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Empire: Medea Sarcophagus

Medea Sarcophagus, 140 - 150 C.E., marble, 65 x 227 cm (Altes Museum, Berlin). Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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A conversation with Khan Academy's Dr. Beth Harris & Dr. Steven Zucker. Available on http://www.googleartproject.com, http://smarthistory.khanacademy.org We're in the Altes Museum in Berlin and we're looking at their incredible Medea sarcophagus. Now, this is one of the earliest heavily carved sarcophagi, at a time when burials were just beginning in ancient Rome. Before that usually the bodies of the deceased were cremated. So this is a really early carved sarcophagus, and it's a real show-stopper. So it's marble, and it's deeply carved. It's relief sculpture, but the figures are almost carved in the round in many places. The sarcophagus tells the tragedy of Jason and Medea. And this comes down to us from a play by Euripides. The story is read from left to right, and it tells the story in four parts. On the extreme left is this magnificent rendering of Jason. You might be familiar with the story of Jason and the Argonauts, and Jason stealing the Golden Fleece -- with the help of the king's daughter, and the king by the way was the owner of the Golden Fleece, Jason is able to make off with it. In the meantime the king's daughter, Medea, fell in love with Jason, and she fled with him back to Greece with the Golden Fleece. and they lived happily together for 10 years. The problem came when Jason decided he wanted to leave Medea and marry someone else - Creusa. We see Jason on the far left, looking down at his two children, who are bringing Creusa, his new bride, their bridal gift from Medea - a beautiful crown and a sumptuous gown. The problem was that Medea was extremely jealous of Jason's new wife. And although she seems to accept this new fate, and in fact gives Jason these presents, she was plotting her revenge. And so Creusa looks down at the two children. She's in her father's palace. We see some garlands and columns in the background. She looks regal. She is enthroned. And just look at the beautiful carving and the way in which her body is revealed by the almost wet drapery there, which might recall an earlier Greek style. Her left arm reaches back behind her and overlaps with the next scene where we see Jason again. And in this scene we see the climax of the story. The garments that the children have brought to Creusa are really a present from Medea. And as soon as Creusa puts them on they burn Creusa to death. Her father tries to save her and is burned to death as well. So we have the unfolding of this terrible plot, this terrible kind of revenge. And Jason looks on from the left. The father pulls his hair out as he watches his daughter burn. Creusa forms this remarkable figure. Her arms lifted. her hair streams behind her. Her drapery almost reads as flames enveloping her. There's a real sense of desperation. And look at the way her palms are opened up towards us. Her mouth opens a little bit wider, and there really does seem to be this sense of horror, this sense of desperation. Parts of this are carved so deeply, for example her arm is completely removed from the background. And so she really emerges as an almost complete three-dimensional figure. It's exceptional carving. The sense of emotion. The sense of intensity. The sense of action, even though this is a piece of stone. In the third scene out of four, we see Medea looking down at her two children, who are carelessly playing ball. But this is not an innocent moment for Medea because she's already plotting to kill them. In her revenge for Jason she kills her own children. So we really see the tragedy deepening here. Look at her face. There is this sense of action in her hands as she pulls the sword from its sheath. But she seems to cock her head down in a mournful way. In this last scene we see Medea. She's able to escape thanks to the intervention of the God Helios, who lends her his chariot and flies her away. And you can see her actually being lifted off the ground, her body forming a diagonal, with one of her dead children over her left shoulder and the other child's legs are visible in the chariot below. You know, the story is so intense. One wonders why this would be chosen for a sarcophagus. It was common for Greek mythology to be illustrated on sarcophagi. But this tragic story of Medea. Why would you choose that? One thought is that the person who died, whose sarcophagus this was, had died before her own marriage and would be unable to have children herself. And so perhaps a kind of personal tragedy that can be expressed in mythological form in this classic narrative from Euripides. A conversation between Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker in from of Medea Sarcophagus. c. 140 B.C.E. (Altes Museum, Berlin)