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  • image M471

The front of a Roman sarcophagus depicting 'The Rape (or carrying off) of Persephone (Proserpina)'

Marble, probably Greek mainland marble

Height: 55cm, maximum
Width: 229cm
Depth: 16.5cm

Museum number: M471

Vermeule catalogue number: Vermeule 301help-vermeule-catalogue-number

Curatorial note

In his survey of the Soane collection, Adolf Michaelis published a detailed description of the action of the scenes depicted in this relief as they appear from left to right. Professor Cornelius Vermeule [cataloguer of the antiquities in the Soane] with the collaboration of Miss Dorothy Stroud [Inspectress of Sir John Soane's Museum 1946-84], made a thorough re-examination of the figures 'in their present condition' in the early 1950s; the translated text of Michaelis' description is given below with recent notes on the condition of the sculpture [1950s] inserted throughout in parenthesis. In this way the precise iconographic value of the sarcophagus is presented as a supplement to the photographs; too often the value of, particularly mythological, sarcophagi is marred by faulty restoration which is not clearly delineated as such in descriptions.1

For the position of the Soane sarcophagus in relation to other representations of the rape of Persephone, see Robert, who places this sarcophagus in the Third Class: 'Ceres auf Rossegespann' and within this, in the Second Group, with three scenes and with Pluto appearing in the centre and again with the maiden in his chariot at the right. Of the subject as a whole Ashmole summarizes: 'Most representations of this subject, like the present, derive ultimately from the fourth-century painting by Nicomachus (Pliny, Natural History, XXXV, 108 etc.). Copies in painting from the grave of the Nasonii, in the British Museum (Mitteilungen des deutschen archäologischen Instituts, Römische Abteilung, XXXII, 1917, p.4, fig.1); in mosaic, in the Palazzo dei Conservatori (The British School at Rome, Catalogue of ancient sculptures preserved in the municipal collections of Rome: The Sculptures of the Palazzo dei Conservatori, H.S. Jones, 2 vols, Oxford, 1926, p.276, no.17); on coins of Hierapolis in Phrygia (British Museum: Catalogue of Greek Coins in the British Museum, volume on Phrygia, p.233, no.37, pl.XXIX), and on (the aforementioned) sarcophagi (Robert, Die antiken Sarkophag-Reliefs, plates CXIX-CXXXI), naturally vary from each other in detail, but all retain certain features, amongst them the drapery of Hades bellying out behind him'.2

DESCRIPTION (from Michaelis with Vermeule/Dorothy Stroud [1950s] in parenthesis; all description is generally from left to right):

FIRST SCENE, in chronological sequence the last: Demeter searching for her lost daughter. From the left Demeter advances on a car drawn by a pair of horses (the right wheel partly broken away). Her drapery is long and her cloak (chipped) waves behind her back. In her lowered right hand she holds a torch, of which only the handle (and part of the barrel) is yet remaining; the left hand, raised and advanced, has disappeared all except the flame (arm broken and repaired above the elbow). Of an Eros hovering over the horses only the wings are preserved (dowel hole remains; in the old drawings he is still perfect, except the arms and the right leg). Hard by the horses floats Iris, with long drapery and wings, looking back at Demeter; her right arm and left hand missing, the latter appearing to have held a cloak, a piece of which is seen before the left wing (head joined; iron dowel in left arm at wrist). Below the horses lies Tellus, seen from behind, with upper part of body nude, holding in left arm a long cornucopiae and advancing the right arm towards the heads of the horses. (Both fore legs of the near horse are missing; an iron dowel remains in the stump of the right).

SECOND SCENE, chronologically the first: Persephone surprised by Hades while she is gathering flowers. Immediately in front of Demeter's horses a female figure (Aphrodite) kneels on the ground, draped in a long chiton, cloak floating over the head, and with stephane3 on the head (drapery chipped; nose broken away and surface smoothed; right arm broken off at elbow, with dowel fastening remaining). She looks back towards the first scene. Near by her stands a basket filled with flowers; by it slight but unmistakeable traces of an Eros (large iron dowel protruding from remains at centre of body), who laid his left hand on the basket. At their backs stands Hades (head "re-set but antique", shoulders, chest, and right arm, to waist, broken and refastened) with a fillet running through the hair; a chlamys (chipped) flows down behind his back. His gaze is also turned toward the first scene (right leg modern). He holds (in) his right hand before his breast, the left arm (partly broken, below elbow) is somewhat raised. Thus he approaches the back of the kneeling Persephone, whose appearance is very like that of Aphrodite, only that she wears no stephane, her long tresses being tied up into a knot over the forehead (drapery quite chipped and partly smoothed by the restorer). She lays her right hand on a basket filled with flowers which lies on the ground and raises the left foreman (broken at wrist, large iron dowel remaining) perhaps to grasp her cloak. Her glance also follows the same direction to the left. (on the right of this figure the slab is, as stated, broken right through, but there is nothing missing).

