Ritualising the dead: decorated marble cinerary memorials in the context of early Imperial culture and art
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Mowat, Fiona Anne
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This thesis explores the imagery of funerary ritual that expresses the commemoration of both the living and the dead in the art of the marble cinerary memorials of the early Empire. This group of objects includes decorated marble artefacts associated with cremation burial between the Augustan period and the reign of Antoninus Pius: ash chests (or cineraria); ash altars and grave altars (with or without ash cavities); as well as round urns and vase-shaped urns. The iconography chosen for cinerary memorials by individuals in the early Empire reflects those individuals’ concerns to remember families and friends and in turn to be remembered. This research approaches the analysis of funerary iconography holistically as embedded in its contemporary culture, as opposed to the focus on the art of various sub-cultures of Roman society, seen in recent scholarship. Items with adequate ancient provenance are used to create a sample dataset that represents individuals that belong to a middle to high income-group of society, individuals that are united through their ability to pay and commission these memorials, rather than by class. The epigraphic material, studied alongside the tomb analysis, indicates that this socio-economic group included people of different legal statuses: slaves, freed-people, non-elites and known-elites. Thus we are able to examine how artistic motifs, and also imperial iconography and culture, were received by a cross-section of society. The use of semiotics allows symbols to be analysed in conjunction with other methods such as examining narration and abstraction. This theoretical framework results in the extraction of meaning from seemingly generic motifs and connects this interpretation with contemporaneous cultural norms. Using these methods and the sample dataset, the memorial typology is examined as indicative of a focal point for funerary cult, through the connection between the object as a replacement altar for ritual, and as a house or shrine for the commemoration of the dead. The iconography associated with the memorials therefore relates to both the ritual context (garlands and other ritualistic motifs) and to the object as a small building (the architectonic façade and doors; garden and vegetative iconography). It also relates to the commemoration of the dead (portraiture and honorific iconography) and in particular to the idea of the spirit or manes of the deceased as being immortalised through the memorial (underworld and mythological iconography). All elements, then, point to the focus of the object in funerary ritual which enables the living to honour the spirit of the deceased and acts as a memento of family and friends, bringing together both the living and the dead in art and inscription.