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image M1035

Fragment of the front of a small sarcophagus depicting Eros and Psyche

First quarter 3rd century AD

Pentelic marble

Height: 27.5cm
Width: 18cm
Thickness: 11.5cm
Thickness (back panel): 7cm

Museum number: M1035

Vermeule catalogue number: Vermeule 308help-vermeule-catalogue-number

Curatorial note

On a base moulding a nude Eros stands right, embracing a winged Psyche whose left arm crosses over to his right side. She is half-draped; the details of her left wing are indicated by two interior scroll lines terminating in two circles; and there is a vase on the ground at her left.

In a discussion of a statue group 'Eros and Psyche' in the Capitoline Museum1, the difficulty is cited of dating the invention of this type, which as a group appears later in the Hellenistic period but not before the Second Century BC terracotta group from Ephesus.2 It is debatable whether "the winged type (as in the Ephesus terracotta) preceded or succeeded the wingless type. The fact that the majority of the close replicas of this type, exhibited best in this Capitoline group, are wingless, is in favour of its priority. The original of the group may be dated as early as the beginning of the Third Century BC and as late as the latter part of the Second Century BC". [this quote(?) is unattributed by Vermeule but probably from Jones see note 1]. Klein3 places the statue group in the school of Boëthos (c.200-150 BC) and discusses it in the later Hellenistic "rokoko" at the hands of his followers - including its spread into the Empire where we know it best from sarcophagi and even provincially from an altar fragment found at Bourbon-Lancy, near Nevers.4

The sarcophagus in the Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh (Pennsylvania), provides a superlative illustration of the exploitation of the Eros and Psyche myth in a Seasonal, decorative context and forms a fitting introduction to the parallels cited below.5 The Pittsburgh sarcophagus, long known from private collections (in France), carries the story of the design as late as the middle of the third century AD.

Sarcophagi themselves present all manner of Eros and Psyche combinations and costuming. Both the winged and wingless types are prevalent. On a striated sarcophagus in the Campo Santo at Pisa, a winged Psyche is placed at the right side of a winged Eros - the opposite arrangement to our pair.6 On another sarcophagus in the same location7 there are front-end groups of Eros and Psyche, both winged, with the latter clad in a long chiton, and with Eros in each case nearest the edge and therefore facing inwards. In the front centre of a striated sarcophagus at Cliveden, Buckinghamshire, under a pedimented baldacchino and on a plinth, Eros and Psyche appear as in the Soane fragment but they are wingless.8 Even if antique, their value in relation to the sarcophagus is nil, for they have been cleverly inserted, no doubt to replace a mutilated original group.

The not overly inspired workmanship of this Soane fragment appears in a child's sarcophagus of the same arrangement as the second Campo Santo example, from the Lansdowne Collection and presented by Sir Kenneth Clark to the Ashmolean Museum. There are likewise either side of two Erotes supporting a medallion with the name of the deceased a group of Eros and Psyche with the Eros on the outside and, as in the case of this fragment, a vase beside them. At the ends are two further Erotes; the size (H: 41 cm) makes the figures larger than the area from which the Soane section probably derived.9 The Ashmolean descriptive label dates the Lansdowne sarcophagus in the third quarter of the Second Century AD; this Soane fragment, from the markedly inferior, almost abstract, treatment of the wing and the rubber-tyre effect of Eros' body and legs might be at least fifty years later and may reflect the Alexandrine school of carving, at least in the closest statuary prototype and parallel work in the minor arts. A further parallel to the Ashmolean example is the similar medallion sarcophagus behind the ticket-stand at the entrance of the Villa Borghese, Rome.10

The extreme smallness of this Soane fragment, coupled with the thickness of relief backing and the deep base moulding, however, seem rather to make it part of a larger sarcophagus relief, not merely one of a series of figures and groups on a small sarcophagus. Compare the small Eros and Psyche groups introduced beside the seated Phaedra on the Hippolytus sarcophagi in the Lateran and the Villa Albani.11

1 The British School at Rome, Catalogue of ancient sculptures preserved in the municipal collections of Rome: The sculptures of the Museo Capitolino, ed. H.S. Jones, Oxford, 1912, p. 185, no. 3, pl. 45. The group is Musei Capitolini, inventory no. MC0408.
2 A. Furtwängler, La collection Sabouroff: Monuments de l'art grec, Berlin, 1883-87, pl. CXXXV and Petersen in Mitteilungen des deutschen archäologischen Instituts, Römische Abteilung, XVI, 1901, p.67f.
3 W. Klein, Vom antiken Rokoko, Wein, 1912, pp.35-37.
4 E. Espérandieu, Recueil général des bas-reliefs de la Gaule romaine, Paris, 1907, III, p.222, no. 2187.
5 Carnegie Museum of Art accession no. 53.4.2, dated to c.225 in their records; See Festschrift für Friedrich Matz, Mainz, 1962, p.104, pl. 29, fig. 2.
6 S. Reinach, Répertoire de Reliefs Grecs et Romains, Paris, 1909-12, Vol III, p. 113, no. 2.
7 S. Reinach, Répertoire de Reliefs Grecs et Romains, Paris, 1909-12, III, p. 113, no. 1.
8 S. Reinach, Répertoire de Reliefs Grecs et Romains, Paris, 1909-12, II, p. 447, no. 3; C. Robert, in Journal of Hellenic Studies, XX, 1900, pl. 11.b. This sarcophagus National Trust Inventory Number 766180 is currently (2015) on display in the forecourt at Cliveden and dated by the Trust to c.150-200 AD.
9 A. Michaelis, Ancient Marbles in Great Britain, trans. C.A.M. Fennell, Cambridge, 1882, p. 470f., no. 100; Lansdowne Sale (Christie's, 5 March 1930), no. 22.
10 No. XVII; Pergola, Borghese Gallery, p. 5. [Note reference in the note gives the location of this piece when Vermeule wrote this entry in the 1950s]
11 C. Robert, Die antiken Sarkophag-Reliefs, Vol III, 2, plates LIV, lV, nos. 167f.

Provenance help-art-provenance

Unrecorded.


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