This article examines the evidence for the use of portrait sculpture on sarcophagi belonging to members of the Jewish community of Rome. The use of the “learned figure” motif, commonly employed in Roman sarcophagus portraiture and by Jewish patrons, is highlighted, and possible creative appropriations of the trope in Jewish contexts are raised. It is further argued that, among Jewish sarcophagus patrons, the decision to include funerary portraiture went hand in hand with the decision to adopt popular and conventional Roman styles and motifs, and to engage Roman cultural and visual resources. In other words, Jewish patrons who chose sarcophagi with portraits also seem to have been the readiest to make use of the visual resources of Roman funerary culture to orchestrate self-narratives on their sarcophagi. Finally, it is cautioned that while the limited examples (five) suggest a mastery of Roman culture and a correspondingly high degree of acculturation among certain Jewish patrons, we should be wary of reading such sarcophagi as evidence of certain Jews abandoning a Jewish identity in favor of a Roman one—or the Jewish community in favor of the Roman polis and its civic structures—as narratives of funerary art never capture the totality of the deceased’s identity.
An analysis of Jewish portrait sculpture in Late Antiquity has an important role to play in the ongoing project of reconstructing Jewish attitudes towards visual culture in the Roman world.1 This category of ancient visual culture has received scant attention compared to other types of figural imagery discovered in Jewish contexts. Evidence of Jewish portraiture has most often been dismissed as intrusive, mentioned only in passing, or otherwise swept under the rug.2 The field has typically been preoccupied with the more overt examples of acculturation, especially Jewish uses of “pagan” symbols and motifs. While a tombstone reused by Jewish patrons and bearing a couple’s portrait and an incised menorah from Pannonia has received some welcome attention, the evidence of portrait sculpture on the sarcophagi belonging to Jewish patrons of Rome has yet to be brought into the conversation about Jewish attitudes towards visual culture in the Roman world.3 In this article therefore, I examine five fragmentary sarcophagi with portrait sculpture discovered in the Jewish catacombs of Rome.
In the city of Rome portraiture was created in a variety of media and contexts both public and private since at least the fourth century B.C.E.4 Whether used on sarcophagi, or in other civic or private contexts, portraits were “intended to promulgate the stature and merits of their subjects.”5 In other words, portraits were used as a way of emphasizing both the social standing and the character of the individual. They were a means of elite display that could be paired with the sarcophagus form—itself a powerful vehicle for the display of status and self—to create a particularly potent (re)presentation of the individual.
In fact, Roman sarcophagi were an especially fitting medium for portrait sculpture, as they were overwhelmingly utilized as spaces for visually expressing identity and commemorating the deceased; for presenting “narratives of the self.”6 One of the characteristic features of sarcophagi produced in Rome is the inclusion of a portrait, especially from the third century C.E. on. In this period, the sarcophagus industry experienced what has been referred to as a “portrait boom,” and portrait sculpture was featured on a wide variety of sarcophagus styles, from simple strigilar sarcophagi to narrative mythological sarcophagi.7 On at least one level, the faces of these Roman portraits were intended to reflect the deceased individual.8 While the bodies and busts could be pre-carved, the faces were typically carved after the sale.9 At the same time, Roman portraits were rarely if ever conceived of as realistic likenesses of the deceased.10 Birk has argued that portraits on sarcophagi were intended as symbolic images meant to represent the character and virtues of the deceased and to preserve their memory.11 This was accomplished by various means, such as through the inclusion of elements that indicated the deceased’s social identity (tools of the trade, hairstyle, dress, etc.) or via association with mythological or allegorical motifs.
Rather than being a true portrait then, the symbolic nature of the sculptural program and its idealized representation of the individual renders it, in Birk’s words, “an image of a portrait.”12 For this reason, portraits on Roman sarcophagi reveal much more about the cultural identity and social status of the patron than they do their individual personality, tastes or beliefs. Elements such as facial expressions, hairstyles and clothing in Roman funerary portraits serve more to connect the individual to Roman society and culture than to individuate them. In short, Roman funerary art served first and foremost as a way of commemorating and immortalizing the social identity of the deceased, and to demonstrate that the interred individual was a successful Roman citizen as measured against popular conceptions of social status and achievement.
In light of this, the evidence for the use of portrait sculpture on Jewish sarcophagi examined below is revealing not only for the study of the variety of Jewish attitudes towards visual culture, but also for the cultural experience of wealthy Jewish citizens and sarcophagus patrons in Rome. The portrait styles and sarcophagi they chose reflected the latest in Roman funerary fashions. Jewish patrons who opted for portraiture also do not seem to have cared to mark their Jewish identity on their sarcophagi by means of Jewish symbols. Where Jewish ritual symbols appeared with little rhyme or reason on other sarcophagi and many artifacts from the Jewish catacombs of Rome, the portrait sarcophagi examined here contain no such symbols. Of course, not all Roman Jews opted to include portrait sculpture on their sarcophagi—it must have been a considerably expensive customization—and there is evidence in at least one example that portrait sculpture was purposefully avoided.
In 1907, Nikolaus Müller discovered the lid a small kline sarcophagus in his explorations of the Monteverde catacombs.13 Müller provided a rather lengthy and detailed description of the artifact in his excavation account.14 Sculpted in marble of unknown provenance, the artifact measures 0.75 m long, 0.325 m wide and 0.24 m high and bears the reclining likeness of a young child (fig. 1). This small and unassuming artifact is an appropriate starting place for our discussion; its visual program provides an excellent entry into the choices made by Jewish patrons of sarcophagus portraiture in Rome, while the scholarly history of this artifact mirrors the larger debate over Jewish attitudes towards visual culture. In fact, had this artifact not been found in a Jewish catacomb, like many other sarcophagi belonging to Jewish patrons from Rome, it would never have been associated with a Jewish patron. The stylistic conventions and visual motifs deployed on the portrait bear all the hallmarks of Roman children’s portraits of the kline type, with many direct parallels among kline portraits commissioned by non-Jewish patrons. Yet while this kline portrait is entirely unexceptional in the larger Roman corpus of portrait sculpture, it is remarkable among sarcophagi belonging to Jewish patrons.
The portrait and figural elements rest atop a plain and simply rendered couch with a raised back that encircles the child at his head, feet and back, leaving the front of the sarcophagus open to the viewer. These sculpted elements sit atop a narrow plinth or undecorated band. The child lies on his left side, propped up on his left elbow, gazing calmly towards his feet with his head at a three-quarter turn to the viewer. Like the positioning of many other kline portraits, it is a pose that would be at home at a Roman banquet. The youth has short, smooth hair with just a hint of curls around his ears, set atop a round face with exaggerated, doughy cheeks. He wears a simple Roman toga draped over his left shoulder that collects gracefully in loose circular billows around his right knee and leg. His hands and right foot emerge from the toga, while his left leg is hidden beneath its folds.