THIRD SCENE, chronologically the second: the rape of Persephone. Next appears Artemis, hastening left briskly, in short hunting dress (chipped), with her quiver on her back; more than half of both forearms is missing (iron dowel remaining in left forearm, dowel hole in right), as well as the whole of the right leg (shattered, perhaps further broken in half; nose broken away and smoothed by the restorer). The glance of Artemis is directed towards Athene, who is on the other side of a tree (broken, chipped, and smoothed), hastening rapidly right, (lower part of left leg missing; iron pin at break of leg drapery). She is in long drapery (chipped and abraided), and wears the high helmet and the round shield on her arm; the right arm (shattered, chipped, but not broken) she advances to succour Persephone, who has just been seized by Hades and lifted on to his chariot (right wheel partially broken away with brakes smoothed). Persephone is represented in the act of swooning; her figure is extended at full length, so that her head (face worn and deteriorated) hangs down from the chariot; the right arm (broken off at shoulder with iron dowel remaining; fingers and palm remain on the near horse's back) lies on the back of the horse, the left arm rests on the rim of the chariot (fingers and rim broken away and smoothed by the restorer). Hades has seized her round the body with his right arm, and with his left hand he manages the reins of the two horses as they both spring off (both forelegs of near and right foreleg of horses broken off, with smoothed joints and iron pegs remaining). The cloak floats behind his back, his head (re-set, very badly deteriorated, but antique) is inclined towards his beauteous prey. Above the horses hovers Eros, with a little cloak over his left arm, looking down on Persephone; his right leg (broken across thigh, smoothed with dowel pin remaining) and half of both his arms missing, yet the remains of an object (torch?) which he held in his left hand are preserved on the forearm of the adjacent Hermes (and also against the back panel below himself; Eros' right arm broken above elbow, smoothed, with dowel inserted). Hermes steps out before the horses, with a chlamys flung around him, the herald's staff shouldered on his left arm; his right hand is laid on the head, which is covered with a winged hat. The left half of his head is broken off, the leg restored (from hip to foot; left arm from below elbow restored?). A much-defaced remnant at his feet is all that remains of Kerberos. On the ground lies a bearded Water-god (Okeanos, or the representative deity of Lake Pergus), the raised left hand (now missing; break smoothed across and iron dowel remaining) may have held an attribute (remains on arm and left side of body).

C. Robert, in Die antiken Sarkophag-Reliefs, reproduces, in addition to Eichler's drawing made in the Soane Museum, those of the Codex Escurialensis, fol. 42 recto (Robert, fig. 394; see also Hermann Egger, Codex Escurialensis, 1905, p.113-114, fol. 42) and the Codex Coburgensis (c. 1550-55), fol. 43 (Robert fig. 394; no. 170 Matz). Robert's query as to how the sarcophagus reached the Soane Museum is answered by the Adam sale catalogue, see Literature above.

There is a pencil and brown ink drawing of this sarcophagus front in the Department of Greek and Roman Antiquities in the British Museum: Dal Pozzo (Franks) drawing Vol. 1, fol. 83, no. 92; BM registration no. 2005,0926.83. The British Museum drawing is published in Transactions of the American Philosophical Society Vol. 50, Part 5, Philadelphia, 1960, p.5, no. 92.

1 C. Robert on such restorations in the Clieveden mythological sarcophagi, in 'A collection of Roman Sarcophagi at Clieveden', Journal of Hellenic Studies, XX, 1900, pp.80-98 and plates VII-XII.
2 Bernard Ashmole, A Catalogue of the Ancient Marbles at Ince Blundell Hall, Oxford, 1929, p. 104, no. 281.
3 A crown-like headress worn by noble Roman women.

Provenance help-art-provenance

C. Robert, Die antiken Sarkophag-Reliefs (loc.cit.) gives history of the sculpture from its first recording in the Roman palace of Cardinal Guido Ascanio Sforza, Conte di S. Fiore (c.1555) to its transport to England. Acquired by Soane, Christie's, 22 May 1818, at the sale of the effects of the Scottish architect Robert Adam (A Catalogue of available collection of Antique Sculpture... procured at great expense by that distinguished architect R. Adam, etc.), Lot 115, (The front of an antique Sarcophagus, with a group of many figures representing the Rape of Proserpine 7ft long) £10.10.0.


Sir John Soane, Description, 1835, p.43 (and engraving p.43).
A. Michaelis, Ancient Marbles in Great Britain, trans C.A.M. Fennell, Cambridge, 1882, pp. 477-479, no. 26 and bibliography.
C. Robert, Die antiken Sarkophagreliefs. Einzelmythen. Niobiden bis Triptolemos. Ungedeutet, Vol. III, 3 (Berlin 1919) No. 394, p.479 ff., plate 126
Sale Catalogue, Lansdowne Collection (Christie's 1930), p.46
C. C. Vermeule, AJA 63, 1959, 322
C.C. Vermeule, The Dal Pozzo-Albani Drawings of Classical Antiquities in the British Museum (1960) 15 No. 92 Drawing fig. 37
G. Koch - H. Sichtermann, Römische Sarkophage, HdArch (München 1982) 177.263 mit Anm. 33
R. Lindner, 'Die Giebelgruppe von Eleusis mit dem Raub der Persephone', Jahrbuch des Deutschen Archäologischen Institutes, 1982, 390 Anm. 284
R. Lindner, Der Raub der Persephone in der antiken Kunst, (Würzburg 1984) 83f, No. 113
Phyllis Pray Bober & Ruth Rubinstein, Renaissance artists and antique sculpture: A handbook of sources, 1986, p.57
Henning Wrede, in Dal Pozzo 1992, p.
C. Brehm, Der Raub der Proserpina. Studien zur Ikonographie und Ikonologie eines Ovidmythos von der Antike bis zur frühen Neuzeit (Münster 1996) 339 Kat. No. 38

If you have any further information about this object, please contact us: worksofart@soane.org.uk