One of the oldest subjects for art, death is an inescapable aspect of human existence that has an enormous amount of cultural speculation and taboo attached to it. In many cultures how we perceive and deal with death is a reflection on who we are while we live. The study of funerary art is an excellent window into the world of death in culture as it can give us clues not only on how death was perceived by the culture as a whole, but also by the different socio-economic levels within the society.
The Grave stele of a girl with doves (27. 45) and the Badminton sarcophagus of Dionyos and retinue (55. 11. 5) give us two very different perceptions of death from two different, yet deceptively similar cultures. The grave stele offers a very personal and poignant tribute to, what we assume based on the marker, is a young girl, whereas the sarcophagus offers us a grandiose and heroic visage with little notice to the person it was commissioned in memorial of. Death in these two pieces has vastly different implications.
The grave stele is a Greek funerary relief from approximately 450–440 B. C. The relief is in white marble and fairly well preserved. Aesthetically it well kept as facial damage to the relief is minimal save for one of the girl’s doves which fortunately does not diminish the piece’s impact. The grave stele is deceptively simple: a girl, holding tightly to two doves. Most of the detail in the carving is in her very wavy hair and the folds of her garments as they drape down to the ground.
High relief is used minimally to give a three dimensional play to the piece at her backside, creating deep shadow beneath her elbow and a sense of depth to the folds of material falling from her upper back. The charm of this particular marker in contrast with several other grave stele of the time is the doting preoccupation the subject has with her birds. She holds one of this tightly underneath the crook of her arm and pets the other tenderly as it rests on her curled up finger.
While the facial expression is a bit cold to us, with an eyeless gaze and rather stoic facial characteristics, the tableaux is easily translated into the modern era. We can understand from the body language and the context the sadness of loss of such a precious, young girl whose only want at her burial site is to say goodbye to her birds. The piece is poignant and emotional as we can take a guess at understanding who this girl was and what she loved. The Badminton sarcophagus, a Roman piece from about 260–270 A. D. is a very different kind of piece.
The relief depicts Dionysos resplendent on a beast flanked by the four seasons as represented by four attractive male youths in celebratory poses. A retinue of children, wine bearers and animals accompany them, presumably to celebrate. While Dionysos is the focal center of the piece, the seasons seem to steal the spotlight from him, as in such a busy piece of art the thing most striking to a passing observer might be the minimalistic detail on the season’s muscularly chiseled abdomens in a celebrant pose of abandon.
This piece evokes a sense of grandeur in all aspects. The piece is carved in high contrast, with deep shadows between figures and layer upon layer of characters peeking through into the scene. In contrast to the grave stele there is no empty space given, creating a scene that is dizzying in its numerous celebrants. Special emphasis in terms of dramatic form is given to none in the piece as all, from the tiniest background animal to the larger than life mythic god Dionysos, are given the same amount of detailing.
Striking in particular to me is the detailing on the children; one on the right side of the piece is comparatively tiny but is given a grand amount of motion and with a trick of depth moves from the background in the upper torso into the foreground with his foot. Yet, the person this was commissioned for, the deceased, remains a mystery to us. With study perhaps we might find that one of these periphery characters attending the feast was him or her, but no real attention is given and it’s doubtful.
We could guess by the magnitude of the sarcophagus that they were a wealthy and perhaps powerful individual. Surely if Dionysos and the seasons were welcoming you into the afterlife with a feast, the association is that they were well respected and well off within their lifetime. But there is no personality within the display and perhaps it could be a relief dedicated to any number of individuals who were well off within the deceased’s time. In terms of our impressions of Roman excess, certainly the sarcophagus does nothing to assuage us from those views.
In a modern day cemetery it is so ornate as to be considered gaudy, and gives us none of the personalization and tribute as a society we tend to crave from our burial monuments. In contrast, the grave stele of the girl with her birds is simple and personal and we have a distinct impression of the person and the place it came from. For such a handsome and well made grave stele to be commissioned she was probably well off as well, yet in a comparisons between the two the grave stele comes off as homely and simplistic and might lead a viewer to feel it came from a different socio-economic class.
It’s probably not the case, again, but this difference in how the wealthy might choose to be remembered between the Greek and Roman cultures of two different times is quite fascinating. Just as an early American puritan might be horrified at the idea of being buried in something like the Taj Mahal, so too I think the commissioner of the grave stele might have seen it somewhat tacky to enshrine their loved one in the Badminton sarcophagus.
And, on the other side of the coin, the Badminton sarcophagus’ owner might have felt that such a simplistic and personal memorial like the grave stele might have been beneath his status and social standing. How we, culturally, perceive and represent ourselves in death is a fascinating marker of the kind of cultures and social situations we live in. The Badminton sarcophagus and the grave stele of a young girl both give very different visions of death through ancient eyes.