02. Ancient Mediterranean, Art & Humanities

#29. Sarcophagus of the Spouses. Etruscan. c. 520 BCE. Terra cotta.

#29. Sarcophagus of the Spouses. Etruscan. c. 520 BCE. Terra cotta.

Art Historical Background

Sarcophagus of the Spouses is the one of three pieces from the 250 that are Etruscan. The other two are the Tomb of the Triclinium and Temple of Minerva (with the sculpture of Apollo). It was discovered in 1881 at the Banditaccia necropolis at Cerveteri (part of the UNESCO Site for the Tomb of the Triclinium) in pretty bad shape and has been painstakingly been put back together.

Etruscan Life & Death

Banqueting is a major theme in Etruscan funerary art, which probably reflect Etruscan funerary rituals. The Sarcophagus of the Spouses it is believed actually be an urn, where cremated remains were held. This is in a long line of other ancient funerary arts, however it is anything but somber.

The style of sarcophagus, a double marriage portrait, is unique to the Etruscan culture. The couple is half-reclined on a banqueting-couch. They are quite intimate: the man lovingly rests his arm on his wife’s shoulder. This intimacy would have completely shocked the contemporary Greeks. In contrast to Greek women, Etruscan women had a lot of relative freedom: upper class Etruscan women were active in public life and attended banquets alongside their husbands.

Their Bodies

The man raises his hand toward the viewer, which is us when we stand in front of it, like a host welcoming you to sit and dine with them. His right hand, which is around his wife’s shoulders probably originally held a cup. You can still see the way his fingers would have curved around it. The wife’s left hand is open but not flat like her husband’s. Some scholars believe her once held a pomegranate fruit, symbol of death relating to the Greek mythology of Hades and Persephone. While her other hand probably also held a drinking glass like her husband’s.

The man’s torso is bare and his lower body is covered by a cloak; his feet and head bare. The wife is fully dressed and wears a cap and pointed shoes. They both have elaborate braids, going over their shoulders and down their backs. Although the hair and faces are quite styled there is a high quality of detail. Even though this piece is about the dead, it can tell us a lot about gender relations and fashion styles of the day.

Another similarly to Ancient Greece, or rather an example of the exchange of artistic ideas between the two civilizations, is the “Archaic smile.” The same stiff smile seen on the kouros. The elaborate braids down the back are often used to protect the neck from snapping is also a common feature in ancient art (also seen in Egyptian sculpturature).

Read more: AP Art History Hunting in Rome, Italy
Etruscan tomb where you can see frescos with similar themes to the sarcophagus.


The large-scale sarcophagus is made out of terra cotta and, due to its size, would have been fired in multiple pieces. You can even see the sarcophagus cut in haf right where the torsos bend into the legs and where the bodies of the man and women meet the couch they are laying on. Etruscan artists were masters of terra cotta (like the Ancient Greeks were with marble). Originally (also like the Greeks) this piece would have been highly painted. I really can’t image what it must have looked like walking into one of the underground Etruscan tombs to see life-sized fully painted figures banqueting “with the dead.” Creepy or reassuring?


Next time: #30. Audience Hall (apadana) of Darius and Xerxes. Persepolis, Iran. Persian. c. 520-465 BCE. Limestone.
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