A Look at a Strigil Sarcophagus Panel

Terence Thomas

This picture and analysis of the Strigil Sarcophagus panel were from a time when I visited the Michael C. Carlos Museum in Georgia. When I returned from my visit, I wrote this analysis.


Strigil Sarcophagus Panel – Artist Unknown
Rome
Marble
3rd Century AD

The Strigil Sarcophagus Panel is a fairly wide piece of sculpture at an approximate size of about 87 inches wide and 23 inches high. The panel shows a man and woman in between columns with gaps on both sides of them. The gaps have a wave-like “s” pattern that mirror each other before ending with another set of columns. On top of the innermost columns are cherub-like figures.The whole art piece was seemingly crafted from a single slab of marble minus the columns using a subtractive method to create sunken relief art. These columns were added to the sculpture as opposed to being sculpted out subtractively. Thanks to this technique, even though the sculpture has a more two dimensional look compared to conventional sculptures, the depth of the sculpture has a visual pop to it. Even with the sculpture’s monotone values, it is still relatively easy to gauge the human figures and pillars through the natural shadows of the sunken relief technique. The skill of the sculptor is evident thanks to the texture found on the sculpture. Even though marble is a smooth rock, the sculptor was able to create a fabric-like textured look and an engraved pillar design. This even works to give the waves present on both sides of the sculpture a smooth repetition and symmetry. These waves help center attention on the two figures in the center, who are portrayed to have been joined in marriage (Michael C. Carlos Museum, “Strigil Sarcophagus Panel.” Museum label. March 23, 2019).

As a piece of  a Roman sarcophagus, this piece is meant to hold meaning for the bodies occupying the coffin. As mentioned prior, the inhabitants of the original sarcophagus were likely married Roman citizens. Viewers are able to gauge this from just a glance at the sculpture. As a sculpture this fact is important, as it is the most important aspect that needs to be understood by onlookers. The sculpture is able to convey the sadness of mourning with the simple gesture that the woman is performing as she holds the man’s hand. This serves as a fitting portrayal of sadness for a sarcophagus panel. Putting such artwork on a panel was a thoughtful decision on the part of the sculptor as the side of the sarcophagus was likely to be seen more often than not. 

While little is known about who created this piece, many small clues narrow down who may have created the piece. For example, while we are able to see that the people depicted are Roman, we are also able to see that these are Roman peoples around the time when the ionic order was a popular style of pillar. Similarly the pediment-like shape at the top of the panel may be a clue that narrows down the time period even more. If I were to look further into this, I would need to gather more information regarding the period in which the above mentioned styles saw the most use. Additionally, more information on where this piece was found and when would aid my research greatly.

Strigil Sarcophagus Panel is a wonderfully crafted sculpture that served its purpose as a sarcophagus panel and is now admired outside of its original context. Even so, the craftsmanship and meaning have been able to stand the test of time and remained just as powerful now as it likely was in the past.

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