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The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium
William TronzoWilliam Tronzo, Anthony CutlerAnthony Cutler


(σαρκοφάγος, lit. “flesh-eater”), trough-shaped stone coffin in widespread use for burial of the dead up to the late 5th C. Christians first took up the form, which had roots deep in antiquity, in the 3rd C. and decorated it with the imagery of the catacombs, embodying, above all, a belief in personal salvation. After Christianity was granted toleration ca.311–13 (see Edict of Milan), sarcophagi came to be embellished with more elaborate and varied programs, for example, the Traditio legis, including outright quotations from other works of art (e.g., apse decoration). In the middle of the 4th C. the method of producing sarcophagi changed fundamentally. Previously mass-produced and thus widely available to even a relatively modest clientele, they became much less common and were mainly custom-made affairs for the very rich. Thus the later history of the form from the 4th to the 10th C. concerns largely a few extraordinarily luxurious pieces (Vatican, Junius Bassus Sarcophagus; Milan, S. Ambrogio—Volbach, Early Christian Art, pls. 41–43, 46f). These were often of porphyry, as for the emperors buried in the Holy Apostles in Constantinople (Grierson, “Tombs am Obits”), which served as an imperial mausoleum until the reign of Constantine VIII.

Later emperors were also interred in sarcophagi. Using the term nekrodegmona (“death receptacle”), Choniates (Nik.Chon. 256.59) reports this manner of burial for Manuel I. The sarcophagus of Theodora of Arta depicts the saint and her son blessed by the Hand of God, but the vast majority of examples of the 11th C. and later—often mere slabs enclosing a space within an arcosolium and therefore sometimes called pseudosarcophagi—are simpler affairs characteristically decorated with crosses, birds, and trees.


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G. Wilpert, I sarcofagi cristiani antichi, 3 vols. (Vatican-Rome 1929–36).Find this resource:

O. Feld, Mittelbyzantinische Sarkophage, RQ 65 (1970) 158–84.Find this resource:

Th. Pazaras, Anaglyphes sarkophagoi kai epitaphies plakes tes meses kai hysteres byzantines periodou sten Hellada (Athens 1988).Find this resource:

William Tronzo, Anthony Cutler