The Farnese Sarcophagus is one of the most important works of art in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Its glorious images of cavorting satyrs and maenads has inspired generations of artists, collectors, conservators, and viewers.
This large, rectangular marble coffin was created in the area of Rome in the late Severan period, around 225 AD. The occupants of the monument are unknown, since the lid was lost or destroyed. It was rediscovered in Tivoli in about 1535 and its beauty inspired Renaissance artists.
Satyrs, minor deities who are part man and part beast, and maenads, female followers of the wine god, Dionysus, grace the sides of the sarcophagus. While the maenads harvest grapes, satyrs interrupt their work by flirtatiously pulling at their garments and exchanging amorous glances with them. Dionysian revelry was a popular theme on ancient Roman sarcophagi. The harvest of the wine alludes to the cycle of life, and the joyful imagery reminds the living they should “carpe diem,” or seize the day, while they still can.
In 1897, American scholar Richard Norton encouraged Isabella Stewart Gardner and her husband John L. Gardner, Jr. to purchase the 7,500 lbs. sarcophagus in 1897, writing that “even Boston would [not] object to its frank by slight sensuality.” Isabella installed it in the courtyard of her museum in 1901.
In 2018, Gardner Artists-in-Residence, the OpenEnded Group created a new video installation, Maenads and Satyrs, inspired by the sarcophagus.