The Getty Villa Museum–Part Three– Grave Art

Some of the more colorful and interesting artifacts in the Getty museum fall under the category of grave art.  First of all we have here three sarcophagus top paintings of the persons interred, of course looking much better than they did under the lid.   This type of art was found in Egypt during the Roman period, and the bearded man’s portrait was found on a sarcophagus in Er-Rubyat  (A.D. 140-60). The second portrait is of a youth with a Horus lock (note the two tufts on the otherwise shaved front of his head, with the Horus lock at the back of the portrait). Children named after the god Horus got this sort of haircut, and notice the amulet around his neck, meant to ward off harm.   These paintings were done using the encaustic technique and after death they would be placed over the face of the departed and then bound into the line body wrappings.

The finest and most elaborate of these grave portraits is the third one is of a woman named Isadora from about 100 A.D. or so. What is notable about these portraits is they represent the cross fertilization of Roman and Egyptian cultures and ideals.  Egypt had long since become a Roman province thanks to Julius Caesar and his successors.   The province was a crucial one for it was the breadbasket of the whole Mediterranean, and so there was a very significant Roman presence in Egypt from Caesar’s time onwards, in order to protect this asset.  Of course the story of Caesar and Cleopatra and Marc Antony and Cleopatra is familiar.

Egyptians of course had a much more elaborate and positive set of afterlife beliefs than the Romans, and these portraits were not just memorials, for it was believed that mummy portrait helped the person survive death in physical form by providing a sort of substitute body for the spirit of the departed to inhabit should the corpse itself be destroyed or crumble into dust.   The third picture is of a socially elite and refined woman.  Her name is painted on the left side of the image.   This is what a Roman matron was supposed to look like, and you will notice all her gold jewelry. This is a wealthy family.  The Egyptians, it will be remembered, believed you could ‘take it with you’ and so they were buried with their bling, and other things.

Marble sarcophagi could also be elaborately decorated as the example below demonstrates.   Normally mythological images and cupids abound in such grave art, sometimes even masks for tragedy and comedy from the theatre if the person had been an actor or playwright.

The two marble images at the bottom of this post are noteworthy as grave art.  My personal favorite is the one at the very bottom which depicts  Publius  Curtilius the freedman of  Publius the silversmith  (A.D. 1-25).  This man is depicted as an older man holding the tools of his trade, a chaser tool in one hand and what’s left of a mallet in the other, and perhaps a silver object beneath his right hand.  He proudly wears his formal toga.  These funerary tributes often lined the Via Appia and other major roads where there were graveyards.   It tells us a lot about Roman values that a person would wanted to be represented on his grave stele by indicating the profession he proudly undertook. ‘You are what you do’ seems to be the message,  one Americans would readily recognize.


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