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A Roman funerary (cinerary) vase decorated with pairs of griffins flanking symbolic ornaments resembling flaming candelabra

Travertine marble

Height: 52cm, maximum
Height (excluding lid): 35.5cm
Height (to base of bowl): 9cm
Height (bowl): 26cm
Height (frieze): 14cm
Circumference (lid): 95cm

Museum number: M839

Vermeule catalogue number: Vermeule 345help-vermeule-catalogue-number

On display: Dome Area
All spaces are in No. 13 Lincoln's Inn Fields unless identified as in No. 12, Soane's first house. For tours https://www.soane.org/your-visit

Curatorial note

The frieze on both sides is identical and features two Griffins heraldically disposed either side of a foliate, candelabra-arranged 'Vase of Life' - a symbolic ornament on the base of which they place their claws. The pinecone on the top of the lid of this vase is probably reused from another urn or a decorative pillar.

This vase with slight modifications (a different lid?) appears to be the one reproduced by Giovanni Battista Piranesi on a clock table in the left centre of plate 63 of his Diversi maniere d'adornare i cammini... [Divers Manners of Ornamenting Chimneys, etc.], Rome, 1769. The inscription beneath reads, 'Questo tavolino ed alcuni altri ornamenti che sono sparsi in questa opera, si vendono nell' appartamento di Sua Eccza Monsigr. D. Gio. Batta Rezzonico Nipote e Maggiorduomo di N.S.P.P. Clemente XIII' [Translation: This little table and some of the other objects which are dispersed in this work were in the apartment of his Excellency Mondignore D. Gio. Batta Rezzonico, nephew and priest of S.S.P.P. Clement XIII]. Piranesi also engraved a slightly more elaborate pendant to this vase, also (?) from his collection, in Vasi Candelabri Cippi, pl. 80a.

The foliate-vase character of the object between the Griffins may be derived from its being symbolic of the 'vase of life', as in the Griffin frieze at Hatra in S.E. Mesopotamia1. The motive in this form is seen best on a fragment of the frieze of the Temple of Neptune in Rome, restored in the Second Century AD, in the Lateran2; also the sarcophagus in the Vatican3. Lehmann-Hartleben and Olsen further note4: '...the motive of two griffins heraldically flanking a central symbol - a motive which has a long history and is ultimately derived from Near-Eastern art - was used in this very period for the decoration of Imperial temples (where it was a symbol of apotheosis) and of the private tombs of Bacchic mystai. Usually the object in the centre is . . . a candelabrum, which symbolises the sacred flame of the god' (see note 145, comparisons can be made with the frieze of the Temple of Antoninus Pius and Faustina in the Forum and with a cinerary urn in the Lateran Museum5 ). As in other examples with more especially Bacchic connections, the object between the griffins here may also be a decorative form of the baetylus6 - a funerary cult-object symbolising the presence of the god Dionysos at the tomb and therefore the ultimate victory of life over death.

Large pinecones, such as found on top of this urn, are an invariable signature not only of Piranesi urns but even of buildings etched in his architectural fancies. For example, one appears on the giant urn in the foreground of his 'reconstructed' view of the Via Appia, pl.2, in volume III of Antichità Romane, and another on top of two small temples in the upper background.

1 E. Strong, Art in Ancient Rome, 2 vols, London, 1929, II, p. 114-115, fig. 413.
2 P. Gusman, L'Art décoratif de Roma de la fin de la république au IV siécle, 2 vols, Paris, 1910, I , pl. 46.
3 Pl. 54, W. Amelung, Die Skulpturen des Vaticanischen Museums, Berlin, 2 vols, 1903-08, I, no. 126, pl. 26.
4 K. Lehmann-Hartleben and E.C. Olsen, Dionysiac Sarcophagi in Baltimore, Baltimore, 1942, fig. 16, 45-46, also pp. 44-45, notes 139, 140, 141.
5 O. Benndorf and R. Schöne, Die antiken Bildwerke des Lateranensischen Museums beschrieben, Leipzig, 1867, no.310; photo Anderson no.26377, etc.
6 See above, pp. 233ff., Vermeule nos. 206-212 (M459, M601, M627, M631, M574, M66, M602).

Provenance help-art-provenance

Purchased at Lord Mendip's Sale, 18 May 1802, Lot 50, £9.19.6.


Description of Sir John Soane's Museum, 1930, pp.83, 84, fig. 49 (left end).

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