Sarcophagus of Dionysus's Triumph

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It is incredible how a simple visit to the museum can have an impact on the thinking of a student about artwork as well as life. This is because artwork is not just about drawings, sculptures, or paintings, however also about expressing oneself by speaking an event or belief thru drawings. My visit to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts with my sister on 12, November 2017 was a life-changing experience. A change of learning environment from the regular classroom was special and exciting. The work that caught my eye at the Boston MFA is the Roman Sarcophagus with Triumph of Dionysus that dates back to the Imperial period round 215-225 A.D (BMFA, 2017). Its accession number is 1972.650 and is found in the classical Roman Gallery, The Ancient World collections.

The Sarcophagus with Triumph of Dionysus displays the god Dionysus celebrating their victory. The sarcophagus is a Greek word meaning “flesh-eater” and refers to a coffin or container that was widely used in the Roman Empire for inhumation burials since the second century A.D. The sarcophagus is categorized as a relief sculpture where the sculptured material has been raised above the background material (Ramage & Ramage, 2014). In this case, the figures carved are of high relief implying that the artist deeply curved the figures to appear freestanding from the actual marble structure. The sculpture is made from a marble that came from the island of Procennesus. While the artist of the sculpture is unknown, the fact that it features common Roman style whereby the artists decorated only three sides (the two short sides and the front side) implies that the work was done in Rome.

According to Ramage & Ramage (2014), Roman sarcophagus was placed on a niche inside a mausoleum or against a wall and as such were decorated solely on three sides. Moreover, according to the Museum guide, there is a relationship between the subjects of the sculpture and the deceased because the design of this type of sarcophagus originates from drawings of the sculptor’s pattern book. The decorations used in the Roman sarcophagus sculpture include leaves and fruits, some carved garland of plants and narrative scenes of Greek mythology. The central figure in the sculpture is that of Dionysus, the god of festivals and wine seated on the panther as he steps into a chariot drawn by two elephants with clothes on their backs. In the procession is a large collection of pans, meneads, and satyrs as well as his companion satyr Ampelos. Besides the god are carved figures of men, children, and baskets of fruits.

The artist of this sculpture was trying to convey different messages through his artwork. By looking at the Sarcophagus, a person can see that the style presented is shifting away from organic and naturalistic concepts. Instead, the artist communicates the emerging desire to include more strategies and concepts that shift away from the traditional spatial reality. This implies that artist created extended lines to form different figures that fill the space so that they appear seemingly enlarged with fleshy bodies. Using the smooth marble medium also helped the artist to portray this style. Moreover, from the sculpture, the figures are in elongated forms, which help to fill the entire composition while at the same time give a sense of fluidity within the different figures. Two large symbolic satyr heads demonstrate the conception and birth sequence with the head near the death of Semele frowning while that near the adoption of Dionysus is smiling implying contentment that Dionysus survived (Leveritt, 2016).

In the Sarcophagus sculpture, the bodily and facial expressions of the figures are the same and only differ in the direction of tilt in the head. They all have large eyes and oval head shapes with long and curly hair, which was an important aspect of Roman sculptures at that time. The way the artist craved the curly hairs is evident in the engaging texture, which does not, however, distract the attention of the viewer. Furthermore, the presentation of nudity is at its finest, and most of the figures are barely covered. One important thing that is easily noticeable is that the primary figures Dionysus is larger than other figures because the artists utilized the vertical perspective to fill some gaps with small figures (Rosenthal-Heginbottom & Розенталь-Хегинботтом, 2015). Similarly, the two elephants are shorter than figures around it allowing the artists to include more figures. Moreover, a diagonal perspective is also evident because all figures stand freely without interrupting the shape of others. All these perspectives combined with the different elements give the sculpture a good composition.

The Imperial period often called the Roman period was a curious period characterized by many artworks such as Greek sculptures. The sculptures during the Imperial period, which was also the period that artists carved the Sarcophagus, had unique characteristics. Most were embedded with a relief structure and gaps distinctly showing the difference between those in power and the ruled (Leveritt, 2016). It is during this period that archaeologists discovered most marble sarcophagi with relieves in both Roman and Greek styles. Sculptures during this period depicted heavy garlands with few decorations on the sides.

An example of an artwork similar to the Sarcophagus sculpture is the 163 CE Base of the Column of Antoninius that dates Leveritt, 2016). Since the creation of the Base came a hundred years after the Sarcophagus, it depicts a lot of non-Greek styles that dominated the art during this period. While the Sarcophagus displayed a shift into non-Greek style, the base has shifted entirely from the Greek-influenced style. Another similarity between the two sculptures is that they have relief structures with decorations on three sides only and one side left with an inscription. Along the lower edges of the Sarcophagus sculpture, there an inscription reads showing whom the sculpture was meant for (BMFA, 2017). However, one main difference is that figures in the base are more spatially separated than in the Sarcophagus.

By seeing the sarcophagus firsthand at the Boston Museum, I had a much better undemanding of all the elements and the aspects that the artists used in the piece. I chose the sarcophagus sculpture as the basis for my analysis because I heard previously heard the myth of Dionysus as the god of merriment and wine. People believed that he resided on Mount Olympics and the ancient Greeks worshipped him because they perceived him to be understanding and kind. Therefore, I was interested in seeing an embodiment of this story in sculpture. Besides, very few Roman sarcophagi of the same quality as the one in Boston Museum have survived, and I did not want to miss the chance of learning more about it.

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Leveritt, W. A. (2016). Dionysian triumph sarcophagi (Doctoral dissertation, University of Nottingham).

Ramage, N. H., & Ramage, A. (2014). Roman art. Pearson Higher Ed.

Rosenthal-Heginbottom, R., & Розенталь-Хегинботтом, Р. (2015). Dionysos and His Retinue in the Art of Late Roman and Byzantine Palestine.

Sarcophagus with triumph of Dionysos. (2017). Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Retrieved 16 November 2017, from

August 09, 2021

Culture Art



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Museum Painting Sculpture

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