Near the child’s exposed right foot, at the extreme forefront of the composition, a small bird sits facing the opposite direction, mirroring the child’s gaze; a second bird rests at the head, beside the couch. Both are clutching grapes in their beaks. A small dog of similar size sits playfully below the child’s right hand, which crosses his body to pet the animal. Under his left hand is a cluster of grapes, which the child appears to be plucking one by one with his thumb and forefinger. Though simply rendered, the technical execution of the piece suggests a high degree of skill on the part of the sculptor or workshop. The folds of the garment are deeply sculpted and artfully arranged, and the features are proportionately and pleasingly rendered.
Only the find spot indicates that this small portrait once belonged to a Jewish patron. In light of the absence of an epitaph or any visual markers of Jewish identity, the association of this artifact with a Jewish patron has been a matter of debate since its discovery.15 Müller, who discovered the artifact, was non-committal on the matter, simultaneously using the artifact to prove the existence of Jewish portrait sculpture, while expressing the possibility that the object may have been introduced into the catacomb as spolia, used to close a loculus.16 His later inclusion of the piece in the Lateran Museum under the heading of “pagan monuments introduced into the Jewish catacomb,” indicates that his view became more skeptical over time. Frey followed in this assertion, and argued that the portrait was introduced into the catacomb from the nearby non-Jewish catacomb of S. Ponziana. He especially pointed to the fact that the head was found removed from the piece and the absence of the sarcophagus body.17 More recently, Rutgers omitted this artifact from his discussion of the sarcophagi belonging to Jewish patrons from Rome because it failed his criteria of containing either an inscription or iconography that positively identified the deceased as Jewish.18
Others, like Goodenough accepted the Jewish association of the fragment, but resisted the idea that the piece was intended as a portrait of the deceased (Jewish) child. Goodenough argued instead that the piece portrayed a generic, stock scene of a “Dionysiac eschatological banquet” and never intended to serve as the likeness of the deceased.19 Taking in the scope of the debate, Leon concluded that “[t]he whole matter is so uncertain that confidence in either direction is hardly justified.”20 Only Konikoff, in his catalogue of the sarcophagi of Jewish patrons from Rome, concluded on the basis of the find spot that the artifact depicted a deceased Jewish child.21 However, he declined to press this conclusion further, either by considering the implications for the broader study of Jewish visual culture, or connecting it with general trends in portrait sculpture on Roman sarcophagi or other examples of portraiture in the Jewish catacombs of Rome.
Such skeptical and cautious readings seem too convenient a way to excise from the corpus an artifact that complicates or challenges our understanding of the Jewish encounter with Rome: another example of the scholarly “sweeping under the rug” of evidence that contradicts received wisdom about the ambivalent relationship between ancient Jews and visual culture. We have every reason to assume that our kline portrait belonged to a Jewish patron and depicted a deceased Jewish child. Müller is clear in indicating its discovery inside of the catacomb, and it seems unlikely that the piece could have been casually introduced to the site. As Goodenough put it simply “[p]eople do not just wander about with such a stone in their hands.”22
As to the notion that the piece was introduced as spolia for reuse, aside from the fact that the head had been dislodged (it was still discovered in the vicinity), there are no indications that the piece was retrofitted for any purpose other than its original use. Indeed, its odd and elliptical proportions would make reuse difficult. The fact that no sarcophagus base was found presents no particular problem other than to our interpretative ability, as sarcophagus bases were a favorite quarry of tomb raiders and can be found reused as planters and fountains throughout Rome. In fact, the body of a child’s sarcophagus may have been a particularly attractive target: its small size would have made it more manageable to remove, and the playful images that commonly occupied the main frieze of children’s sarcophagi may have made an attractive sculptural program for later collectors.23 Indeed, the fact that the broken head of this example was found nearby all but confirms that our sarcophagus fell victim to the incursions of tomb raiders at some time prior to the modern discovery of the catacomb.
Without any concrete evidence to cast suspicion on the origins of this artifact, it seems that previous scholars have generally been influenced by biases about Jewish visual culture and that we should assume instead that our kline monument bears the portrait sculpture of a young Jewish boy. Though particularly well preserved, this example is certainly not the only portrait sculpture of Jewish patrons from Rome (see below), a fact of which many earlier scholars may not have been aware. In either case, we should consider what such an artifact reveals about portrait sculpture and Jewish patrons in Rome.
The positioning and rendering of the youth, the style of his dress, the grapes in his hand and the accompanying animals (especially the inclusion of a dog at play) all suggest a workshop and patron closely following Roman sculptural conventions—not only for the kline portrait style, but for a child’s one at that. The age of a child on Roman sarcophagi typically cannot be ascertained from the features carved on the portrait, which are idealized in order to convey a general sense of youth. The chubby cheeks, the smooth skin and taciturn expression, and short, ephemeral hair distinguish our example as a young child’s sarcophagus, but do not serve to further distinguish the identity (or age) of the deceased.
One of the best parallels for our kline portrait from Monteverde is the kline portrait of a young woman, now at the Getty Museum (fig. 2).24 On this example, the youth is depicted in a manner remarkably consistent with our Jewish example from Monteverde. The reclined but alert pose of the young woman is identical, and a small dog plays similarly underhand. At the foot of the portrait are two dolls, elements that further signify the youth of the deceased. The same soft, full facial features of our Monteverde example characterize this kline portrait, which likewise adopts a hairstyle appropriate to youth.25 A sleeping cupid is carved as a secondary motif on the top of the couch. While this example lacks the birds and grapes of the one from Monteverde, the pose, the facial features and the use of hairstyles to establish age, as well as the presence of a dog are striking parallels and suggest that the kline portrait of our Jewish patron adhered closely to the conventions of Roman children’s portraiture and the kline style.
It was the inclusion of animals as pets, whether birds or dogs, that most clearly served to distinguish the youths of these portraits from the adults in similar kline portraits.26 Such inclusions are exclusive to children’s portraiture. Though birds (especially peacocks) were a common motif in Roman funerary art, and were found frequently among the epitaphs and frescoes of the Jewish catacombs in Rome also, it is only in children’s portraiture that birds and dogs are shown being held or fed as pets.27 The use of pets as a signifier of childhood in portrait sculpture has forerunners in Greek culture. For example, on a fifth-century B.C.E. marble funerary stele of a young girl from Paros at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the youth is depicted holding two doves, clutching them to her chest and gazing intently down at them (fig. 3). One of the doves returns her gaze and seems almost to kiss her. Similar depictions of children accompanied by pets were adopted early on in Roman funerary portraiture. On a first-century C.E. funerary altar from Rome, a young boy is shown holding a scroll and accompanied by a playful dog to his right side (fig. 4). Similarly, in both our Roman kline portraits, pet dogs play under their owner’s hands. On our example from Monteverde, birds (possibly pets) are shown feeding on grapes, another motif seen elsewhere on children’s sarcophagi.28 Such images of animals happily inhabiting the same visual field as children can be viewed as indices of Roman childhood, and while their meaning can be variously parsed, their most important function was to connect the deceased with an appropriate(ly) Roman identity.
