Fragment of a sarcophagus with a Nereid

A fragment from the wall of a marble sarcophagus with a high-relief depiction of a figurative scene featuring a young woman, a Nereid. Her naked figure can be seen almost in its entirety with a long scarf billowing in the breeze behind her back, in the form of an arch held in place around her arms.

In Greek mythology, the Nereids were sea nymphs, daughters of Nereus and Doris. The lived in the depths of the ocean and came to the aid of sailors in perilous seas. The word “nereid” means “daughter of Nereus. He was the god of the sea, as was Poseidon: it was not uncommon in antiquity that more than one divinity represented the same element in nature. Individually they represented various facets of the sea from the salty brine, to the sea foam, sand, rocks, waves and currents, as well as the various skills possessed by seamen. They dwelt with their elderly father in a silvery grotto at the bottom of the Aegean Sea.

The Nereids were depicted in ancient art as beautiful, young maidens, sometimes running with small dolphins or fish in their hands, or else riding on the backs of dolphins, hippokampoi (hippocamps) and other sea creatures. These figures are found frequently in literary works, from Homer to Allan Poe, and in art, from the brush of Raphael to the sculpting of Lola Mora. Beautiful, young and enchanting, the Nereids were always a symbol of grace and beauty.

It was usual in Roman culture to bury the dead in coffins, most of which were made from stone, while there are also some examples made from lead. All had some sort of decoration, even if this was merely a description or a figurative or geometric decoration. The most notable ones were so large that the figures in relief were more than a metre high. There are quite a number that have been worked so deeply that they have almost free-standing figures. Although the decorative motifs of the container and the lid varied depending on the zone where they were found, it is easy to recognise that they are sarcophagi from the Roman period or culture.

The Roman sarcophagi were used in funerary practices in Ancient Rome. Those made from carving marble and limestone in relief were characteristic of the burial of the elite in the 2nd to the 4th century AD. Although scenes from mythology were widely used in different sites, the reliefs from sarcophagi make up “the richest source of Roman iconography”. There are examples which, instead of decorations of mythological elements, are decorated with scenes depicting the occupation or events in the life of the deceased, such as military scenes, among others.

Most of them were made in cities of importance, such as Rome and Athens, and they were exported to other cities. In other locations, tombstone steles continued to be the most common recourse. They were always expensive elements, therefore used by the elite, especially those relatively few examples made with carvings. Most of them were relatively simple, with inscriptions or symbols or garlands. Sarcophagi have been divided into various styles, depending on the area of production.


- Fragment of a sarcophagus with Eros, Nereids, Tritons and seahorses. Rome, Antonine Dynasty period. Produced in Italy, circa 140 – 160 AD. Conserved in the Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire, USA.
- Fragment of a Roman sarcophagus with a Nereid. Circa 170 – 180 AD. Acquired in 1971 by the J. Paul Getty Museum, California, USA. Inventory number 71.AA.261.


- ICARD-GIANOLIO, Noelle. SZABADOSM, A.-V. "Nereides" en Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae VI. 1992. pp. 785-824, 796, no. 149.

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