Head of a Priest

Roman; Palmyrene
c. 150–250 CE
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General Description

This Roman imperial portrait head, which is in excellent condition, straddles two areas of the Museum's ancient art collection: Roman portraiture and Near Eastern art. Roman portraits from the late second to the early fourth century A.D. are frequently masterpieces of subtle modeling and expressive psychology. The native Roman taste for realism in portraiture was broadened to include suggestions of personality and even religious temperament during this period. The face and hair of this portrait head are carved with the rich, sensuous realism of portrait sculpture in this cosmopolitan era of the Roman Empire. However, the priestly role represented by the man's conical headdress is specific to the Asian parts of the Roman Empire.

The conical headdress goes back centuries in Near Eastern religious art. Originally the mark of a divinity, by the time of the Roman Empire it was the regalia of priests of various Syrian and Anatolian deities. A priest of the Anatolian mother-goddess Cybele in the museum in Ostia, Italy, wears such a headdress. The well-known frescoes from a synagogue in Dura-Europus, Syria, now in the Damascus museum, also show priests wearing such headdresses. However, the idealized nude Greek figures ornamenting the headdress on the Dallas Museum of Art head represent a complete fusion of Near Eastern beliefs and Greco-Roman style. The incised eyes, which give the figure a hypnotic intensity, are typical of such late Roman portraits and are often emphasized to suggest the spiritual state of the person represented. The syncretic character of religion and culture in the eastern parts of the Roman Empire are well represented by this handsome head. It carries on the tradition of Roman portraiture, represented by the Dallas Museum of Art's two great second-century portraits of two young men [1984.163 and 1981.169].

Adapted from

Anne R. Bromberg and Karl Kilinski II, Gods, Men, and Heroes: Ancient Art at the Dallas Museum of Art. (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1996), 100.