The motifs that accompany children’s portraiture were undoubtedly chosen by the adult family of the child, and as such, they are filtered through an adult perspective on childhood.29 Children’s portraiture may have been viewed as a way for the grieving family to “show the world the potential virtues which had been lost when death took a child.”30 As such, the motifs employed on children’s sarcophagi sometimes embodied virtues and associations more germane to the world of Roman adults than of children.31 In contrast to the use of youthful physical features, children are often represented on Roman sarcophagi engaged in the same activities as adults, and accompanied by the same secondary motifs. Objects like scrolls and musical instruments are common to portraits of adults and children alike on kline monuments, and in Roman funerary portraiture more broadly.32 Indeed, children were often portrayed as miniature adults—their accompanying motifs miniaturized versions of adult counterparts.33
In our example, on the other hand, the deceased child is not shown with the trappings of Roman adulthood, though his posture and gaze otherwise parallel adult examples. Lacking are evidence of the public life (oratorical poses), learning (scrolls) or banqueting and drinking of adults (wine and goblets).34 We will return to the choice to avoid such signifiers of Roman adulthood below. For the moment, it should be observed that at the most basic level, motifs such as those included on the Monteverde portrait and the example from the Getty probably introduced a playful element appropriate for the remembrance of a child. Huskinson has suggested that birds like those found on our example convey general feelings of “innocence, tenderness, naturalness and elusiveness.” Perhaps her suggestion that they conjure up the “mutual affection that often exists between small children and animals” is a better explanation for their appearance on children’s sarcophagi.35 Tropes such as the idealized and rounded facial features, the wispy hair, or the inclusion of toys or playful cupids, could all operate in a similar fashion, making reference to common Roman conceptions of childhood.
Whatever their precise valence, in privileging signs and signifiers of a Roman childhood on the visual program of any specific burial artifact, the ancient Jewish patron of the Monteverde kline portrait was deploying visual resources drawn from the Roman cultural world in order to represent an identity for their deceased child. Through the use of these tropes, the Jewish patron of the Monteverde monument orchestrated a sculptural program using motifs with collectively established meanings and discourses in order to “organize and narrate themselves in practice in the name of an identity.”36 It is true that the circumstances surrounding the (unexpected) death of a child all but guarantee that children’s sarcophagi were selected from pre-fabricated options (and not commissioned during life), meaning that the family was constrained to choosing an appropriate sarcophagus from among the options available at one of a number of workshops in Rome.37 Yet, at any given time there must have still been a number of choices available to patrons, even among children’s sarcophagi, and selectivity is a key function of agency in the orchestration of identities, not to mention that there may have been some details that could be customized by the patron (including the epitaph and facial features).38 Even a largely or completely pre-fabricated sarcophagus can therefore reveal something of the cultural leanings of the family.
In light of this, the fact that the motifs and conventions found on our Jewish example from Monteverde—the grapes, the leisurely pose, the birds and cavorting dogs—would have offered a familiar and conventional expression of Roman childhood to any family, Jewish or not, takes on added significance. In its straightforward adoption of the conventional models of Roman children’s portraiture, the sculptural program of the kline monument from Monteverde makes a potent statement that belies its miniature size. No markers of Jewish difference are offered on this funerary portrait. Instead, any indication of a Jewish identity, practice or belief at odds with the dominant cultural values and customs of Rome (and Roman childhood) is eclipsed in favor of presenting a familiar narrative of Roman childhood. The implication, if portrait sculptures on sarcophagi can indeed be read as narratives of self, is that the deceased—or in this case more likely the patrons—held the same ideas about childhood and the appropriate representation thereof that characterize other Roman funerary portraits of children.
Based on the limited evidence we have, it appears that the decision to include funerary portraiture by Jewish patrons went hand in hand with the decision to adopt familiar styles and motifs that were characteristic of and even conventional in sarcophagus sculpture in the workshops of Rome. In other words, Jewish patrons who chose to have the visual programs of sarcophagi bear representations of themselves (or their loved ones) also seem to have been the readiest to make use of Roman visual resources to orchestrate a self-narrative on their sarcophagi. This conclusion is suggested by our child’s kline sarcophagus and confirmed in the few and fragmentary sarcophagi remains from the Jewish catacombs that include portrait sculpture. Four other fragments from the catacombs at Torlonia and Vigna Randanini bear funerary portraiture.39 These examples are all highly fragmentary, but taken as a group they suggest that some Jewish patrons would not have objected to portrait sculpture and furthermore, that they would have made decisions about their visual programs that mirrored those displayed on our kline sarcophagus.
From Torlonia comes a fragment depicting the toga-clad torso of a male holding a scroll (fig. 5).40 Behind the partial figure is the nude body of a winged putto. Like the posture, animals, grapes, and clothing of the kline sarcophagus, the toga-clad, scroll-bearing figure of this fragment is a well-known trope in Roman sarcophagus sculpture associated with the “learned figure” motif (see below). Furthermore, the putto’s familiar positioning and pose behind the portrait bust tie this example conclusively to central portrait busts on metropolitan sarcophagi.41
From Vigna Randanini comes a sarcophagus surviving only in descriptions by Herzog and Garrucci, but which reportedly included figures at either end.42 On the left, a man in Greek garb played a harp before a muse.43 On the right, two men in similar Greek robes held scrolls, one seated, the other standing. The remainder of the sarcophagus was strigilated, with a vase in the center.44 The visual program described by Garrucci is a familiar one. Surviving examples of the type include a sarcophagus with almost identical end scenes (fig. 6). In this case, the portrait is of a husband and wife.45 These scenes are two of the more common among the so-called learned figure portrait sculptures.46
In 1951 Goodenough visited Vigna Randanini and during his explorations discovered several unpublished fragments.47 Among them was a fragment of a strigilated sarcophagus with a clipeus ringed by a wreath and bearing a portrait (fig. 7). Beneath are cornucopiae with fruit, common imagery for a funerary setting.48 The portrait itself is poorly preserved, and even the gender of the patron cannot be made out, though the left hand is prominent and seems to be holding something, likely a scroll. A further unpublished piece from the Vigna Randanini catacomb was discovered in 2001 by Jessica Dello Russo during a site visit (fig. 8).49 Like the fragment discovered and published by Goodenough, this fragment is sculpted with a clipeus containing a toga-clad bust. Only a small portion of this fragment survives. Here also the right hand rests outside the toga but does not seem to have held a scroll.
