The Alexander Sarcophagus

Is this Alexander the Great’s tomb?

(public domain photo)

No.  They call it the Alexander Sarcophagus because the relief that decorates it is about him and his soldiers.

That’s Alexander on the beautiful horse, with a lion-skin for a cap.

800px-Alexander_Sarcophagus wiki

(Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license photo)

He is spearing a Persian soldier during the Battle of Issus. His little metal spear and the horse’s bridle were stolen long, long ago.  There are impressive battle scenes on two sides of the sarcophagus.

(Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license photo)

And on the other two there are hunting scenes.  Alexander’s Greek soldiers are hunting lions and deer.

(public domain photo by Giovanni Dall’Orto)

If it wasn’t Alexander’s tomb, then whose was it?
No one knows—perhaps a king of one of the new territories (Sidon, in present-day Lebanon) Alexander had recently conquered.  The sepulchre was carved just a few years after Alexander’s death.  It got buried and was unearthed only in the nineteenth century.

Where is it now?
In the Archaeology Museum of Istanbul. They call it the Mona Lisa of their “Louvre”—their most spectacular piece.

The sculptor, whoever he was, was one of the best there ever was. Relief sculpture has its own problems and this man solved them all with a magic touch.
Then either he or some other craftsman painted the figures. The colors are mostly worn away but a modern scholar recently made plaster copies and painted them with what he believes are the original colors.  This is his version.

Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license photo.

Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license photo by Giovanni Dall’Orto.

See more on these and other painted Greek statues here.

Read more on the Alexander Sarcophagus at the Istanbul Archaeological Museums page.


Didn’t Alexander the Great have a sepulchre?
Yes, in Alexandria, Egypt, the city he founded.   When Caesar Augustus was there 250 years after Alexander died, the Egyptians opened it and showed him the remains of the great conqueror.
See that story here.


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7 Responses to The Alexander Sarcophagus

  1. erikatakacs says:

    Wow, high relief at its best. Just amazing. I’m glad the colours are worn away though. The bright colours work against the forms and even hurt the dynamic battle scene. I’m most impressed with the dead soldier on the collapsing horse. Thanks for showing this to us!

    • 100swallows says:

      Thanks, Erika: I can’t believe those are the original colors. They don’t show the same kind of sensitivity as the sculpture–such glaring blankets of color. The Middle Ages polychromes show how good painters colored figures and there’s no reason to think the Greek artists would have done a less sensitive job. Maybe these were an undercoating.
      And it’s true that they actually take away from the sculpture. Those best-ever sculptors could not possibly have consented to such brutish work on the part of the painter.
      I’m not sure which figure you say you admire, since the man on the collapsing horse isn’t dead, is he? I keep admiring the dead body of the Persian soldier under Alexander’s horse.

  2. erikatakacs says:

    He looks dead to me. Or maybe just unconscious? The other soldier is trying to protect him with his shield and help him with the other hand. That’s my reading, I don’t know.

  3. erikatakacs says:

    Forgot to tell, it’s the third picture from top, top right corner. Doesn’t that limp arm look familiar? It reminds me of David’s The Death of Marat.

    • 100swallows says:

      Erika. Yes, now I see. I had the wrong Persian soldier. There are several good dead men in these scenes. Don’t you have the feeling that those artists had actually seen real fighting?
      Yes, it looks just like that arm of Marat’s in David’s picture. Coincidence, I guess.

  4. erikatakacs says:

    “There are several good dead men”. Now that’s funny.
    Yes, the battle scenes are so realistic and convincing as if the sculptor himself saw it or even took part in it.

  5. J.B.Z says:

    i dont get it is it alexander the greats actuall tomb? or is it someone elses with carvings of his battles on it?

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