From a teensy skeleton to a dog’s tombstone, a tour through the most evocative death-related objects in the Villa collection.
By Annelisa Stephan / 04.20.2015
The Iris Editor
Death is everywhere at the Getty Villa. Every artist represented in this museum of ancient Greek, Roman, and Etruscan art is centuries gone. Every portrait bust, coin, and painting represents the long-deceased. Many of the objects once ornamented a tomb, or survived because they were interred in one. Several are themselves tombs.
In honor of Death Salon Getty Villa, here’s a lively roundup of 15 of the deathiest objects of all, as chosen by Villa curators and educators. Objects are arranged by gallery, so you can begin at ground level and move heavenwards.
Greek Krater with Adonis, Aphrodite, and Persephone
Attic Red-Figure Dinoid Volute Krater and Stand, Attributed to the Meleager Painter, 390-380 BCE, terracotta
Made immortal by the gods, gorgeous Adonis spent half the year with Aphrodite on earth, the other half with Persephone in the afterworld.
Because Adonis crossed between the worlds of death and life, this myth explained the seasons.
Statues of Two Sirens
Sculptural Group of a Seated Poet and Two Sirens with unjoined fragmentary curls, 350-300 BCE, Terracotta with white slip of calcium carbonate and polychromy
The song of the Sirens lured sailors in Homer’s Odyssey to crash and die on hidden rocks. These alluring sirens, paired in a sculpture group with a poet, probably once guarded a tomb.
Sirens are usually depicted as part woman, part bird.
Kylix with Suicide of Ajax
Attic Red-Figured Kylix, Attributed to Brygos Painter, c.490 BCE, terracotta
On this wine-drinking cup, Greek warrior Ajax has fallen on his own sword after losing out on a prize he deserved.
For the ancient Greek hero, suicide was an acceptable response to dishonor.
Gravestone of Sime
Grave Naiskos of Sime, c.320 BCE, marble
This memorial for an ancient Greek mother shows her surrounded by her husband and adult children.
The handshake is thought to represent family unity after death.
Sarcophagus with the Moon Coming to Her Lover
Front of a Sarcophagus with the Myth of Endymion, c.210 CE, blue-gray marble
The moon goddess, Selene, keeps her youthful lover Endymion asleep forever so he won’t age and die. His peaceful sleep is like the eternal slumber of death, only sexier.
To ensure Endymion does not wake, the god of sleep pours poppy juice on him.
Funerary Lion, c.350 BCE, marble
This crouching lion once presided over a family burial plot near Athens, doubling as a status symbol. The animal’s strength and ferocity made it an excellent symbolic guardian.
Ancient Athenian grave monuments got so over the top that they were strictly regulated in 317 BCE.
Gravestone of Helena
Grave Stele For Helena, 150-200 CE, marble
Is this a girl’s headstone or a dog’s? Art historians debate.
Like us, the Romans owned and pampered lapdogs, and sometimes included them in funerary art.
Mummy of Herakleides
Mummy with Cartonnage and Portrait, 50-100 CE, wax tempera and gilding on a wooden panel; linen and encaustic
This young Roman Egyptian, Herakleides, shares his wrapper with another, smaller mummy.
Herakleides received a CT scan at UCLA in 2005.
Mummy Portrait of Isidora
Mummy Portrait of a Woman, 100-110 CE, encaustic on wood; gilt; linen
Romano-Egyptian mummy portraits like this one were inscribed with the names of the deceased to help the spirit reunite with the body.
Hunting for jewelry, early treasure seekers destroyed mummies and left only the portraits behind.
Oil Jar with Family Members Visiting a Grave
Attic White-Ground Lekythos, Painter of Athens 1826, 470-460 BCE, terracotta
A lekythos is a small oil container used in funerary rituals. On the vase, a young man and woman decorate a gravestone with ribbons, oil, and a flower.
This woman’s short hair could be a mourning gesture—or signify her status as a slave.
Statuette of a Dead Youth
Statuette of a Dead Youth, 480-460 BCE, bronze with inlaid copper
This slain young man may represent one of the Niobids, children slain by the gods as punishment for their mortal mother’s boastful pride.
Since ancient times, artists have found beauty in the suffering and release of death.
Clazomenian Sarcophagus, Attributed to the Albertinum Group, 480-470 BCE, terracotta
Burial in fired clay coffins was popular in East Greece in the 500s B.C. At the top of this seven-foot-tall example, two soldiers fight from facing chariots.
This example is rare because it preserves the body box as well as the painted frame.
Painted Wall Panel from a Tomb
Painted Wall Panel, Etruscan, 520-510 BCE, terracotta and pigment
The Etruscans, an ancient people of central Italy, frequently decorated their tombs with wall paintings and ornaments on terracotta tiles. This one shows an ancient athlete.
Etruscan funerary paintings often depict games honoring the dead.
Miniature Skeleton, 1st century CE, bronze
Behold the larva convivalis, a death-themed discussion starter used at Roman dinner parties.
He used to be posable, and could shake and dance.
Sarcophagus with Cupids Treading Grapes
Sarcophagus representing a Dionysiac Vintage Festival, 290-300 CE, marble
Chubby, naked infants make wine on this coffin. The grapevine, reborn annually, symbolizes transcending death.
The word sarcophagus comes from the ancient Greek for “flesh eater.”