These fragments have received little attention in scholarship, individually or as a group, but viewed together with the kline sarcophagus they suggest that some Jewish patrons in Rome were not only comfortable with sarcophagus portraiture, but were also eager to emphasize their social status and identity in ways modeled on Roman conventions and modes of representation. They did this not only by choosing or commissioning sarcophagi with portraiture, but by engaging conventional Roman portrait sculpture and its tropes, from modes of dress to accoutrements like cavorting dogs and scrolls. Moreover, nothing in the sarcophagus fragments surveyed here suggests an effort to alter the visual programs to fit cultural sensitivities different from Roman ones or to include evidence of Jewish difference. These sarcophagus fragments suggest that Jewish patrons who employed portrait sculpture to represent themselves or their loved ones on sarcophagi cared little to explicitly mark their Jewishness. Quite the opposite in fact: the sarcophagi with portraiture that belonged to Jewish patrons draw deeply from the most popular styles in the metropolitan sarcophagus repertoire. They take full part in the “portrait boom” of the third century C.E., and engage the visual resources of Roman sarcophagus sculpture.50 What’s more, at least three of the Jewish examples employ the trope of the learned figure, by far the most popular motif on Roman portrait sarcophagi.51
The widespread popularity of the learned figure trope coincided with the height of popularity of sarcophagus burial and the portrait boom of the third century. It also corresponded with the emergence of the Second Sophistic, a perfect storm of conditions that fostered the proliferation of this particular mode of self-representation.52 Not only were portraits with the learned figure trope the most popular form of representation in this period, but corollary tropes and motifs from the learned sphere were a very close third in the running for most popular secondary motifs on the sculptural programs of sarcophagi, behind only cupids and personifications of the seasons.53 Indeed, in the third and fourth centuries, the learned figure motif was chosen by an ever-expanding group of sarcophagus patrons in the city of Rome. The trendy motif was used by patrons of from wide ranging backgrounds and of all walks of life.54
In making use of this extremely popular type, Jewish patrons passed over a number of other popular tropes, including depictions of the deceased as mythological figures or hunters, or engaged in ritual.55 What’s more, the prevalence of the learned figure trope in portrait sculpture of Jewish patrons is especially interesting, since this trope represented the cultured status—and cultural literacy—of the individual in a very general way, without drawing explicit references towards any one particular realm of Roman literature or learning.56 Rather, the learned figure motif on sarcophagi from Rome emphasized more vague and general virtues associated with the intellectual world of the Roman empire—virtues that were harder to pin down but nevertheless related “more with individual qualities and personal identity than with institutional norms.”57
Zanker suggests that the figure indicates only that “the deceased had cultivated a philosophical way of life,” and should not be read as a statement of a deeper engagement in learned pursuits and activities on the part of the deceased.58 In other words, the use of the learned figure trope to represent the deceased did not imply that they were serious philosophers or acquainted with any specific Greek or Roman literature. Employing the learned figure motif communicated the patron’s upholding (and achievement) of the Roman ideal of the intellectual. This was an ideal that achieved broad appeal in the culture of Rome—the motif is found on sarcophagi belonging to patrons of all ages and of both sexes—and continued into Christian art (and Christian sarcophagi) well after the third century.59 Much like the inclusion of pets on children’s sarcophagi, such motifs can be seen as signifiers, in this case of a cultural world in which social standing and character were achieved through learning.
In the category of portraits assuming the learned figure style are depictions of the deceased in the guise of philosophers, in the company of muses, and, most commonly, holding a symbolic scroll.60 The “Sarcophagus with a Greek Physician” in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum (fig. 9) is a good example of the motifs that define the group and narrate a learned identity “through virtues and qualities mediated by the appearance of an individualized figure.”61 The sarcophagus was discovered in Ostia, the port of Rome at the mouth of the Tiber river.62 The sarcophagus should be dated stylistically to the third century C.E., around the time when the motif of the learned figure was rising dramatically in popularity.63 Its sculptural program combines this popular motif with the equally popular style of the strigilar sarcophagus. The front is simple, with only a central frame interrupting a series of well laid out, undulating strigils. Within the frame, the deceased sits in a chair engrossed in a scroll. The pose, clothing—even the shape of the chair—are familiar from other sarcophagi of the type, including many more elaborate examples and fragments.64 The beard and himation that the deceased wears are standard fare for the trope, and further establish the genre by depicting the deceased in the familiar guise of the Greek philosopher.65 The scroll is opened but has no markings or text on it anywhere. To the right sits an open scroll cabinet, containing a handful of other rolled scrolls. Atop the cabinet sits a case of surgical tools, some of which can be positively identified.66
In keeping with the non-specificity of the learned figure trope, the scrolls held by such figures are almost never identifiable on Roman sarcophagi.67 The learning embodied within is left to the imagination of the viewer, as is the case on the “Sarcophagus with a Greek Physician” above. The examples of the motif on the sarcophagi of Jewish patrons encountered above follow the Roman model in this regard. This being the case, the scroll and the figure holding it could very well be an excellent illustration of the imaginative space offered by images through their inherent ambiguity and polyvalence.68 It is interesting to ponder whether an ancient Jewish viewer may have seen a coded reference to the Torah scroll in these scroll-wielding portraits. If so, would they have interested them as a reflection of the deceased’s wisdom in Jewish law and culture? Seen in this light, the ambiguity of the scroll, as well as the generic nature of the learned figure and the idealized virtues it suggests, may have offered Jewish patrons a way of simultaneously engaging Roman and Jewish conceptions of learning and literacy.
Similar rolled scrolls commonly appear in depictions of Torah Shrines elsewhere in the Jewish catacombs of Rome, where they presumably allude to the Torah scroll. They appear on gold glasses (fig. 10), on loculus seals and on wall paintings (fig. 11). In all these cases, the doors of the Torah Shrine are thrown open to the viewer, and a variable number of rolled scrolls are visible to the viewer.69 In one case, a single scroll even appears as the primary motif in one frame of a wall painting on the ceiling of a hypogeum at Villa Torlonia.70 In all these cases from the Jewish catacombs of Rome, the scrolls are rolled into a single cylinder, and have the same form and appearance as those that typically accompany representations of the learned figure trope. They are, moreover, the same as the scrolls that we encountered above in the hands of many of the deceased depicted through portrait sculpture on the sarcophagi belonging to Jewish patrons.
