MNR – Aula X: The Rape of Proserpine – I

MNR – Aula X: The Rape of Proserpine – I
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The myth of Proserpine has great relevance in the Roman funerary art. It is encountered very often in epigraphs, urns, altars and the sarcophagi, where her relatives assimilated the sudden and untimely death of a woman to Proserpine’s abduction by Pluto. The sarcophagi decorated with scenes taken from the myth of Proserpine are, at present, about ninety. After the sarcophagi decorated with Dionysiac themes, they form an iconographic group among the most numerous.

The myth
The story of Proserpine being carried off by Pluto, against her will, is not mentioned by Homer, who simply describes her as his wife and queen. The myth of Proserpine abducted by Pluto is told in the Homeric Hymn to Ceres, the latter, mother of Proserpine. The abduction was arranged by Zeus and Pluto without the knowledge of Ceres, Demeter’s Roman equivalent. Zeus, it is said, advised Pluto, who was in love with the beautiful Proserpine, to carry her off, as her mother, Ceres, was not likely to allow her daughter to go down to Pluto.
According to this myth variant, while Proserpine was picking wildflowers amongst maiden goddesses, the earth beneath her feet opened, and the Lord of the Underworld, Pluto, appeared before her, and abducted the young goddess dragging her in his dark kingdom.
Ceres wandered the world searching unavailingly for her beloved daughter. After many days of searching, she learnt from Helios that Pluto abducted her daughter Proserpine with the approval of his father Zeus. Offended by Zeus’ behavior, Ceres, goddess of fertility and of the agriculture, in her grief and loss, withheld from mankind all her benefits, making the earth barren and inflicting famine on men. Terrible disasters hit the earth and, at last, Zeus intervened once again sending Mercury down to the Underworld to fetch Proserpine back to the light of day. But before she left, she ate a pomegranate seed gifted by Pluto to her. Mother and daughter were joyfully reunited on Olympus; but because Proserpine had eaten a pomegranate fruit in the Underworld, she could not leave the place forever and was obliged to spend part of every year with Pluto (either four or six months). This was the cold winter period when seed lay dormant below the earth. In spring she came back once more to warmth and light, and the loving company of her mother. Her return to the living world and the growth of the crops in spring were celebrated in many rites shared by mother and daughter, most famously in the Eleusinian Mysteries and the festival of the Thesmophoria.

The Sarcophagus
The bass-relief on the sarcophagus main side summarizes in three scenes the myth of the Rape of Proserpine. In the left corner Ceres, Demeter’s Roman equivalent, is getting in a chariot pulled by two horses. The goddess, holding a torch in each hand, tries to reach and rescue the daughter kidnapped by Pluto; the cloak swollen behind her shoulders emphasizes the speed of Ceres’ movements. The female figure carved under her chariot represents the Earth Mother Goddess, “Tellus”. In the background, just in front of the chariot, there is the personification of the goddess Darkness, "Caligo", who, lifting a veil, hides the next scene, where Proserpine, scared, knelt with her arms raised in a gesture of fright, is grabbed by Pluto while she is gathering flowers. In the background behind Pluto, the figure of Mercury attending to the attack of Pluto closes the second scene. The figure of Venus opens the third scene. The goddess attempts to stop Minerva who, armed with spear, shield and helmet, tries to prevent the abduction of Proserpine. The god of the Underworld, represented by shoulders, supports with both his arms Proserpina who, with her head thrown back, raises her left arm crying out for help. A small Eros flies over the horses led by Mercury portrayed with wings on his haed and caduceus; under the chariot, a representation of the god Ocean, "Oceanus", is carved symmetrically to “Tellus”. To the far right a young standing man, wearing a clamis, closes the scene; his right arm raised near the head suggests a gesture of pain.
According to its style, the sarcophagus dates from the twenty years 170-190 AD.

Roman Sarcophagus
About 170 – 190 AD
Rome, Museo Nazionale Romano, Terme di Diocleziano

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