Myth, Meaning, and Memory on Roman Sarcophagi

Front Cover
University of California Press, 1995 - Art - 172 pages
In this study of Roman mythological sarcophagi, Michael Koortbojian unravels the meaning of these ancient funerary monuments and assesses their significance in the broader context of Roman life. As he examines the character and structure of the mythological narratives of Adonis and Endymion, he demonstrates how the stories depicted on these marble sarcophagi were conflated with the lives of those individuals they were intended to recall. Mythology was an evocative force in ancient life and imagery, one that powerfully manifested the complicity between past and present. Stories of the ancient heroes, traditionally regarded as examples of conduct or models for emulation, were elaborated in light of contemporary needs and played a fundamental role in an ongoing process of cultural self-identity. An ancient penchant for analogy, and a Roman appreciation of allusion, provided artists with the rationale to transform the Greek myths they had inherited. As the artists likened one thing to another on the basis of distinctive affinities, they sought to express characteristically Roman themes: the sarcophagus reliefs were sculpted to evoke such correspondences. The seemingly inevitable fate of Adonis, to die in the arms of his lover Aphrodite, might be recast in analogy with the altogether different destiny of Aeneas, who was revived at the hands of this very goddess despite a similar wound. Or the constancy of Selene's nightly visits to her paramour Endymion might be refigured by emphasis on her departure and allusion to the abandonment of Ariadne by her faithless lover, Theseus. This fascinating study illuminates for us the real function of the sarcophagus imagery: to allow the beholder to drawfrom these depictions not only the significance of the myths, but also the meanings of the lives they were intended to commemorate. The sculpted marble caskets demonstrate the power of images to preserve something essential of the dead, as well as the role of myth in both the formulation of those memories and the creation of profound and enduring monuments.

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About the author (1995)

Michael Koortbojian is Assistant Professor in the Department of Fine Arts, University of Toronto.

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