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Sarcophagus with the Myth of Pasiphaë: Minos Making a Sacrifice to Poseidon

Roman art

This slab depicts Minos, king of Crete, sacrificing before the temple of Poseidon with a female figure behind him. This is the right-hand side of a sarcophagus partially preserved at the Louvre depicting the myth of Pasiphaë. Pasiphaë, Minos’s wife, was overcome by mad passion for the bull, a gift from Poseidon who had later wanted to take revenge on the king. She then asked Dedalus to build her a hollow wooden heifer inside which she could hide. The result of the union of queen and bull was the Minotaur. In the mid sixteenth century, this sarcophagus appeared in a drawing attributed to Girolamo Ferrari or Antonio Dosio, depicted in the Vatican Belvedere. According to the reports, in 1615 the sculpture was cut into three slabs intended to decorate the newly completed Villa Borghese.

Object details

150-160 secolo d. C.
Luni marble
altezza cm 78; larghezza cm 80

Present in the mid-sixteenth century in the Vatican Belvedere (Robert 1890, p. 8); Borghese Collection, likely mentioned for the first time by Manilli (1650, pp. 33–34, 49). Inventario Fidecommissario Borghese, 1833, C., p. 44, no. 49. Purchased by the Italian State, 1902. 

Conservation and Diagnostic
  • 1996, Consorzio Capitolino


Pasiphaë delighted to become the paramour of the bull;

in her jealousy she hated

the beauteous cows’. 

(Ovid, Ars Amandi I, 437.439) 

This relief was the short, right-hand side of a sarcophagus that displayed the myth of Pasiphaë, the long, front side and the short, left-hand side of which are now housed at the Louvre (Martinez 2004, nos. 0815, 0681; Papadopoulos 1994, p. 197, pl. 131, no. 23). The first depicts various moments of the myth: the commissioning from Dedalus of the wooden simulacrum, its production and its delivery to Pasiphaë; the short, left-hand side shows three male figures which have been interpreted to be the sons of Minos and Pasiphaë (Charbonneaux 1963, p. 229, no. 1933); on the right-hand side, the Borghese piece, we may observe Minos’s sacrifice to Poseidon. In the fourth century BCE, Euripides was the first to tell Pasiphaë’s story in the tragedy The Cretans, of which unfortunately only two fragments have been handed down to us. Between the mid-first and the early second century CE, Apollodorus of Damascus fully detailed the myth: craving the throne of Crete, Minos declares the gods are on his side and to prove this he asks Poseidon to give him a bull; in exchange, he promises to sacrifice the animal. Poseidon grants the man’s prayer and a magnificent bull emerges from the waves, but Minos reneges on his promise. The god is furious and punishes the royal house by instilling Pasiphaë with a mad lust for the bull. To satiate her passion, the queen commissions the Athenian architect Dedalus with the construction of a simulacra of a heifer large enough for her to hide inside of it. From the union of bull and woman, the terrible Minotaur is born (Apollodorus, The Library III, 1).  

The Borghese relief, enclosed in a modern frame, depicts Minos’s sacrifice, which precedes the event described on the main face. The scene takes place in front of the temple of Poseidon, evoked in the decoration of the tympanum by the figure of a Triton whom the king of Crete addresses, followed by a veiled female figure carrying a platter of fruit. The bearded man’s head is bare and he is wearing a long tunic. His left arm is bent; the tunic has slipped down his right arm, which is raised in sign of greeting or avowal. Six steps lead up to the temple, at the entrance of which is a column adorned with a small statue of the child Eros. The figure is holding a small palm branch in its right hand. A tall pine tree closes the scene on the right-hand side.  

In the mid-sixteenth century, the sarcophagus – still whole – was in the Vatican Belvedere: ‘said coffer was placed down in the Belvedere by Pius IIII. it is of good make. Antiquarians say it depicts the story of Pasiphaë when she had the heifer made so she could mate with the bull’ (Robert 1890, p. 8). These annotations, with illustrations, might be observed in the Codex Berolinensis preserved at the Kupferstichkabinett in Berlin. This volume, curated by Antonio Dosio, contains archaeological drawings by the architect himself as well as other artists. In 1890, Carl Robert carried out a broad study of the work and came to the conclusion that these illustrations were the work of Girolamo Ferrari, a Genoese painter who was active during the pontificate of Pope Pius IV. Between 1572 and 1577, the sarcophagus was reproduced in a drawing by Pierre Jacques with the indication ‘in Trastevere’ (Reinach 1902, p. 114, pl. 6). According to Robert and Reinach, the sculpture was separated into panels in 1615 when Villa Borghese was built. The reliefs were observed in the latter location by Iacomo Manilli in 1650. In the scenes decorating the long side, which was set into the fifth arch of the portico, Manilli discerned a representation of Abundance, and in the left-hand, short side, located in the private garden, a seated divinity with two soldiers (Manilli 1650, pp. 33–34, 49). In a seventeenth century drawing, the short, right-hand side adorned one of the side-fountains of the inner garden (Moreno 2003, p. 70, fig. 7). According to Robert, the representation of the sacrifice on the right-hand side is not identifiable in any of the reliefs described by Manilli. Conversely, he postulates that it might have been placed in storage at the Villa, and for this reason escaped the Napoleonic appropriation of 1806 (Robert 1890, p. 14). In Nibby’s 1832 report, the relief was set in the wall in its present location in Room 1 (Nibby 1832, pp. 59–60, no. 5, pl. 16b).  

When it was transferred to the Villa in the early seventeenth century, the sarcophagus was dismembered and its flanks significantly reworked. As for the panel under exam, if we compare it with the sixteenth century drawings, the erasure of a second Eros is clearly visible atop the second column of the temple, as well as the alteration of the head of the remaining small figure, which is now turned to the left. These interventions have made a correct interpretation arduous. 

In 1854, Emil Braun believed the male figure to be the poet Hesiod making a sacrifice in front of the Temple of Eros in Thespiae (Braun 1854, pp. 535–536). Conversely, Nibby speculated that it might be the philosopher Apollonius of Tyana in the act of offering a sacrifice at the temple of Poseidon on the Isthmus, followed by the personification of Pythagorean philosophy. In virtue of this belief, the author asserted that Apollonius could not be performing an animal sacrifice: ‘it appears that this depiction indicates the origins of the philosopher who was born in Tyana with the figure of a woman wearing Cappadocian attire, as well as his philosophy, which did not allow grisly sacrifices’ (Nibby 1832, pp. 59–60, no. 5, pl. 16b). Despite the incorrect interpretation of the subject, the topographic placement appears plausible if we consider Pausanias’s description of this sanctuary at the end of a long line of pine trees, ‘most of which stood tall and straight’, and that the acroteria were decorated with figures of Tritons, here depicted in the tympanum because of an evident lack of space (Pausania, Periegesi della Grecia, 2, 1, 7). Finally, Robert identified the male figure with King Minos and postulated that the woman standing behind him was his elderly mother Europa (Robert 1890, p. 23).  

The sarcophagus was crafted in the mid second century CE.    

Giulia Ciccarello

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  • Scheda di catalogo 12/99000036, G. Ciccarello 2020.