At the same time, it is this very imaginative space created by the lack of specificity in the motif of the learned figure that makes it impossible to determine the precise understanding of an ancient viewer, Jewish or not. We can identify the space only as open for multiple and possibly contested meanings, and raise the possibility that Jewish patrons and the Jewish community of Rome may have taken advantage of this space to create meaning specific to their beliefs and values. If they were indeed doing so, they were following closely in the footsteps of Roman patrons, who adopted (and adapted) the learned figure motif from the Greek East.71 Moreover, the growing Christian community of Rome similarly adopted and adapted the learned figure motif in the same period.72 In Christian visual culture from the same period, the learned figure motif was applied to figures from Christian biblical narratives.73 In funerary art, including on sarcophagi, representations of Jesus typically depict him in the guise of the learned figure: wearing a Greek pallium in a frontal pose of authority and instruction.74
The child’s kline sarcophagus, our best-preserved example of portrait sculpture belonging to a Jewish patron in Rome, is unique among sarcophagi with portraiture belonging to Jewish patrons in this respect. Its references are to playful pets and Roman childhood, and not to the learned sphere. However, children’s sarcophagi formed a unique subgroup in Roman sarcophagus sculpture and, as we have just seen, our Jewish example wholly subscribed to the conventions of that group. It is curious though, that the Jewish patrons did not choose to represent the youth in the guise of the “Learned Figure,” indicating the education of the deceased child. Such motifs were the most popular primary motif even on children’s sarcophagi.75
A child’s kline sarcophagus in the Vatican Museum illustrates this well. On the lid, a young boy reclines on the couch with a rolled scroll in his right hand, and a folded sheaf under his left (fig. 12). A codex lies open in front of the boy, while a dog scratches its ear and paws at the fold of the child’s tunic. The rest of the composition, from the loose, pooling folds of the garment to the cavorting dog and alert pose, closely parallels our kline portrait from Monteverde. On the body of the sarcophagus, the child is shown half-robed and seated in the same pose of authority and instruction that would later be associated with Jesus on metropolitan sarcophagi of Christian patrons. An open scroll is held in his left hand as he declaims to a group of youthful muses.76
According to Birk, the popularity of the learned figure motif on such children’s sarcophagi can be explained by shifting models of status and social position in the third century C.E. that were founded on the acquisition of learning and knowledge rather than on military prowess.77 For children of this period, an ideal childhood included preparation for a Roman adulthood, and therefore learning—very much a case of childhood filtered through an adult perspective. Perhaps the selection of a portrait without a scroll by our Jewish patron reveals, by its absence, something of the real practice of education and learning among Jewish children and the gravity indicated by the inclusion of scrolls on other sarcophagi belonging to Jewish patrons. If the scroll was commonly understood by contemporary Jewish viewers to be a Torah scroll when included on the sarcophagus of an adult Jew, it may have been a motif (and association) reserved for representations of Jewish adulthood. In other words, it may have been seen as inaccurate, or even inappropriate to suggest that a child had attained Torah learning.
The picture emerging from the foregoing examples is one of broad adoption of the conventions and visual language of Roman portrait sculpture. It may seem strange therefore to conclude with the following example, which bears no portrait at all. But the insights gleaned above need to be tempered with an understanding that the question of how to engage with (or even whether to engage) portrait sculpture may have been an active issue, one that confronted Jewish sarcophagus patrons in Rome, and one that could elicit different responses. Thus, we conclude with the most well-known sarcophagus from the Jewish community of Rome, the Seasons sarcophagus with a menorah in the clipeus (fig. 13).
This sarcophagus is one example of an extremely popular type of the third and fourth centuries C.E. Aside from departing in one prominent feature, this example is otherwise indistinguishable in workmanship, composition and content from its nearest Roman parallels. The clipeus is held aloft by two winged victories who are flanked on either side by two personified and nude Seasons; the left side of the sarcophagus is missing, but can be reasonably deduced on the basis of many parallels.78 Putti are interspersed in the remaining space of the composition, and a triplet of these characters can be found making wine below the clipeus. However, the departure to which I referred is immediately evident to the viewer: the clipeus, the space typically reserved for portraiture, is given over completely to a large and skillfully rendered menorah. An ancient viewer must have immediately felt the weight of such an obvious departure, just as we do.
Any attempt to explain why a menorah was substituted here for portrait sculpture must account for the uniqueness and visibility of this departure from convention. This was no effort at cost saving or efficiency. It makes little difference whether the sarcophagus was acquired secondhand and recarved with a menorah (erasing a preexisting portrait) as some have speculated.79 The working (or reworking) of the clipeus into a menorah must have been at least as costly as carving a portrait blank with features to symbolize the deceased. Furthermore, many examples exist of reworked portraits, belying any notion that an original portrait could not be changed to suit a second user.80 Moreover, the menorah motif must have been a relatively unfamiliar one to the workshop; it appears rarely in stone sculpture in Rome, and in any case could not have been as familiar as the highly idealized facial features of portraits carved with frequency. For these reasons, it may have been even more time consuming and costly to have the clipeus (re)carved with the image of a menorah than to have a portrait sculpted.
Neither can this substitution be explained by a simple preference for the image of a menorah over a portrait. This is a weak and tepid explanation for a choice in visual representation that assails the viewer with its difference. Indeed, the oddity of this choice for an immensely popular sarcophagus style that would have been otherwise quite familiar to Roman viewers is inescapable. The choice of a Seasons sarcophagus in the first place illustrates that the preferences of the patron ran towards popular Roman modes of representation; they were, after all, purchasing a sarcophagus style very much in vogue. Instead, the substitution of the menorah in place of the portrait seems to me to be best explained by a deeply felt discomfort or avoidance of portraiture for particular reasons.
However, the more we try to guess the reasons for this discomfort the further we get from solid ground. Was it motivated by a conservative reading of the Second Commandment? By Jewish traditions and cultural tastes among certain segments of the community in Rome? Or values particular to the patron’s specific synagogue community? Or perhaps it came down simply to personal choice or religious observance? We cannot know the answer to the question of why; we can only state with a fair degree of confidence based on the conspicuousness of the substitution that this patron—who was otherwise happy to use Roman figural imagery—had strong views about the use of portrait sculpture.
Indeed, the choice to substitute a menorah—the most recognizable symbol of Judaism in antiquity—for a portrait seems most likely to have been highly visible statement made by this particular Jewish patron in favor of rejecting the common representational practice of portrait sculpture on Roman sarcophagi. From this we can conclude that not all Jewish patrons in Rome felt comfortable with the use of portraiture. Our Seasons sarcophagus with a menorah is the most explicit example of this discomfort, but there were many more sarcophagi belonging to Jewish patrons that did not use portrait sculpture than those that did. It may even be the case therefore that most Jewish patrons in Rome felt uncomfortable with the use of portrait sculpture, though, again, the limitations of the evidence and particularly the size of the corpus must be reiterated.
Returning to our original proposition, we should consider what the Jewish portrait sarcophagi surveyed above reveal about the Jewish cultural experience of Rome, and about the Jewish engagement with visual culture in the Roman world. Certainly, the sculptural programs of these examples suggest the pinnacle of cultural coziness, and a significant degree of mastery of Roman modes of self-representation and visual koine. The portrait sculpture on sarcophagi belonging to Jewish patrons in Rome made full use not only of the Roman medium, but of conventional motifs and tropes as well. The self-representations they contained—and the ideals that they upheld—were common and popular ones in Rome. In fact, one of the conclusions of this analysis is that the use of Roman portrait sculpture and the attendant visual resources of Roman funerary culture was quite a bit more popular and extensive among Jewish sarcophagus patrons than hitherto acknowledged.
