Arts (Aug 2019)

Reflection, Ritual, and Memory in the Late Roman Painted Hypogea at Sardis

  • Vanessa Rousseau

Journal volume & issue
Vol. 8, no. 3
p. 103


Read online

Wall painting in the Sardis hypogea expresses a regional visual language situated within the context of Late Antique approaches to decorative surfaces and multivalent motifs of indeterminate religious affiliation. Iconographic ambivalence and a typically Late Antique absence of illusionism creates a supranatural world that is grounded in the familiar imagery of home and gardens but does not quite reflect the natural world. Ubiquitous and mundane motifs were thus elevated and potentially charged with polysemic allusions to funerary practice and belief. Twelve fourth century C.E. hypogea form a distinctive corpus with a largely homogenous decorative program of scattered flowers, garlands, baskets, and birds. Related imagery is common throughout the larger Roman world, but compositional parallels from Western Anatolia suggest a particularly local visual vocabulary. The chronologically, geographically, and typologically discrete nature of the Sardis corpus set it apart from the standard of Rome while underscoring commonalities in late Roman funerary decoration and ritual. The painted imagery evoked funerary processes and ongoing social negotiation between the living and the deceased.