An earlier post ("Shouldering Responsibility for Recutting") was devoted to a child's sarcophagus with several unusual features. One of them had to do with the child's clothing: she (turned into a portrait of a he) was portrayed wearing sensual off-the-shoulder drapery.
Such suggestive garb would be unexpected even for a grown woman: unless she was adopting the guise of Venus, no respectable Roman woman would show herself (un)clad in this way. It would seem an even odder choice for a child. Yet the small dimensions of the coffin left no doubt that it was intended for a child, or at least a juvenile.
I filed it away mentally as yet another unique specimen, one of the hundreds of quirky pieces that make the study of Roman sarcophagi endlessly alluring. But it turns out that, while quirky, this feature isn't unique. A colleague has brought another specimen to my attention — from, in fact, the same museum. (The Vatican's collections stretch for halls and halls....) This one, shown above, features a festive procession (in ancient Greek, a thiasos) of various marine creatures: sea nymphs, sea centaurs, dolphins, and, at the far ends, pendant vignettes showing Europa's watery abduction at the hands (horns?) of Zeus in bull's form.
The two sea centaurs in the center bear a clipeus medallion framing a portrait of the deceased. As so often, the portrait itself is unfinished: the facial features are still blank, waiting for the final customization once a customer had been found. But the rest of the bust has already been executed — and it clearly shows the same revealing off-the-shoulder drapery as our other piece. Finally, this coffin too was intended for a juvenile: its dimensions are too small for an adult.
What's the deal with the sexy kids? I don't have an answer yet — only the beginnings of a pattern. I can't help but wonder, though, whether these pieces were intended for girls who died close to the age of marriage (as young as 12 years for aristocratic girls), their revealing garb meant to underscore the poignancy of a life cut down before its beauty could find adult consummation.
Comments warmly invited.
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