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Fragment of a sarcophagus front: head of a lion

3rd century AD

Light marble with heavy reddish veining

Height: 31cm
Width: 28cm

Museum number: M568

Vermeule catalogue number: Vermeule 310help-vermeule-catalogue-number

Curatorial note

A lion's head protome (Greek προτομή meaning 'view of an animal': a decorative element in the form of a frontal view of a human or animal head) with a shaggy mane and pupils expressed, gazing to the left. The head is set nearly frontally and the remains of a ring protrude at the left, below the lower jaw.

From the set of the eyes this is a fragment of the front right side of one of three types of sarcophagi - with figurated relief, striated, or of the plain 'bathtub' variety. The best known examples of figured sarcophagi are discussed by Rodenwaldt.1 Good examples of this type of head both in a scene and on a striated sarcophagus-basin are found on the 'Heroization of an Adolescent' sarcophagus from the Museo Kircheriano and now in the Museo Nazionale Romano.2

Judging by the expressive but still natural representation of the head this fragment belongs to a later Antonine version of what becomes a very popular third century motive. The heavily veined, coloured marble points to a plain basin-type body rather than a figured or striated sarcophagus. The production of lion-mask sarcophagi is charmingly represented on a third century grave relief once in Rome and now in the Palazzo Ducale, Urbino3, showing the workshop of a sculptor of Christian sarcophagi. The deceased and his workmen are seen putting the finishing touches to a large, striated 'bathtub' sarcophagus on which appear two masks of this type disposed in the conventional manner.

A splendid, strigilar sarcophagus with lions tearing at animals with cloven hooves (cervine creatures) was in a private collection in Zürich in the first half of the 1970's. Such sarcophagi are found primarily in Italy or Sicily but also in Gaul and North Africa.

1 G. Rodenwaldt, in Critica d'Arte, I, 1935-36, pp. 225-228.
2 F.V.M. Cumont, Recherches sur le symbolisme funéraire des Romains, Paris, 1942, p. 338, pl. XXXVIII, 1, 2 and the "bathtub" sarcophagus in the Torlonia Collection (Visconti, Album, no. 354, pl. LXXXVII.
3 S. Reinach, Répertoire de Reliefs Grecs et Romains, Paris, 1909-12, III, p. 234, no. 2; H. Gummerus, 'Darstellungen aus dem Handwerk auf romischen Grab- und Votivsteinen' in JDAI (Jahrbuch des Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts), XXVIII, 1913, p. 121, no. 40.

Provenance help-art-provenance

Rome; probably collected in Rome by Charles Heathcote Tatham for the architect Henry Holland during the 1790s. See Cornelius Vermeule, unpublished Catalogue of the Antiquities at Sir John Soane's Museum, Introduction.


Tatham: Etchings, 1; Drawings, 6.

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