Sarcophagus Front, The Return of the Body of Meleager to Kalydon, 220–230 AD
relief: 24 3/4 × 83 1/4 × 13 inches (62.9 × 211.5 × 33 cm) display base: 47 1/2 inches high × 16 inches deep
Museum purchase funded by the Agnes Cullen Arnold Endowment Fund

Habits of Mind

  • OBSERVE DETAILS Observe details / time to think and reflect
  • UNDERSTAND BIAS Understand assumption and various points of view / empathy

Predicting the Future

Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.

Curriculum Objectives

•  Explain the concept of narrative art.

•  Explain stories depicted in paintings and sculptures.

•  Create drawings that illustrate events that precede and follow those depicted in works of art.






Observe Details

Understand Bias

Connecting to the Work of Art

This relief sculpture adorns the front of a Roman sarcophagus, or stone coffin.  The scene depicts the return of Meleager’s body to Kalydon.  When Meleager, the son of the King of Kalydon, was born, the Fates decreed that he would live only so long as the log in the fire at his birth was unconsumed.  Meleager’s mother, Althaea, put out the fire and locked the log away in a chest.  Years later, when Meleager’s father forgot to sacrifice to Artemis, the goddess of the hunt, she sent a wild boar to ravage the kingdom.  The King gathered the heroes of Greece to pursue the boar, and with them sent the maiden Atalanta.  The group surrounded the boar, Atalanta wounded the animal, and Meleager killed it.  Meleager insisted that the boar’s skin be given to Atalanta, but his uncles refused.  In his anger, Meleager killed his uncles.  When his mother learned that Meleager had slain her brothers, she flew into a rage and threw the fatal log onto the fire, killing her son.  This sculpture shows Meleager’s body being carried back to Kalydon from the scene of the hunt.

The Roman sculptor of this sarcophagus created a sense of space by overlapping the figures and by carving the foreground figures – such as the horses, the kneeling figure, and the woman – in high relief so that they stand out from the surface.  The figures in the background, as well as the towers and walls of the city, are carved in lower relief and thus appear to be farther away.  In the third century, Roman sculptors begin to depict more emotion.  Pathos, a major element in the myth of Meleager, is shown in the figure Althaea, her arms reaching toward the figure of her dead son.

As Rome was much influenced by Greek culture, stories from Greek mythology were commonly depicted on Roman sarcophagi.  About A.D. 100, burial rather than cremation became the standard custom in the Roman Empire, and marble and limestone sarcophagi were used to hold the body of the deceased.  Roman sarcophagi were usually carved on three sides, with the plain fourth side placed against the wall of the tomb.

Stonecutters mass-produced sarcophagi, which were often decorated with standard scenes of people engaging in domestic activities, symbolic animals, mythological stories, or battle scenes.  Sometimes they would leave one figure’s head or a medallion uncarved so that a portrait of the deceased could be added.


•  Study the works of art.  Discuss the differences between painting and sculpture.

•  Discuss the story depicted in each work of art.  Have students imagine what happened before the moment chosen by the artist.  What will happen after?  Why?

•  Discuss choosing one scene to depict from a long story.  Why did these artists choose the scenes they did?  If students were painting these stories, which scene would they choose and why?


•  Have each student select one of the focus works as the basis for a simple storyboard that depicts the events leading up to, including, and following that shown in the work of art.  (see Art Lesson: Drawing Storyboards

•  Compare and contrast the students’ storyboards, discussing how students have told different stories about the same work of art.

•  Discuss storyboards as a technique used to develop narratives for advertising and filmmaking.

Resources Available to Order

The Art-To-Go lending library features materials that may easily be integrated across the K–12 curriculum. Resources include DVDs, music CDs, children’s books, study guides, poster sets, and collection-based interpretive materials produced by the KFEC. Educators, community leaders, and docents from throughout Texas are welcome to borrow Art-To-Go resources. To place your order, search the online catalogue and add the selected items to your basket. After you have reviewed your basket, submit the order electronically.

The Learning Through Art program at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, is underwritten by:

Mercantil Commercebank

The Learning Through Art curriculum website is made possible in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.