“Another thing” is a series of occasional posts, each presenting a particularly interesting, beautiful or unusual object on display at one of the museums or sites on our tours.
Do we need to tell you that these carvings are part of a sarcophagus, in other words a stone-carved receptacle for a dead body?
Probably not – the figures speak for themselves, their facial expressions and posture conveying a sense of profound sadness. We often perceive Classical sculpture as distant and aloof, and not necessarily wrongly so, but this work has an immediate emotional appeal that reaches across the ages without any need for explanation, translation or amplification. We all know sadness.
So, before you read on, let me encourage you to pause and contemplate the image for a minute or two, to take in its beauty, dignity, technical perfection and not least the emotion it expresses so effectively.
Who are these eternally unconsolable ladies and what is the cause of their grief? We do not know. They are part of a the Sarcophagus of the Mourning Women, found in the late 19th century at Sidon (in today’s Lebanon, then part of the Ottoman Empire) and now on display in the Istanbul Archaeology Museum. There are 18 of them, all dressed in Classical Greek-style finery and all clearly in mourning. The object of their sorrow is evidently the passing of the person laid to rest inside the sarcophagus (the funeral cortège is depicted in smaller scale above the mourners), and perhaps more generally the reality of death as a defining and inevitable part of all human fate. They are shown in the idealised beauty and essential dignity of Classical Greek art, but they display a near-unprecedented level of human emotion.
Still, that does not quite answer either question. We cannot tell whether these ladies are meant to represent actual individuals, perhaps the family or entourage of the deceased, or whether they are just generic mourners. Nor do we know whose sarcophagus we are looking at. The size and quality of the piece strongly indicate that it was the tomb of someone of consequence, a local ruler or noble, but there is no inscription or other clue that might enable us to securely identify that person.
In fact, scholars do not agree on the date of the Sarcophagus of the Mourning Women, nor on the origin of its creator(s). The marble it is made of was almost certainly imported from Greece, and the quality of the sculpture suggests an artist trained either in Athens or Rhodes, or even both. The figures, their garments and especially their expressive faces, are carved at a masterly standard. The date, which can only be assessed by stylistic comparison, is variously placed before 350 BC or in the 320s BC. A difference of two or three decades may not sound like much, but it is highly significant: Alexander’ the Great‘s conquest of the region, leading to its much closer association with the Greek World, falls between those dates.
It has been proposed that the sarcophagus held the remains of Straton I, a king of Sidon who died in 358 BC. If so, it would reflect that ruler’s multicultural connections and his close connections with Greece and Athens, attested by various historical sources. A late date would place it firmly within Alexander’s Hellenised Orient and make it a sibling to the much more ornate and dramatic Alexander Sarcophagus, the most famous object in the Istanbul Archaeology Museum, notable for its dynamic battle and hunting scenes depicting Alexander himself. Date apart, the Alexander sarcophagus is in contrast to the calmer, more dignified and much more female-dominated Sarcophagus of the Mourning Women.
One way or another, we are looking at one the most sublime pieces of Late Classical Greek sculpture, at an achievement of human creativity that speaks directly to our hearts after 23 centuries. Its beauty still invites us, as great art does, to contemplate our own emotions and our own place in this world.
You can see the Sarcophagus of the Mourning Women (and, of course, the Alexander Sarcophagus) on our tour In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great in Turkey: The Conquest of Asia Minor, and on our Exploring Istanbul, the definitive tour of that great city.