There are so many masterpieces waiting for you at the Louvre. From the Mona Lisa to The Raft of the Medusa, this stunning collection has a seemingly endless supply of impeccable work. And one that deserves a special, extended look is the Sarcophagus of the Spouses.
When I take people on a tour of Paris, they have the option to explore the Louvre and all the delights it has to offer — something most people jump at the opportunity to do!
And this piece in particular always fascinates me.
Let’s take some time to look closely at it, getting a sense of why it is not only beautiful but also incredibly important for understanding human history.
There are two well known sarcophagi that go by this name :
One is at the National Etruscan Museum of Villa Giulia in Rome,
but the other is at the Louvre.
Because it resides in the most visited art museum in the world, the Louvre piece is by far the most seen and studied — though they are both ancient artistic triumphs.
The Marquis Campana found the sarcophagus in Cerveteri, an Italian town north of Rome, in 1845. It was one of many artifacts in Banditaccia, a necropolis, or “city of the dead.” These cities of the dead were elaborate cemeteries built by the Etruscans and filled with artwork and offerings.
This immaculate work was created sometime around 520 BCE — with the married couple depicted in the sculpture above buried inside.
They are shown reclining on a kline, a couch made for dining. The husband rests on a cushion while the wife leans back onto her spouse.
They are no doubt cuddling after a meal, gesturing to others in the room, perhaps in conversation. Some scholars say they might be attending a funerary ritual, which for the Etruscans was a lively party with plenty of food and drink.
This comfortable dining situation might be familiar from similar scenes in Roman art, but they borrowed this from the Etruscans.
This pose is repeated in many Etruscan frescoes and sculpture, particularly those created around funerary rituals.
The faces are rendered with care, much in line with the Etruscan style. Their eyebrows arch provocatively over almond-shaped eyes, and they both sport relaxed, natural smiles.
Also common for the period, their bodies are stylized to appear long, and while both sets of feet are there, the detail is almost entirely focused on their torsos and heads.
Made out of terracotta, a ceramic material sometimes called earthenware, this almost lifesize work is a technical marvel.
To transport and fire a statue of this size would be virtually impossible, and so it is made up of multiple sections that have been brought together.
When it was made, the piece was resplendent with dazzling color. Though much has since worn away — revealing the rich red-brown of the clay, which is handsome in its own way. But unlike Greek statuary, once colorful but now almost entirely worn down to their limestone or marble bodies, the sarcophagus retains many colors.
That keeps many details intact, like the man’s blonde hair and the woman’s black hair.
When you stand in the room with this object, it still feels so alive.
The couple appear to be enjoying themselves, caught in a moment of gentle bliss, what great marriages are made of, for eternity.
How fitting for their final resting place !
The Etruscan civilization existed in what is today northern Italy between about 900 BCE until 27 BCE, when the final vestiges were absorbed by Rome as it established its empire.
Much of Roman and later Italian culture stems from the early advancements and cultural flowering of the Etruscans, yet we still know little about them.
While they left us written records, the Etruscans used a written language we still only partly understand.
That forces us to rely on sources from Rome and Greece at the time, who generally looked down on them, particularly for the freedom of Etruscan women.
What they did leave behind in great numbers were artistic masterpieces that have survived millennia. These works are still vital, filled with the wonder of existence and mastery of craft that defines all great art. These works tell us a surprising amount about the people who made them, and when combined with other forms of evidence, we begin to see the culture in much clearer detail. And the Sarcophagus of the Spouses in particular tells us a lot about this civilization.
As an ancient Mediterranean civilization, they were rare for having a high level of gender equality. Their tombs place an equal focus on the father’s and mother’s line, and women (at least ones from high society) were a common part of public life.
They had a similar status to men, and they enjoyed equal access to literacy. This could not be more different than their Greek and Roman counterparts, who had a much more stifling role for women.
Careful examination of the sarcophagus shows a balance and equal emphasis between the husband and wife. That’s a stylistic sign of their cultural values — Greek and Roman art at the time would never treat a married couple as equals.
And perhaps most importantly, when we look at this sarcophagus, what we see is a couple in love. They are close, smiling, both spouses enjoying each other's company and the company of others. They aren’t just married, they are together.
We might think of marrying for love as a fairly modern concept, but for Etruscan women it was a reality — something all too rare in Europe at the time and for much of the time since. Whereas noble women in many surrounding cultures would be expected to marry entirely for the convenience of family wealth, Etruscan art shows us that true love was something alive and well in Italy thousands of years ago.
The Etruscans were fond of them. But it was also common to cremate the dead, and we have many gorgeously crafted urns that survive as well.
The Etruscans were also highly capable with large terracotta sculptures, making this the material of choice for many of their largest works. They created these massive pieces in workshops where sarcophagi and architectural details were created side-by-side. Some scholars believe that the basic form would be created in large quantities, with specific heads being made and attached later once someone purchased it for burial of a specific person.
Certainly not all Etruscans had the wealth to bury their dead in sarcophagi, but it seems that if they did have the money, this would be expected, and it was so common that it was quite the lucrative industry.
When we see this one in particular, it is clear that an enormous amount of care and artistic talent went into these objects. And because we’ve found similar ones, it appears this form of display may have been very fashionable.
The Etruscan sarcophagi are somewhat reminiscent of Egyptian ones made around the same time, just across the Mediterranean in northern Africa.
The Etruscans were very positive when it came to their thoughts about death. In life, the culture was fond of banquets and celebrations (who isn’t?) — activities they believed you would continue doing after you died.
It’s for this reason that so much of their artwork made for the dead, like the Sarcophagus of the Spouses, shows people enjoying themselves at banquets.
Families tried to give their loved ones a big send off with many offerings to get their afterlife party started.
Offerings included goods like anointing oil, food and, of course, wine. It was thought that if such offerings weren’t given, the dead would haunt the living.
Art & History are a great passion of mine, and spending so much time in this city has given me a lot of access to great works from around the world and from all ages.
There is simply no bigger place than the Louvre for an art lover.
That’s why so many people tell me they have to go to see the Louvre during one of my Paris tours. It’s there that we inevitably stand awe struck in front of this sarcophagus. Though I’ve seen it countless times, it never fails to stop me in my tracks.
It not only reminds me of the long arc of history and the talent of ancient artists, it also connects me to the parts of the human experience that never change.
I work with Flora and Emma to enrich the Louvre guided tours with new themes.
When ready, you can reach out to customize your Louvre with our latest discoveries. We will show you amazing works of art with fascinating stories during your trip to the City of Lights.
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