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The Boston Globe

Theater & art

Frame by Frame

Finding eternal love at the MFA

Museum of Fine Arts

This one goes out to my wife, an Aussie beach girl in Somerville, and as far as I am concerned, the star of the show around here. It’s a few days late for Valentine’s Day, and the subject matter — a coffin — is ever-so-slightly morbid, I admit. But this ancient Etruscan sarcophagus happens to be one of the prize objects in the Museum of Fine Arts, and it’s as moving a testament to love as I can imagine.

Carved from travertine, it’s around 2,300 years old, and its lid holds a married couple carved in an eternal embrace.

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Designed for Larth Tetnies and his wife, Thanchvil Tarnai, it’s actually one of a pair of large sarcophagi at the MFA, both of which have recently undergone two years of scrupulously attentive conservation. (Every marriage should be so lucky.)

The second, which is not on display at present, is carved from volcanic tuff. Its inscription identifies it as the coffin of Larth Tetnies’s parents, Ramtha Vishnai and Artnh Tetnies.

Both pieces are unprecedented. No other surviving examples of expensive, full-size ancient sarcophagi have depictions of embracing couples on their lids.

In both cases, the couples appear nude, or mostly nude, beneath a shared bedsheet. In each case, the lovers’ arms softly envelop their partners’ necks and torsos in a beautiful expression of mutual intimacy.

But they’re also significantly different. As Phoebe Segal, assistant curator of Greek and Roman art at the MFA, and Mei-An Tsu, associate objects conservator at the museum, explained in an article in Apollo magazine last year, the hairstyles, the jewelry, and the blockier bodies of Larth’s parents are typically Etruscan. Their embrace, too, is more intimate and naturalistic. Their feet, for instance, protrude endearingly from beneath the sheet at one end of the sarcophagus.

In the sarcophagus at left, the man’s beard and the woman’s hair are conspicuously Greek in style, suggesting either a Greek carver or an attempt to employ a Greek idiom to reflect higher social status (think 19th-century Russians speaking French). Their bodies are more slender and classically proportioned, and there is a slight distance between them that suggests a certain formality.

And yet still, how tender it appears; how adoring, respectful, and unillusioned. More Molly and Leopold Bloom, I like to think (“as well him as another,” mumbles Molly) than Romeo and Juliet.

Both sarcophagi have elaborately carved imagery on the sides and ends, and on this one, the subjects are typically Greek. All these carvings were originally painted in vivid colors. The recent conservation project found exciting evidence of Egyptian blues and vermilions and red meander patterns long since worn away.

The Etruscans put a lot of effort into preparing for the afterlife. They painted the interior walls of their tombs and furnished them with beautiful objects.

None of us can know whether they were lucky enough in the end to enjoy the fruits of their labors. What we can say is that those efforts weren’t wasted, if only because they remind us that — even in the face of death — “this,” as the novelist Ian McEwan wrote, “is really all we’ve got, this increase, this matter of life loving itself; everything else we have has to come from this.”

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.
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