We have also suggested that it is possible that Jewish patrons may have engaged Roman visual resources especially through motifs such as the learned figure in order to reflect virtues and values relevant to their practice of Judaism and conceptions of Jewish values. Unfortunately, such adaptive acculturation is ultimately unrecoverable based on the limited evidence we have. Yet even if motifs such as the learned figure took on new meaning in the context of a Jewish patron or viewer, we should be wary of assuming that a Jewish patron was any less aware of the Roman conventions and values that lent basic meaning to such tropes. The overwhelming evidence from the Jewish catacombs points to a community comfortable with and engaged in the culture of Rome. Moreover, the picture painted by the sarcophagi just reviewed was one that prioritized the representation of self through Roman visual resources and in Roman modes. The use of portraiture that straightforwardly adopts popular tropes and formulae reveals the receptiveness of certain Jewish patrons to Roman cultural values pertaining to social status and self-representation.
We should be equally wary of reading such sarcophagi as evidence of certain Jews abandoning a Jewish identity in favor of a Roman one, or the Jewish community in favor of the Roman polis and its civic structures. Rather, a much more nuanced conclusion is that portrait sculpture seems to have been a visual category that was approached with caution by the Jewish community, a site around which Jewish identity and values were being actively negotiated, contested and constructed in the context of Roman visual culture. The simple fact that the five (mostly fragmentary) sarcophagi discussed here were found in Jewish catacombs should be enough to indicate that the patrons still identified as Jewish, and had not adopted pagan or Christian religion.
It should also be remembered that narratives of funerary art never capture the totality of the patron’s identity. They reflect only what was considered appropriate and important for the immediate environment of the funeral and the catacomb and make use of visual and cultural resources specific to these social environments. More to the point, it seems likely that the patrons of such examples felt no inherent tension between being Jewish and being Roman. In selecting these sarcophagi, it is not necessary to imagine the patrons consciously downplaying their Jewish identities in favor of being Roman. We need only imagine that they enjoyed the visual programs, found them suited to the self-narrative they wished to tell, and found nothing in them (or the values and meanings they evoke) particularly objectionable, either to their sense of identity or their sense of Jewishness.
Important contributions to this evaluation include especially: J. M. Baumgarten, “Art in the Synagogue: Some Talmudic Views,” in The Synagogue: Studies in Origins, Archaeology and Architecture, ed. J Gutmann (New York: KTAV, 1975); Yaron Eliav, “Viewing the Sculptural Environment: Shaping the Second Commandment,” in The Talmud Yerushalmi and Graeco-Roman Culture, vol. 3, ed. Peter Schäfer (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2002); Steven Fine, Art and Judaism in the Greco-Roman World: Toward a New Jewish Archaeology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005); Lee I. Levine, Visual Judaism in Late Antiquity: Historical Contexts of Jewish Art (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013); Sarah Pearce, The Image and Its Prohibition in Jewish Antiquity, Journal of Jewish Studies Supplement Series (Oxford: Journal Of Jewish Studies, 2013); Seth Schwartz, Imperialism and Jewish Society: 200 B.C.E. to 640 C.E (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001); E. E. Urbach, “The Laws of Idolatry in the Light of the Historical and Archaeological Facts in the Third Century,” Eretz-Israel 5 (1958): 189–205 (in Hebrew); Zeev Weiss, “Images and Figural Representations in the Urban Galilee: Defining Limits in Times of Shifting Borders,” in The Image and Its Prohibition in Jewish Antiquity ed. Sarah Pearce (Oxford: Journal Of Jewish Studies, 2013).
Levine, Visual Judaism, 152.
Steven Fine, “How Do You Know a Jew When You See One? Reflections on Jewish Costume in the Roman World,” in Fashioning Jews: Clothing, Culture, and Commerce, ed. L. Greenspoon (West Lafayette, Ind.: Purdue University Press, 2013).
Paul Zanker, Roman Portraits: Sculptures in Stone and Bronze (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2016), 9. The tradition of Roman portrait sculpture probably emerged out of sustained cross-cultural contact with Greeks in the late 4th century B.C.E.
Zanker, Roman Portraits, 1.
Björn C. Ewald, “Myth and Visual Narrative in the Second Sophistic: A Comparative Approach,” in Life, Death and Representation: Some New Work on Roman Sarcophagi, ed. Jaś Elsner and Janet Huskinson (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2011), 261–307.
Stine Birk, Depicting the Dead: Self-Representation and Commemoration on Roman Sarcophagi with Portraits (Aarhus: Aarhus University Press, 2013), 10–14. See also Zahra Newby, “In the Guise of Gods and Heroes: Portrait Heads on Roman Mythological Sarcophagi,” in Elsner and Huskinson, Life, Death and Representation, 192–193. Newby further suggests that this widespread appeal was concurrent across types, beginning in the latter half of the second century C.E.
The bodies or busts were typically carved in advance, one aspect of the mass-market culture that came to prevail in the sarcophagi economy of the third and fourth centuries. There are more than enough examples of “unfinished” sarcophagi with fully and exquisitely carved figures but blank faces to prove the point; Birk’s catalog counts 200 such examples. See Birk, Depicting the Dead, 199. Moreover, as Birk explains, “the generic bust meant that the sarcophagus could be purchased for either a man or a woman,” it was typically “asexual.” Birk, Depicting the Dead, 17.
Zanker, Roman Portraits, 13–14. Zanker has suggested that in Roman portrait sculpture, the face was emphasized as a result of a cultural disposition to “read the subject’s personalities and capabilities in faces.” Through the faces on portrait sculptures, Zanker writes, ancient viewers could “get to know them personally” and “communicated with them.”
As indicated not only by the lack of individuality in the features and expressions of Roman funerary portraits, but also by the reuse of some sarcophagi without recarving of the features. On this last point, see Birk, Depicting the Dead, 15.
Birk, Depicting the Dead, 14–17.
Birk, Depicting the Dead, 15.
Nikolaus Müller, Die jüdische Katakombe zm Monteverde zu Rom (Leipzig: Gustav Fock, 1912), 39–41.
Müller, Die jüdische Katakombe, 39–41.
It is possible that such indicators (e.g. a menorah or an inscription) could have been included on the body of the sarcophagus. However, children’s sarcophagi of the kline type most often featured simple visual programs of playful cupids in different roles in the frieze of the body, and this portrait is nothing if not typical among the larger Roman corpus.
Introducing the artifact, Müller notes that this fragment provides the only evidence that Jews of Rome did not exclude portraiture from their catacombs. Müller also includes a bust described by Lanciani in 1878 as bearing secondary witness to the practice of Jewish portraiture, however, the Jewishness of this bust is tied only to the ambiguous inscription “[de]um meteuns.” Müller, Die jüdische Katakombe, 39–40. On the object discussed as spolia, see Müller, Die jüdische Katakombe, 40–41.
