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
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.
• 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.
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.
- Compare the figures in the foreground and background. What do you notice regarding overlapping, depth, and detail? How has the artist used high relief and low relief to their advantage?
- In your opinion, are these figures realistic or unrealistic? Look closely at the way the artist has rendered their facial expressions, their clothing, and their poses. What aspects seem true to life, and what aspects seem less accurate?
- What techniques has the artist used to convey a sense of movement in the stone-carved figures?
- Look closely at the scene depicted. What might have happened before this scene? What might have happened after? Support your inferences with details from the work of art.
- Examine the faces and gestures of the people portrayed. What emotions do they reflect? What might they be thinking? How can you tell?
- What devices does the artist use to communicate the narrative? Look at the figures, the setting, and the objects included in the scene. Combined, how do they tell the story of Meleager?
- How do you think the artist felt about the story of Meleager? Based on the way they have depicted it here, do you think they had a positive or negative view of the narrative?
- Which figure could be Meleager’s mother? Why? Give evidence from the work of art to support your theory. How does the artist portray her emotion?
- Consider the composition of this piece, the way the artist has arranged the figures and objects in the scene. How would you describe it? How has the artist created a sense of motion and activity with the composition?
- Why might a Roman family have wanted a story like this to be depicted on the sarcophagus of a loved one?
- Stonecutters mass-produced sarcophagi, and sometimes would leave one figure’s head uncarved so a portrait of the deceased could be added later. Based on this information, hypothesize which figure could depict the deceased in this sarcophagus. Explain your reasoning using clues from the work of art.
- Do you think that Meleager is the focus of the composition, or not? Why might the sculptor have made this compositional choice?
Create a simple storyboard that depicts the events leading up to, including, and following the moment shown in the work of art.
(see Art Lesson: Drawing Storyboards, pg. 1)
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.
For an extension to the lesson, students can write narratives based on these storyboards (see “Writing Narratives” with Return of the Body of Meleager).
Resources Available to Order
The Learning Through Art program is endowed by Melvyn and Cyvia Wolff.
The Learning Through Art curriculum website is made possible in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.
All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider.