Limestone sarcophagus: the Amathus sarcophagus

Period: Archaic

Date: 2nd quarter of the 5th century B.C.

Culture: Cypriot

Medium: Hard limestone

Dimensions: Overall: 62 x 93 1/8 x 38 1/2in. (157.5 x 236.6 x 97.8cm)

Classification: Stone Sculpture

Credit Line: The Cesnola Collection, Purchased by subscription, 1874–76

Accession Number: 74.51.2453


The Amathus sarcophagus, arguably the single most important object in the Cesnola Collection at the Metropolitan Museum, is unique among ancient Cypriot sculptures in its monumentality, its exceptionally high relief, and the preservation of its polychrome.
The primary scenes on the long sides of the sarcophagus depict a procession of chariots escorted by attendants on horseback and followed by foot soldiers. Most likely, the figure standing under a parasol in the first chariot represents the deceased. His horses, like the others, are richly caparisoned, but the wheels of his chariot have fewer spokes. Splendidly embellished horses and chariot poles are part of a long tradition on Cyprus, although scholars have suggested that the prototypes for the chariot procession on the Amathus sarcophagus may have been Graeco-Persian reliefs.
One of the short sides of the sarcophagus originally was decorated with four figures of the Egyptian god Bes. The cult of Bes was especially popular at Amathus, primarily because of the Phoenician presence in the city. The other short side of the sarcophagus shows four standing figures of the Phoenician goddess Astarte. Nude except for their ornate necklaces, the four figures of the goddess hold their breasts in a pose that is well attested in Cypriot terracotta sculpture from the sixth century B.C. The temple of Astarte, located on the acropolis of Amathus, was one of the most important sanctuaries on Cyprus. The depictions of Bes and Astarte on this particular sarcophagus suggest the importance of procreation to the deceased.
Most of the architectural moldings and the decorative details on the sarcophagus, such as the carved palmettes and ivy leaves that fill the four panels, are of eastern Greek origin. Other floral motifs, such as the tree of life and a frieze of lotus flowers and buds, had a long tradition in Cypriot vase painting and other arts of the Archaic and later periods. The figural panels are framed by a variety of vegetal ornaments, while the gabled lid once featured a pair of sphinxes and a palmette at each end. The thorough integration of Greek, Persian, Egyptian, and Cypriot stylistic elements on the Amathus sarcophagus is characteristic of Cypriot art and culture during the fifth century B.C.