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A Jewish Child’s Portrait? The Kline Sarcophagus of Monteverde and Jewish Funerary Portraiture in Rome

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This article examines the evidence for the use of portrait sculpture on sarcophagi belonging to members of the Jewish community of Rome. The use of the “learned figure” motif, commonly employed in Roman sarcophagus portraiture and by Jewish patrons, is highlighted, and possible creative appropriations of the trope in Jewish contexts are raised. It is further argued that, among Jewish sarcophagus patrons, the decision to include funerary portraiture went hand in hand with the decision to adopt popular and conventional Roman styles and motifs, and to engage Roman cultural and visual resources. In other words, Jewish patrons who chose sarcophagi with portraits also seem to have been the readiest to make use of the visual resources of Roman funerary culture to orchestrate self-narratives on their sarcophagi. Finally, it is cautioned that while the limited examples (five) suggest a mastery of Roman culture and a correspondingly high degree of acculturation among certain Jewish patrons, we should be wary of reading such sarcophagi as evidence of certain Jews abandoning a Jewish identity in favor of a Roman one—or the Jewish community in favor of the Roman polis and its civic structures—as narratives of funerary art never capture the totality of the deceased’s identity.


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