To celebrate Art is 100 (100 years of collecting art on campus), the UMFA will be installing a timeline in our cafe that features some of our most important moments. Many of these milestones are marked by works of art as they entered our collection, and each Thursday for the month of May, members of the UMFA staff will act as guest bloggers, exploring one of these highlights; together we will throwback to examine some of these fantastic pieces.
Roman Season Sarcophagus
written by Virginia Catherall, Curator of Education
One of the most intriguing items in the UMFA is the Roman Season Sarcophagus (c 325-330 CE). Most of the people that I give tours to in the museum want to know every detail about it. Luckily, this sarcophagus is a typical Season Sarcophagus and many of the symbols can be read today:
This marble sarcophagus, or coffin, was made for a boy in his early teens. He is depicted in the roundel on the front and holds a scroll, a sign that he was educated. Below the roundel are two masks that could be mourners or could symbolize the boy’s appreciation of the drama and tragedies of the time.
Around the portrait is a common Roman motif of the four seasons. The seasons are symbol of the cycle of life and death. Spring and Winter are on the left and Summer and Autumn are on the right. Winged Spring and Summer, seasons of youth, carry the boy to the afterlife. Winter holds a small leafy branch, maybe an olive branch, and a basket of fruit. Autumn holds a dead rabbit and a tall basket of fruit.
These symbols of bounty are echoed in the peacocks eating bread out of overflowing baskets at the bottom of the scene. The peacock is a Roman symbol of life after death; it was thought in ancient Rome that the peacock’s flesh wouldn’t disintegrate after death. The bread shows a merging of Christian and Pagan symbolism at this time. Bread is a symbol of Christ as the Bread of Life. All of these symbols show the bounty and happiness of both life and the afterlife.
The sarcophagus has another interesting secret. If you are tall enough you might be able to see inside (if you aren’t remember you can’t touch the art, so you will just have to trust me!), you can see a metal drain on the right side floor of the coffin. This was put in many centuries after the piece was carved, probably because it was used as an outdoor planter in a European garden. Sometimes even the best art is undervalued.
We were lucky enough to get this artwork in the late 1980’s through funds from generous donors, the Marriner S. Eccles foundation. Mr. and Mrs. Marriner S. Eccles established a local tradition of giving funds for the development of the Museum’s permanent collections throughout the 1970s. It was after Mr. Eccles’ death that the foundation offered support to the UMFA that allowed the purchase of a major acquisition each year, including this Roman Sarcophagus. This tradition has allowed other major acquisitions to the UMFA collection including a John Singer Sargeant painting, a Nigerian Nok sculpture, a Rembrandt drawing, and many others.