Amherst College's Mead Art Museum
recently unveiled an ancient Roman sarcophagus notable for its exquisite sculpted decoration and poignant inscription. Made of Carrara marble and hailing from Italy sometime in the third quarter of the 2nd century CE, the sarcophagus features sea nymphs riding on the backs of sea centaurs, while cupids fly overhead. "The sarcophagus has exceptional visual impact due to its impressive scale, lively marine subject, and pleasing symmetrical composition," says Dr. Pamela Russell, Head of Education at the Mead. "It well illustrates the mature classical style," she adds, "while also heralding some of the major stylistic changes that mark the end of the classical age."
The sarcophagus originally held the remains of two young children, a brother and sister. They were 6 and 10 years old when they died, according to the inscription, and their father had predeceased them. Did the children die at the same time? "I assume the children died within a few days of each other," says Russell, who suggests they may have been victims of the so-called Antonine plague that spread across the Roman Empire in the years 165-180.
"In this sarcophagus," the Latin inscription reads, "the unhappy mother buried two bodies, her children, forever to live in sorrow. She survives her children and leads a most miserable life-her husband snatched away by death, the father of these poor little ones." Poet Richard Wilbur-second U.S. poet laureate, an Amherst College graduate, and a professor in the Amherst College English Department-has translated the hexameter inscription into two rhymed couplets:
In this sarcophagus, two children lie
Whose mother's eyes shall nevermore be dry.
Her husband's gone, who sired these luckless dears.
His childless widow faces empty years.
"It is unique and moving," says Amherst Classics professor Frederick Griffiths, who was instrumental in acquiring the sarcophagus for the Mead, "the way the mother sets her twofold grief beside the timeless, indifferent splendor of the sea creatures." He predicts the marble tomb will become "the capstone of the Mead's small and exquisite collection of antiquities."
The ancient coffin was eventually repurposed as a fountain or watering trough, and subsequently used as decoration in the courtyards of two Roman palazzos. It made its way to the United States in the early 20th century, and for many years was in the collection of the Princeton University Art Museum. The Mead acquired it from Princeton in 2012.
In an era when most antiquities with a legally and ethically "clean" provenance are securely held onto by museums, the Mead was fortunate to have Sarcophagus with Sea Creatures become available for purchase. "I never imagined, in my entire career, having the opportunity to participate in a museum acquisition of such an important antiquity," says Mead director, Dr. Elizabeth E. Barker. Given the infrequency with which works that meet the strict criteria of the UNESCO convention concerning antiquities become available to museums, Barker remains "gratefully amazed to have secured such a rare specimen for Amherst."Its availability, says the chair of the Mead advisory board, Charles (Sandy) Wilkes, was recognized as "perhaps a once-in-a-generation opportunity to purchase a significant work that helps strengthen the Mead's collection in a clearly important area."
The sarcophagus, as part of the exhibition This Just In: Additions to the Collection from Pompeii to Today, remains on view through Sunday, Dec. 29.