Beautiful People: Ancient faces

Beautiful People

Ancient faces

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“The floral wreath atop his head alludes to the Wreath of Justification, that identified him with the sun god and indicated that he has made a successful transition to the afterlife...”

One of the goals of mummification and its associated rites was to preserve the body for the deceased’s ka, or life force. Much care was also taken to create other funerary equipment such as masks, sarcophagi, and statuary with lifelike images of the deceased, which could act as a substitute for the body should harm befall the actual mummy. These masks covered the head (and sometimes shoulders) and served to protect the head of the mummy both functionally and magically. Often created of cartonnage, elite versions could be gilded. A gold color was used because of the ancient Egyptian belief that the skin of the gods was made of gold, an imperishable and brilliant material.

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The influence of Roman funerary art and practices is very much apparent in this mask, which displays facial proportions and modeling derived from the Roman tradition of realistic portraiture rather than idealizing Egyptian prototypes. Made of plaster and hollow inside, the mask is carefully molded and painted, with gilded skin, and dark, painted hair further embellishing its striking visage. The man has short, curly hair and wears a floral wreath atop his head. It alludes to Wreaths of Justification, red or gold crowns that identified the deceased with the sun god and indicated that he or she had made a successful transition to the afterlife.

This mask, which belonged to an anthropoid sarcophagus, was probably covered with stucco and then painted in several colors. It was fixed to the cover by wooden plates inserted in the holes still visible and drilled asymmetrically near the temples. The interior of the mask is hollow and certainly intended to be placed on the body of the sarcophagus and to adapt to the shape of the mummy. The represented figure, who was not wearing a beard, is wearing a smooth wig, the upper part of which can be seen thanks to the line drawn in relief above the forehead. Despite a slight asymmetry, the face presents soft lines and shaped with precision and expertise; the idealized and somewhat impersonal expression prevents him from assigning a specific age. The eye contour and the sinuous lines of the eyebrows (which, according to the Egyptian iconographic tradition, are extended by a thick line stretching to the temples) are in slight relief: in reality, the Egyptians made up their eyes with kohol, a black substance which protected them from the sun and the dryness of the desert climate of these regions. In each eye, the iris and the pupil retain some traces of polychromy (black). The outline of the nose is well traced, the lips are fleshy. The ears are well rendered and superimposed on the hairstyle.

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Quality wood is rather scarce in Egypt, sculptors and carpenters were forced to resort to imports from abroad to produce good quality objects. Despite this, wooden sculptures have a great and long tradition in Egyptian art, since the first wooden statuettes already date from the beginning of the historical period; but the panoply of wooden objects is not limited only to the figurative arts, since there are domestic or working tools, feminine toiletries, or musical instruments, etc. Even if wood is a perishable material, its use provided significant advantages: lighter and easier to work, it also made it possible to compose statues in several elements and especially to paint them with a rich polychromy, after having coated them with stucco.

“The slight “smile” is often interpreted as the artistic manifestation of a feeling of inner peace...”

The features reflected in the modeling of this marble head are undoubtedly individual and suggest a portrait; all characteristics lead to conclude that this is most probably the image of the Ptolemaic queen, Arsinoe II. Daughter of the first kings of the Hellenistic Egypt, Ptolemy I and Berenice I, she got married Lysimachus, one of the successors of Alexander the Great, and became queen of Thrace, Asia Minor and Macedonia. After his death, she arrived in Alexandria and married her own brother Ptolemy II, a customary practice in Egypt; both were given the epithet Philadelphoi (sibling-loving). She acted alongside her brother in public and ritual life; she contributed significantly to foreign policy.

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Her portraits are testified, first of all, in coinage and also in the relief ceramic and works of glyptic. Several marble heads have been attributed as Arsinoe’s images, some shaped in the apparent Egyptian or Greek Classicizing style; however, none is so close to the queen’s established iconography as this present one. Although it could be a posthumous image (slightly idealized and rejuvenated), it reproduces precisely her large, wide-open eyes outlined by low eyebrows, a long nose making line with her forehead in characteristic oblong contour; full and slightly parted lips, a firm chin, and Venus rings on the neck.

Her hairstyle is arranged in several coiled braids (the so-called Melonenfrisur). Above the forehead there is a diadem of intricate design. It is a sign of royal distinction and an exquisite piece of jewelry which would combined gold and precious stones, most probably garnet cabochons. Highly stylized in the marble carving, the diadem consists of a Herakles knot of interlocking loops, pilaster capitals with volutes, all separated by the horizontal links, and woven gold braids on both sides.

