Cinerary Urn
Third – second century BCE
Terracotta, paint
H: 21 in (53.3 cm), W. 18 in (45.7 cm), D: 9 7/8 in (25.1 cm) 

Etruscan Cinerary Urn

This mold-made, terracotta urn from the Chiusi region of Etruscan Italy once held the cremated remains of the deceased.  The Etruscans, who settled in northern Italy, interacted with both the Greeks in southern Italy and the Romans in central Italy.  Although this form of cinerary urn is distinctively Etruscan, details of its imagery demonstrate that an exchange of ideas flowed freely between artists from these cultures. A sculpted relief on the front of the piece depicts the story of two brothers, Eteocles and Polyneices, battling one another for the right to rule Thebes; the pair of winged females flanking the central scene reflect an Etruscan addition to the otherwise Greek myth.  The lid is surmounted by a sculpted representation of the deceased, an unbearded man holding a phiale (offering bowl).  The presentation of this man follows Etruscan tradition, but he is, in fact, largely indistinguishable from portraits of Roman men from the same time.

Etruscan cinerary urns were made from both terracotta and limestone. Regardless of the material used, all urns were painted.  The surface of this chest retains traces of red paint, which was used as a primer for the application of brightly-colored pigments.  Similar urns that preserve more of their original pigment indicate that different shades of blue, red, orange, yellow, green, brown, and whites were used.  It is likely that the hair of the figures was painted brown, yellow was used for the helmets and shields of the warriors as well as the boots, belts, and wings of the female figures, and a combination of reds and blues adorned the dress and armor of the warriors.  The colors used by the Etruscans to decorate their cinerary urns reflect a palette similar to that of Etruscan monumental tomb painting. Taken together, monumental painting and polychromed sculpture provide a fairly complete picture of Etruscan uses of color, at least in the funerary sphere.

Location: 2nd floor, gallery

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Cite As

"Etruscan Cinerary Urn" (64.123). Bloomington: Indiana University Art Museum, 2014.