This is one of the most elegant and best-preserved porphyry vessels to have survived from classical antiquity...
This is one of the most elegant and best-preserved porphyry vessels to have survived from classical antiquity. Of the utmost rarity, the vessel is in remarkably fresh condition and retains its original polish as well as traces of burial deposits. Porphyry was highly regarded as a royal stone because its color was associated with the regal and, in Roman times, imperial use of purple to symbolize rank and authority. Since the stone is very hard, making its extraction and transport extremely difficult and costly, its use in sculpture and architecture was very limited. The principal source for porphyry was a place called Mons Porphyrites in the Eastern Desert of Egypt. Under Roman rule, the quarries there were an imperial monopoly.
Large-scale works in porphyry, either sculptural (such as the Portrait of the Four Tetrarchs relief in Venice) or architectural (Constantine’s Column in Istanbul), are almost exclusively associated with the Roman emperors and their building programs. In the fourth century A.D., several emperors were buried in massive porphyry sarcophagi. This vessel, too, may have been used to hold the cremated remains of an emperor or, at the very least, a person who was powerful, rich, and likely close to the imperial family. According to the historian Dio Cassius (Book 77,15,4), when the emperor Septimius Severus died at York in Northern Britain in A.D. 211, his cremated bones were placed in a “porphyry hydria” for transportation back to Rome.
Shaped like a situla without upright handles and furnished with three curved feet, the vessel derives from Hellenistic prototypes that were made primarily in bronze but also in marble. Below each horizontal, ear-shaped handle is an impressive mask of Silenus, shown with pointed ears and a large flowing beard, and wearing a wreath of berries and leaves and a fillet across the forehead. Originally, it had a lid, as is clear from the ledge around the inside of the mouth. The vessel may have come from an Alexandrian workshop, but equally it could have been made in Rome by immigrant craftsmen. The quality of the piece is almost timeless and defies precise dating.
Carlos A. Picón
Curator in Charge
Department of Greek and Roman Art