sarcophagus (särkŏfˈəgəs) [key] [Gr., = flesh-eater], name given by the Greeks to a special marble found in Asia Minor, near the territory of ancient Troy, and used in caskets. It was believed to have the property of destroying the entire body, except for the teeth, within a few weeks. The term later generally designated any elaborate burial casket not sunk underground. The oldest known examples are from Egypt; they are box-shaped with a separate lid, which sometimes has sculptured effigies of the corpses. The sarcophagus of Tutankhamen (14th cent. B.C.), which was rediscovered in 1922, is of red granite and ornamented with reliefs of spirits with outspread wings. Later Egyptian sarcophagi were sometimes shaped to the body they contained. Sarcophagi were not in common use in Greece earlier than the 6th cent. B.C. because of the previous custom of cremation. After that time they became numerous. Records reveal that the majority of sarcophagi were made of wood, but those that remain are of stone and terra-cotta, as evidenced in the early 6th-century examples (British Mus.) from Clazomenae. Many Greek and Etruscan sarcophagi are in the shape of a couch; others, such as the sarcophagus of Alexander the Great, are carved and painted in imitation of temple architecture. The marble sarcophagi (excavated in 1877) from Sidon, a chief city of ancient Phoenicia, are among the finest examples of Greek art. In Rome sarcophagi became popular before the Punic Wars. The earliest known example is that of the consul Cneius Cornelius Scipio of the 3d cent. B.C., now in the Vatican. Under the rule of the emperors Roman sarcophagi became elaborate, with mythological scenes carved on the sides and statues of the deceased on the lid. The early Christians also used sarcophagi for their distinguished dead. The carvings, usually representing Bible stories, are the chief source of early Christian sculpture. In the Middle Ages sarcophagi proper were used only in rare instances for especially elaborate entombments. Although memorials in the shape and decoration of sarcophagi were erected during the Renaissance and later, the body itself was almost always buried underground.
See E. Panofsky, Tomb Sculpture (1964).
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