The carved front--the only sculpted side of this sarcophagus--presents a multilayered, symbolic program: a zodiac ring, containing bust length figures of a couple, is flanked by four winged youths representing the seasons: from left to right, Winter wears leggings and a crown of reeds; Spring has a crown of flowers; Summer, a crown of ears of wheat; and Autumn, a crown of vine leaves.Further figural groups are depicted on a smaller scale in between the seasons: betweem winter and spring, a shepherd milks a goat; between spring and summer, below the zodiac ring, children harvest grapes; and between summer and fall, a reaper gathers wheat. The seasons signify the perennial cycle of Nature, the cyclical renewal of life, and the pastoral scenes refer to the bounty of the earth that may be expected in the elysian fields where a happy after life will be led. The zodiac was a symbol of the realm into which souls might rise and exist in a disembodied state, corresponding to the less material substance expected by many Romans. The combination of concepts of time, space, and sustenance expressed by the images on this sarcophagus reflect a syncretic and intellectualized understanding of post mortal existence. The images are linked to each other in the hope for a happy afterlife (felicitas temporum).
The two "portraits" in the zodiac ring represent the deceased couple, but their features are missing. The husband holds a scroll, symbolizing the ideal of an educated man, homo literatus, while his wife has placed her hand on his chest. The faces are left unfinished, a state seen on many other sarcophagi which has led to various theories. Sarcophagi were ordered during the life time of the patrons, who may have wanted to see their facial details carved later by a portrait specialist. Or, the sarcophagi may have been prefabricated and kept in stock, with the rough busts prepared to be finished on demand. But this does not explain why so many were left unfinished. Another possibility is that the faces were finished to order in plaster and painted, and all this added material has been lost.
In the Roman Empire, seasons sarcophagi were fashionable from the second through the fourth century; the Dumbarton Oaks example stands out because of its exceptionally large size.
P. S. Bartoli and G. P. Bellori, Admiranda Romanarum antiquitatum ac veteris sculpturae vestigia (Rome, 1693), pl. 78.
B. de Montfaucon, Supplément au livre de L'antiquité expliquée (Paris, 1724), 23f., pl. 3.
1738. Inventory of the Collection of Cardinal Francesco Giunore Barberini, Rome.
G. Zoega and T. Piroli, Li bassirilievi antichi di Roma incisi da Tommaso Piroli colle illustrazioni di Giorgio Zoega (Roma, 1808), 222 n. 19.
F. Cumont, "Zodiacus," in Dictionnaire des antiquités grecques et romaines: d'après les textes et les monuments (Paris, 1873-1919), 1058, fig. 7599.
F. Matz and F. K. von Duhn, Antike Bildwerke in Rom, mit Ausschluss der grösseren Sammlungen (Leipzig, 1881) vol. 2, 301f., no. 3016.
E. S. Strong, Apotheosis and After life: Three Lectures on Certain Phases of Art and Religion in the Roman Empire (London, 1915; repr. 1916 and 1969), 228, pl. 32.
F. Cumont, Revue archéologique 4, ser. 5 (1916), esp. 4f. 7, 11, fig. 2.
H. U. von Schoenebeck, "Die christliche Sarkophagplastik unter Konstantin," Mitteilungen des Kaiserlichen Deutschen Archaeologischen Instituts. Römische Abteilung 51 (1936): 238-336, esp. 324f. n. 2, pl. 46.
The Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection of Harvard University, Handbook of the Collection (Washington, D.C., 1946), 19, no. 11, fig. p. 31.
"Reawakening at Dumbarton Oaks: The Golden Glories of the Byzantine and Early Christian Worlds," Art News 45.10.1 (1946): 15-19; 57-59, fig. p. 57.
G. M. A. Hanfmann, The Season Sarcophagus in Dumbarton Oaks, 2 vols. (Dumbarton Oaks Studies, 2), (Cambridge, Mass., 1951), passim.
A. Rumpf, "Review of G.M.A. Hanfmann, The Seasons Sacrophagus in Dumbarton Oaks," American Journal of Archaeology 58 (1954): 176-79.
Van Essen, "Review of G.M.A. Hanfmann, The Season Sarcophagus in Dumbarton Oaks," Archeologia Classica: Rivista dell'Istituto di archeologia della Università di Roma 7.1 (1955): 60, pl. 28.1.
The Dumbarton Oaks Collection, Harvard University (Washington, D.C., 1955), 12, no. 14, fig. p. 25.
G. M. A. Richter, Catalogue of Greek and Roman Antiquities in the Dumbarton Oaks Collection (Cambridge, Mass., 1956), 19-22, no. 12, pl. 8.
Handbook of the Byzantine Collection (Washington, D.C., 1967), 5-6, no. 17.
P. Kranz, Jahreszeiten-Sarkophage: Entwicklung und Ikonographie des Motivs der vier Jahreszeiten auf kaiserzeitlichen Sarkophagen und Sarkophagdeckeln (Die antiken Sarkophagreliefs, 5.4), (Berlin, 1984), no. 34, pls. 39.3, 47.1-4.
"Winter as Attis," Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae, 3 (Zürich, 1986), 30, no. 146.
"Eros/Amor, Cupido," Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae, 3 (Zürich, 1986), 1021, no. 569.
P. Zanker and B. C. Ewald, Mit Mythen Leben: Die Bilderwelt der römischen Sarkophage (Munich, 1984), 170, 257, fig. 228.
G. Bühl, ed., Dumbarton Oaks: The Collections (Washington, D.C., 2008), 36, pl. p. 37.
V. Platt, "Framing the Dead on Roman Sarcophagi," RES Autumn (2012): 213-27, esp. 225.