’s face. There isn’t any. While her husband’s face is sculpted in great detail and their bodies are swathed in a swirl of intricate marble folds (you can tell the sculptor adored depicting folds in stone), the wife’s face is an unfinished, rough block of pitted marble. This discordant note jumps out with obvious questions: Why is her face missing? Why was it never finished?

Since the man’s face is present and accounted for, it’s assumed he died first. The sarcophagus lid was probably then commissioned. Custom presumably prevented her face from being added till she too “passed to the other side.” With him already on that other side there was no question about any different wife entering the picture. So why wasn’t her likeness added at her demise? Did the family run out of money? Did the sculptor fatally keel over? Was there some kind of environmental conflict happening? War? Famine? Pestilence?

Was she herself not finally buried with him?  What happened to her? A tantalizing two thousand year old mystery to contemplate…


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