Jean Baptiste Frey, Corpus Inscriptionum Iudaicarum. Vol. 1. Europa, 3 vols. (Rome: Pontificio istituto di archeologia cristians, 1936), CXXV–CXXVI.
Leonard Victor Rutgers, The Jews in Late Ancient Rome: Evidence of cultural interaction in the Roman diaspora (Leiden: Brill, 1995), 78.
Erwin Ramsdell Goodenough, Jewish Symbols in the Greco-Roman Period. Vol. 2. The Archeological Evidence from the Diaspora, 12 vols., Bollingen Series 37 (New York: Bollingen, 1953), 11.
Harry J. Leon, The Jews of Ancient Rome (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1960), 211.
Adia Konikoff, Sarcophagi from the Jewish Catacombs of Ancient Rome: A Catalogue Raisonne (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner, 1990), 53–56.
Goodenough, Jewish Symbols, vol. 2, 11.
The possibility has also been raised that there was no sarcophagus body in the first place. Such kline portraits could be used either as sarcophagus lids, or as freestanding monuments. They appear in both forms contemporaneously, more or less following the same conventions and with the same functions. However, I have recently examined this artifact in person and can confirm that it is in fact the lid of a lenos (tub shaped) sarcophagus. On either short side two holes are for securing the lid to the body. My thanks go to Dr. Umberto Utro of the Vatican Museums for making possible my examination. On the distinction more generally, see especially Henning Wrede, “Stadtr.mische Monumente, Urnen und Sarkophage des Klinentypus in den beiden ersten Jarhhunderten n.Chr.,” Archäologischer Anzeiger 3 (1977): 395–431.
Henning Wrede, “Der Sarkophagdeckel eines Mädchens in Malibu und die frühen Klinensarkophage Roms, Athens und Kleinasiens,” in Roman Funerary Monuments in the J. Paul Getty Museum, ed. Marion True and Guntram Koch (Malibu, Calif.: The J. Paul Getty Museum, 1990), 15-46.
Wrede, “Der Sarkophagdeckel Eines Mädchens in Malibu,” 23.
Janet Huskinson, Roman Children’s Sarcophagi: Their Decoration and its Social Significance (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 88; Birk, Depicting the Dead, 164.
See, for instance, Goodenough’s description of birds in the Vigna Randanini catacomb. Goodenough, Jewish Symbols, vol. 2, 17–18, 24. Goodenough refers to the bird as a “Bacchic motif” but the reference need not be so specific. In fact, the popularity of the symbol argues for a much more neutral range of associations. See Goodenough, Jewish Symbols, vol. 2, 11.
Huskinson, Roman Children’s Sarcophagi, 88.
On this point, see Birk, Depicting the Dead, 157. This may in fact be one explanation for the difference in age of representation and reality seen on children’s sarcophagi, and is pointed to by Goodenough as evidence that our Jewish example could not have been intended as a portrait.
Birk, Depicting the Dead, 180.
Huskinson, Roman Children’s Sarcophagi, 93–94.
As on one example in the Capitoline Museum (Inv. no. 917). Items for adults may also have had a gendered aspect. We will explore objects like scrolls in particular, further below when we discuss the learned figure motif and its appearance on the sarcophagi of Jewish patrons.
Birk, Depicting the Dead, 161–165. Birk’s review of Roman children’s sarcophagi indicates that their sculptural programs were generally governed by the same conventions that determined the visual programs of adult sarcophagi. Moreover, as Birk points out, children are never shown at play themselves on sarcophagi. Instead, childhood games and play are conveyed by lively putti or cavorting dogs. Indeed, the cupids on children’s sarcophagi, and even the seasons, often seem particularly playful and childlike, and often it seems that cupids were used precisely so that “adult motifs could be made childish.” Certain scenes, among them mythic scenes, hunt scenes that conveyed male virtus as well as pastoral scenes, and, for obvious reasons marriage motifs, do however seem to have been considered inappropriate for children’s sarcophagi. See further Birk, Depicting the Dead, 161–166. On children’s sarcophagi and funerary monuments more generally, see Huskinson, Roman Children’s Sarcophagi; Janet Huskinson, “Constructing Childhood on Roman Funerary Memorials,” in Constructions of Childhood in Ancient Greece and Italy. Hesperia Supplements 41 (Princeton: ASCSA Publications, 2007), 323–338.
The absence of a wine cup—a common element in kline monuments of adults—in the hand of either youth is one such example of secondary motifs reserved for adult kline portraits. On the Monteverde monument, the child holds a bunch of grapes instead, perhaps an allusion to the same underlying theme. On another biographical frieze from a child’s sarcophagus the wine cup is similarly swapped for a garland in hand. See Huskinson, Roman Children’s Sarcophagi, 12–13. Such substitutions may indicate that it was not considered appropriate to show children banqueting as (miniature) adults.
Huskinson, Roman Children’s Sarcophagi, 88.
Dorothy Holland and William Lachicotte, Jr., “Vygotsky, Mead and the New Sociocultural Studies of Identity,” in The Cambridge Companion to Vygotsky, ed. Harry Daniels, Michael Cole, and James V. Wertsch (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 134. This conception of the production of self-narratives and construction of identity through the orchestration of cultural resources is drawn from social-practice theory, and particularly the work of Dorothy Holland. See esp. Holland and Lachicotte, “Vygotsky, Mead”; Dorothy C. Holland, William Lachicotte, Jr., Debra Skinner, and Carole Cain, Identity and Agency in Cultural Worlds (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998).
Birk, Depicting the Dead, 161.
Birk, Depicting the Dead, 161.
Most were described by Fasola in his brief report on excavations, generally in passing and especially in a short list in the notes. See Umberto M. Fasola, “Le due catacombe ebraiche di Villa Torlonia,” Rivista di Archeologia Cristiana LII (1976): 7–62. Fasola followed the somewhat unusual practice of affixing the sarcophagi fragments he discovered to the walls of the catacomb where they were found.
Hermann Wolfgang Beyer and Hans Lietzmann, Die Jüdische Katakombe Der Villa Torlonia in Rom (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1930), Pl. 23b; Goodenough, Jewish Symbols Vol. 2, 41.
See Goodenough, Jewish Symbols vol. 2, 41.
Ephraim Herzog, “Le catacombe degli Ebrei in Vigna Rondanini,” Bulletin dell’ Instituto di Corrispondenza Archeologica (1861): 98; Raffaele Garrucci, Cimitero Degli Antichi Ebrei Scoperto Recentemente in Vigna Randanini (Rome: Civilta Cattolica, 1862), 19–22.
Possibly Urania. See Garrucci, Cimitero degli antichi ebrei scoperto recentemente in Vigna Randanini, 20.
Garrucci, Cimitero degli antichi ebrei scoperto recentemente in Vigna Randanini, 20–21.
