British Museum collections, £12.99
Height: 9.250 inches
GR 1805.7-3.451 (BM Cat Sculpture 2448)
Marble relief with two theatre masks
Roman, 2nd century AD
This finely carved marble relief shows a tragic and a comic theatre mask side by side. The comic mask, represented in three-quarter view, is bearded and crowned with a wreath of ferula (giant fennel), a plant sacred to Bacchus, the Roman god of theatre (Greek equivalent Dionysos).
Ancient theatre masks covered the actor's face entirely, so a large opening for the mouth was needed to allow the audience to hear the actor's voice. The masks also had highly exaggerated facial features that compensated for the fact that the actor's own expressions could not be seen. In the fifth century BC, standard mask forms became common for specific roles, with the specific features of each reflecting the character of the figure being played. These features also reflected physiognomic theories current at the time, most notably those formulated by the Greek philosopher Aristotle.
Reliefs of this kind, with representations relating to the theatrical world, were often found in the villas and gardens of wealthy Romans, where they evoked an atmosphere of Greek culture and proclaimed the sophisticated intellectual interests of their Roman owners.
A.H Smith, A catalogue of sculpture in -2, vol. 3 (London, British Museum, 1904)