In Greek mythical tradition Selene (the Moon) fell in love with a handsome young hunter, Endymion. Every night the goddess descended from the sky to be with her lover, who had been granted eternal youth by Zeus – but also eternal sleep. The story was a popular subject for Roman Imperial Period sarcophagi (nearly a hundred examples are known today). It also appears on this piece, which was made in Rome in the early third century AD. The sarcophagus was found in 1825 in Ostia, and acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art from a private collection in London in 1947.
According to the inscription on the lid’s central panel, a certain Aninia Hilara had the sarcophagus made in memory of her mother, Arria, whose portrait was carved to the right of the inscription.
Endymion reclines on the lower right side of the chest: he leans on his left elbow, while his right hand rests on his head – this was the usual way of representing those asleep, but the posture was also typical of Dionysos. Endymion’s eyes are closed as Nyx has already lulled him to sleep: the winged goddess of the night holds a poppy in her hand and sprinkles him with opiate. Selene alights her chariot to approach her lover: the speed of her movement is indicated by the folds of her dress, her cloak forming an arc above her head. She is accompanied by six Erotes: the torches in their hands do not only illuminate the night, but also stand for ardent love.
The herdsmen, plants and animals give the scene a bucolic and peaceful tone. The sarcophagus is reminiscent of the shape of fermenting vats (again evoking the sphere of Dionysos) – wine flowed out through the mouths of the two lions. Their terrifying gaze symbolizes the horror of death, but also protects the sarcophagus. The personification of Autumn and Spring also appear on the lid (between pairs of lovers), special emphasis is thus placed on the constant renewal of nature. The short sides elevate Selene’s regular visits into the cosmic sphere: the rising Sun races on the left, while the Moon drives her chariot on the right.
In the context of death, the mythical story became a personal experience. In antiquity, people believed that Sleep, Hypnos was the brother of Death, Thanatos. Representing the deceased in sleep brought comfort to the mourners – as if the lost relative had not yet fully departed. Night is always replaced by day, and sleep is but a respite from the toils of life – requiescat in pace. This interpretative framework linked the recurring visits of Selene and her never-ending longing for her beloved both with the concept of meeting lost loved ones and spending time together at the grave and with the inexorable passage of time.
Featured image and details: Roman marble sarcophagus from the Severan period, inv. no. 47.100.4a, b © The Metropolitan Museum of Art; left short side: photo by Ilya Shurygin (2013), right short side: photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen (2011). The drawing on the video cover was made after the fragmentary head of a statue of Hypnos.