A beautifully expressive representation of a reclining Nereid (sea-nymph), probably Thetis, goddess of the water and one of the fifty Nereids, gazing pensively upward in relief, her left hand resting on the tail of a sea creature or that of the sea god Triton. The figure has anatomical strength, imparted by her marine environment, and the sculpture is rendered in fine detail, with a noble face and loose plaited hair falling across both shoulders.
In Graeco-Roman mythic tradition, Thetis was the daughter of Nereus, wife of Peleus, and mother of Achilles. Thetis is mentioned by Homer in the Iliad as the protector of Zeus: ‘You alone of all the gods saved Zeus the Darkener of the Skies from an inglorious fate…’ Perhaps the most celebrated depictions of Nereids in antiquity are the life-sized sculptures from the Nereid Monument from Lycia, now in the British Museum (fourth century BC) and a number of Roman mosaics depict Nereids and other marine subject matter, notably in the Bardo Museum (Tunis) and El Jem Museum.
The goddess frequently appears on sarcophagi with other mythological deities of the sea, notably Peleus, Tritons, and Erotes playing in the currents of the sea, and it is likely that the figure was an element of a broader artistic programme dedicated to marine deities. A prominent theme in such reliefs is the marine thiasos, featuring Neptune, god of the sea, and his wedding to the sea-goddess Amphitrite, attended by Nereids and hippocamps (sea-horses).
Scenes of this character demonstrate the worldview of the aristocrats who commissioned the production of ostentatious commemorative art, expressing that they were well versed in the intellectual knowledge of classical mythology. The depiction of fantastical creatures that were present in both Dionysiac and marine thiasoi, combined with joyful pursuits such as music, dance, eroticism, and ecstasy, represented the sensations of happiness in one’s life that wealthy patrons wished to enjoy in this life and the next, as well as expressing the Romans’ philosophical association between the journey of the soul to the underworld and the belief that encounters with water purified the soul.
A similar relief fragment, depicting a reclining Nereid with a billowing cape, belongs to the collection of the Yale University Art Gallery in New Haven CT (Inv. 1998.23.14, third century AD). A larger fragment in the Hood Museum of Art in Hanover, NH, depicts Nereids with Eros (Inv. S.977.21, mid-second century AD).
A discussion of a Nereid relief fragment is presented by A.M. McCann, Roman Sarcophagi in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, 1978), no. 12, pp. 76-78.
A comprehensive study of the Nereid mosaics in North Africa is presented by M. Blanchard-Lemée, M. Ennaifer, H. Slim, and L. Slim, Mosaics of Roman Tunisia (Tunis, 1995).
For the Homeric reference to Thetis, The Iliad, translated by E.V. Rieu and P. Jones (London, 2014), I.396-406.
For the interpretation of marine scenes on Roman sarcophagi, P. Zanker and B.C. Ewald, Living with Myths: the Imagery of Roman sarcophagi (Oxford, 2012).
with Ariadne Galleries, New York.
Private Collection, New York, acquired from the
Published: Art & Antiques, January and March 1987