Ancient Mediterranean


Grave stele, 239–240
Phrygia
Marble
34 x 19 1/4 inches
Gift of Katherine Trees Livezey Estate 1979-7-1

In this Late Roman Empire grave stele, or commemorative marker, two parents mark the passing of their only child. The simple yet poignant inscription on the base reads: "Aurelios Alexandros and Flavias built this for Kyrilla and for themselves, being alive as a memorial." The stele originated in the region of Phrygia in western Asia Minor (present-day Turkey); its Greek inscription includes the date etous TKD, or 239–240.

Within the arched niche of the stele, three wide-eyed figures with distinctive, large hands are depicted in various depths of relief and carved in a crisp, linear style. The father, Alexandros, seen at the left, holds a pruning knife, and the mother, Flavias, a spindle and distaff, implements of agriculture and weaving. The twisted garland draped over their heads may signify their marital bond. Their child, Kyrilla, stands between them. All three figures are dressed in simple tunics covered by cloaks. The shrine is given rudimentary architectural form, with pilasters (shallow columns) decorated with grapevines and a pediment (triangular section supported by columns) incised with foliate acroteria (architectural ornament on a pediment). A shaft originally anchored the stele to a plinth, or base. The dedicatory inscription on the base is off-center due to a break on the right-hand side; the date appears between the heads of the parents. The tombstone was probably a shop piece, purchased "off the rack" and inscribed to suit the buyer.

As a representative of the tumultuous third century, the stele reflects a world in transition. Exemplifying a type of object widespread in the Late Roman Empire—distinguished by common subjects, formulaic inscriptions, and a non-classical style—it marks the transformation of artistic expression from the natural and idealized forms of the art of Greco-Roman antiquity to the significant and symbolic forms that continued through and typified the art of the Middle Ages.

Text by Robert Ousterhout, from Krannert Art Museum: Selected Works, 2008

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