Grief and Loss; Roman Funerary Art

Lot 41. A ROMAN LIMESTONE STELE FRAGMENT Circa 2nd Century A.D. Offered in the Antiquities Auction on 29th March 2017. 

\nI was recently researching Classical Greek funerary monuments at university, and it got me thinking about this Roman stele fragment offered in my next sale. The way the viewer interacts with the deceased and the questions this interaction raises about the absence and presence of the deceased shows such wonderfully sensitive attitudes to death, family and loss. These issues echo throughout time, even if the representation changes, and this stele is a wonderful example of how the Romans tried to cope with grief and loss through the visual arts.

Depicted reclining on a dining couch, this stele gives the illusion that the deceased is sitting with the family and is involved with the funerary banquet, joining in with the rituals for his own funeral. But of course, this is impossible. The cold, hard stone does not yield to flesh as its naturalistic style promises, but makes the absence of the deceased even more poignant. The deceased stares out at the viewer, locking eyes with them and yet, with its vacant stare, conspicuously not engaging with them. The pose of the figure and the busy details below the couch distract our attention away, leading our gaze to anywhere other than his staring eyes.

Lot 41: detail

This beautifully complex attitude desperately tries to recall the absence of the deceased while also self-consciously doing so through an artwork, which can inherently not live and breathe. Like Pygmalion, who wishes for his sculpted woman to come to life, we hope that the carved figure will come out of his architectural frame and join the family feast. But, unlike Pygmalion, whose statue is granted life by Venus, our hopes of stone turned flesh are dashed and we have to accept this sculpted reality instead.

The issues we face coping with the absence of a deceased loved one are so universal - transcending age, culture, and religious belief - and pieces such as this stele help us share these experiences with civilisations of the past.

This wonderful piece will be coming up for sale on 29 March at Chiswick Auction’s Antiquities and Tribal Art sale and is a truly special piece for any collector.

Abigail Walker, Head of Antiquities and Tribal Art