Located in the Museo Castello Sforzesco, Milan. See Birk, Depicting the Dead, 78, fig. 36.
Birk, Depicting the Dead, graphs 3 and 5.
Goodenough, Jewish Symbols, vol. 2, 15, 28–30.
A close parallel is found in a sarcophagus at the Villa Doria Pamphili. In this example, two putti with the trappings of the seasons are positioned at either end, while a clipeus containing a female bust, holding a scroll, is set above two cornucopiae with fruit. See Birk, Depicting the Dead, 80, fig. 38.
Personal communication. See also Jessica Dello Russo, “ICS on Site in the Vigna Randanini Catacomb: Fall, 2001,” Roma Subterranea Judaica 1 (2010).
Birk, Depicting the Dead, 14.
Birk, Depicting the Dead, 73, 94 n. 380, 122 graph 7.
Birk, Depicting the Dead, 75.
Secondary motifs being defined as “scenes that add extra meaning to the primary motif (the portrait figure).” See Birk, Depicting the Dead, 128, graph 8.
Paul Zanker, The Mask of Socrates: The Image of the Intellectual in Antiquity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), 82–84, 267.
Birk, Depicting the Dead, 122, graph 7.
See Birk, Depicting the Dead, 76. Though Zanker suggests that it is literary learning in particular that is singled out, and further that the learning depicted may have had some basis in real life experience(s). Zanker, Mask of Socrates, 268–272.
Birk, Depicting the Dead, 88-89.
Zanker, Mask of Socrates, 272.
On the broad appeal of these motifs to many ages and both sexes, see Birk, Depicting the Dead, 86, graph 4. For more on the continuation of these trends on Christian sarcophagi, see Zanker, Mask of Socrates, 267ff; Anna McCann, Roman Sarcophagi in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1978), 139.
Birk, Depicting the Dead, 73 n. 299.
Birk, Depicting the Dead, 75. For more on fig. 9, see Inv. no. 48.76.1
A lid, since lost, is reported to have recorded the name of the deceased. See McCann, Roman Sarcophagi, 139.
Though McCann attributes it to the early fourth on the basis of bodily proportions in the figured panel. McCann, Roman Sarcophagi, 140.
An almost identical, strigilar example comes from Pisa. In the central frame, the seated “philosopher” is accompanied by his wife. See Birk, Depicting the Dead, 81 fig. 39. Also see, for example, the fragment of a “Poet-Philosopher sarcophagus” from Asia Minor in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Inv. no. 18.108). See also McCann, Roman Sarcophagi, 130–132.
The himation here should not be read as an indication of ethnicity, but as a more general marker of the philosopher type. In a similar way, according to Zanker, beards operated as an “occupational identification” ever since Alexander the Great appeared beardless in his official portraiture to emphasize his youth (and thereby set off a centuries-long fad of going beardless). While earlier the beard had been associated more generally with adult males, afterwards it became almost exclusively associated with philosophers for several centuries, until the learned figure became a fashionable trope in Roman portrait sculpture. Even into the later Roman periods, beards in portraiture were closely associated with the tradition of philosopher portraits and evoked concepts of learning and paideia. See Zanker, Roman Portraits, 7.
See McCann, Roman Sarcophagi, 138. It is possible that the inclusion of the surgeon’s tools may mark this program as a transitional form between earlier biographical sarcophagi and later examples of the learned figure.
However, on the first-century funerary monument of Q. Sulpicius Maximus, discovered in Rome, a full body portrait depicts the young deceased boy declaiming from an open scroll. On the scroll are Greek letters that can be deciphered as the end to a poem composed by the child which won a contest, and was inscribed on the front face of the monument. For an early, but thorough discussion of this monument see J. Raleigh Nelson, “The Boy Poet Sulpicius: A Tragedy of Roman Education,” The School Review 11, no. 5 (1903). My thanks to Mary Boatwright for calling this example to my attention.
Jaś Elsner, “Cultural Resistance and the Visual Image: The Case of Dura Europos,” Classical Philology 96 (2001): 269.
See further Eric M. Meyers and Sean Burrus, “Between Text and Artifact: The Torah in Jewish Culture, 135–500 C.E.,” in The Reception of the Bible in (Late) Ancient Judaism and Christianity, ed. Andrea Colella and Armin Lange (Forthcoming: 2017); Steven Fine, “The Open Torah Ark,” in Viewing Ancient Jewish Art and Archaeology, ed. Ann E. Killebrew and Gabriele Faßbeck (Leiden: Brill, 2016).
See Fine, “The Open Torah Ark,” 131, fig. 6.13.
The practice of depicting patrons and deceased as philosophers and Muses began already in the second century C.E., and was adopted from the eastern Mediterranean. See Birk, Depicting the Dead, 74. Zanker has suggested that showing men and women in Greek garb and engaged in reading and other learned pursuits seems to have first reached Rome through the import of Attic mythological and Asiatic columnar sarcophagi. The trope found a ready home among the Roman populace where it was subject to “imaginative adaptation.” By the third century C.E., the learned figure motif as depicted in Rome showed significant differences with its continued uses on Attic sarcophagi. In contrast to Attic examples, where the (nude) body is the focus of paideia, Roman sarcophagi with the learned figure motif typically depicted the learned persons robed and holding scrolls, a shift towards philosophical learning as the ideal. See Zanker, Mask of Socrates, 269–271. See also Ewald, “Industry,” 279–282, 298.
Zanker, Mask of Socrates, 289–297.
Zanker observes that “Christ himself, the apostles, prophets and saints are all depicted like pagan intellectuals.” Zanker, Mask of Socrates, 290.
Zanker, Mask of Socrates, 291–292. Zanker points out that these were familiar “pictorial formulas” that “had long enjoyed such high status in the self-image of the ordinary Roman: learning and a philosophical orientation in life.” He emphasizes that such depictions would have been familiar to non-Christians as well, and positioned Christian figures as a “continuation of a long tradition…”
Birk, Depicting the Dead, 162, 168.
For discussion of this example, see: Huskinson, Roman Children’s Sarcophagi, 38–39, cat. no. 5.5, pl. 10.2; Zanker, Mask of Socrates, 276.
Birk, Depicting the Dead, 179.
See especially George M. A. Hanfmann, The Season Sarcophagus in Dumbarton Oaks, 2 vols., Dumbarton Oaks Studies (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1951); Peter Kranz, Jahreszeiten-Sarkophage: Entwicklung und Ikonographie des Motivs der vier Jahreszeiten auf kaiserzeitlichen Sarkophagen und Sarkophagedeckeln, Die antiken Sarkophagreliefs 4 (Berlin, 1984).
There is no evidence for this in the stone, and it seems an unlikely suggestion.
For several such examples, including extensive alterations, see Maureen Carroll, Spirits of the Dead: Roman Funerary Commemoration in Western Europe (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 113–125.