Sarcophagus Front, The Return of the Body of Meleager to Kalydon
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

Habits of Mind

  • OBSERVE DETAILS Observe details / time to think and reflect
  • DEVELOP GRIT Develop endurance / grit / desire to rework ideas / open to a range of ideas and solutions/ possess self-discipline and self-confidence





Constructing a Family Tree

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.

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.  Determine the ages of the major characters.  What visual information helps us determine age?
  • What would the major characters have looked like twenty years earlier?  Twenty years later?  Would they be engaged in the same activities?  Why or why not?
  • What examples of learned behaviors are illustrated in the works of art (riding horses, playing instruments)?
  • “Strike a pose” similar to one of the figures depicted in this work of art. Have classmates guess which figure you are emulating, supporting their guess with evidence from the work of art. Repeat with other classmates.

  • Recreate the scene in this work of art by assembling classmates in respective poses. Some students may be in front of others. How does the sculptor portray that sense of space and depth?

  • Compare the portrayal of figures in the foreground and background. What do you notice regarding overlapping, depth, and detail? Using the sculpture, explain theses terms: high relief and low relief.

  • This relief sculpture adorns the front of a Roman sarcophagus, or stone coffin from 220 AD. Why might a Roman family choose a scene like this for their deceased relative?

  • Hypothesize what the sculptor could be depicting? What might have happened before this scene? After? Support your inferences with details from the work of art.

  • Examine the faces and gestures of the people portrayed.Infer what emotions they reflect. What might they be thinking? Why?

  • This sarcophagus is sculpted from marble. Knowing that marble is a metamorphic rock, what properties make it a material well-suited for sculpture? Pinpoint specific areas of this sarcophagus that exemplify the use of those properties. Explain.


  • This sarcophagus was based on the Greek myth about Meleager, the son of the King of Kalydon. Research that myth. Infer what part of the myth is depicted in this sarcophagus.

  • If you could select another part of the myth to be displayed in a work of art, which part what you choose? Why?

  • Which figure could be Meleagar’s mother? Why? Give evidence from the work of art to support your theory. How does the artist portray her as exhibiting pathos, or sadness?

  • Stonecutters mass-produced sarcophagi, and sometimes would leave one figure’s head uncarved so a portrait of the deceased could be added later. Using clues of hairstyle and positioning, hypothesize which figure could depict the deceased in this sarcophagus? Explain your reasoning using clues from the work of art.

  • This is a Roman sarcophagus depicting a Greek myth.The arts were one area in which the Romans emulated Greek culture.Investigate other areas of Greek life that influenced the Romans, and elaborate on how those influences may have resulted in Greek myths being used in sarcophagi.

  • If you were to choose one of your favorite books or myths to be showcased in a work of art, which one would you choose? Why? Assess which part of the plot you would want to highlight in the work of art.


•  Study factors that influence human growth and change.  Introduce the concept of heredity.  List characteristics determined by genes.

• List physical characteristics of babies, children, teens, adults, and older people, and characteristics that are learned.

• Research and record information on growth and aging. Observe family members, study family photographs, and talk with family members of different ages.

•  Have students think about their own characteristics and discuss what they may have inherited and what may be learned.

•  Construct a pictorial family tree based on research and observations.

(see Art Lesson: Constructing a Family Tree)

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.