As typical for many marble works produced in Alexandria and Hellenistic Egypt, only the front half of the head was carved from the exported, and expensive, white marble; the back side usually covered by a veil in the female representations was modeled in painted plaster, wood or limestone. Another feature is typical for the assembling of large-scale statues, when the head with the neck carved from a separate block of marble was inserted into a special cavity on the top of the figure (sometimes made form a different kind of marble which produced a coloristic effect of the entire sculpture).

Images of Arsinoe II appear on the series of relief faience vessels, specifically on the oinochoai made as libation jugs associated with the royal cult, the Arsinoeia (testified by the inscribed dedications). The figure of the queen is shown standing frontally, wearing Greek dress (chiton, himation), holding a cornucopia in one hand and pouring a libation form a phiale in another hand; the arm is extended toward a sacrificial altar. Because of such a composition, the head is turned to the side following the direction of the arm with the bowl. It could be that the present head belonged to the statue of similar composition (as the position of the head and the neck demonstrates the turn of the head toward figure’s right) and design, and could represent Arsinoe-Isis or Arsinoe-Tyche.

The right ear was not carved from the same block of marble (if shown, it could be made in plaster along with the veil) while the left is prominently modeled. The latter has a hole in the lobe made for the placement of an earring of gold or gild bronze. There are also two holes below the ear on the neck, apparently made to affix an attribute. Following the unique iconography of the queen, this could be a small horn which appears below her ear on coinage (gold octadrachms and silver decadrachms). They were issued in the name of his sister and wife by Ptolemy II Philadelphos shortly after Arsinoe’s death, probably in 268 B.C. The queen wears stephane; the veil covers her head and the neck leaving the horn at the ear clearly visible, which is thought to be the sign of the queen’s association with the Egyptian powerful god Amun or Khnum. This was also a political reference to the Ptolemies’ succession of Alexander the Great and his deification. Alexander was greeted as a son of the syncretic god Zeus-Amun at the oracle of Zeus Amun in Siwa. His image as Amun with horns appears on the coins minted by Lysimachus, the first husband of Arsinoe.

As Arsinoe was deified during her lifetime, her honorific statues were erected in Egypt and many places throughout the Hellenistic world. She was worshipped as Isis, Tyche, goddess of good fortune and fate, Artemis, and Aphrodite.

“As Arsinoe was deified during her lifetime, her honorific statues were erected in Egypt and many places throughout the Hellenistic world...”

This head has a rounded neck so as to be inserted into a bust or a statue. The man has a pronounced, aquiline nose. His eyes, carved in a crescent-moon shape, have a calm and intense expression. His flat hairstyle, with thin feather-like locks, is parted in three sections above the forehead. On the crown, the hair is disheveled. The eyebrows are rendered by herringbone-shaped incisions. The figure is characterized by a headband, thinner at the back of the head where it is fastened in a “Heracles knot”. Thin lines suggest that it was prepared for gilding. Two holes in the skull were used to attach another ornament. Ancient repairs are still visible on the left ear and on the neck. The style of this head, somewhat rough in workmanship, cannot be easily determined. It should likely be dated to the mid-3rd century A.D., considering especially the treatment of the short, thin hair, with the locks indicated by small irregular incisions.

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As for the identity of the figure, one thinks of a priest because of the type of headband: he was committed to the service of a particular deity, currently impossible to identify, perhaps originating from the East. In Latin, a priest is a sacerdos, “a person who makes holy”. In Rome, like in pagan societies in general, priests did not have a specific spiritual mission. They simply were the guarantors of the worship in which they officiated. They did not belong to a caste and their role was not incompatible with participation in civil life: many of them also served in the judiciary court or in other public office. For instance, the orator Cicero was an augur and Julius Caesar a great Pontiff.

It is also worth noting a typological similarity of the profile of the head with the monetary portraits of Gordian II, who reigned as an emperor only three weeks between March and April 238 A.D.: unfortunately, this figure, the son of the senator and Emperor Gordian I (both reigned at the same time, the father, too old, having associated his son to his principality), has no official and unanimously attested portraits.

“He is differentiated by his headband which is thinner at the back of the head where it is fastened with a “Heracles knot”...”

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