The Intermediality of Image and Text on Sarcophagi of Roman Phoenicia: Mediating Communication Between the Living and the Dead in Funerary Ritual

Activiteit: Academic presentationAcademic


The intermediality of image and text on sarcophagi of Roman Phoenicia remains unstudied, reflecting a long-recognised disciplinary divide between art historians and epigraphists. Moreover, these components have not been considered in relation to their materiality and funerary context. With no comprehensive study of the sarcophagi of the region, they have primarily been studied as status symbols, and for their mythological and figurative imagery in relation to imperial trends.
With the aim of offering a new perspective on the ritual function of sarcophagi of Roman Phoenicia, this paper draws upon recent theoretical approaches to the study of image and text from the Graeco-Roman world. Although this study of image and text has received significant attention in the past few decades, a logocentric focus has predominated, and the aspect of materiality has been neglected. Furthermore, this paper employs recent methods of reading mythological iconographies on sarcophagi, specifically, their role as aids to mourning. It extends such readings to non-mythological imagery and text, and the underestimated role of ‘ornament’, e.g. architectural motifs and more symbolic carvings. This paper emphasises the materiality of image and text, and recognises the agency in their interaction with each other and mourners.
The case study, chosen to test this framework, is the ‘Sarcophagus of Rufina’, from the Al-Bass Necropolis at Tyre, in southern Phoenicia. The main aim is to investigate the intricate ways that the decoration and inscription operated, by aiding the mourning community in their negotiation of death and providing comfort. The use of the sarcophagus for several burials and the later addition of an inscription raises interesting questions concerning the re-use and re-interpretation of the sarcophagus.
Decoration and the inscription could create demarcations and bridges between the deceased and mourners through the emission of multifaceted messages concerning notions of fate and (im)mortality. For example, honorific and blissful imagery (garlands and mythological figures) could allude to immortality in its eternal stone property and thematic content. The ambiguous imagery leaves open the possibility for a Dionysiac reading, questioning to what extent it is merely an allegorical representation of prosperity in death, or reflects a true contemplation upon an afterlife, thus, blurring life and death. Similarly, the inscription explicitly comments upon universal mortality, both conveying the separation of the deceased from the living, and comforting viewers who face a shared fate. However, the deceased is immortalised by the very act of having her named inscribed.
In taking a material and contextual approach, this paper considers the composition of image and text on the surfaces of the sarcophagus and the spatial setting of the sarcophagus itself within the funerary landscape. This raises questions of accessibility and visibility and examines how imagery and the inscription on one side could have acted as the locus of cult activity, reflecting a local tradition in communication between the living and the dead.
The examination of this sarcophagus belongs to a wider study on sarcophagi and funerary customs of Roman Phoenicia, offering the first comprehensive study of the material and contributing to bridging disciplinary divides.
EvenementstitelCRASIS Annual Meeting and Masterclass 2024: Between Image and Text
LocatieGroningen, NetherlandsToon op kaart
Mate van erkenningInternational