Limestone funerary portrait of a priest

From Palmyra, Syria, about AD 50-150

A priest holding a ritual bowl

Palmyra, a city in the Syrian desert, grew rich from the caravan trade. It was incorporated into the Roman Empire by the end of the first century AD. The rich tombs of the Roman period that were built outside the city show a fascinating mix of local and Roman influences.

This is a limestone bust from a Palmyrene funerary relief. It decorated the end of a cubiculum or small compartment within a tomb, and represented the dead person. This man is identified by his cylindrical hat (modius) as a priest. He also holds ritual vessels: a bowl, perhaps for fruit or grain, and a jug. On the left of the relief is a female figure wearing the long tunic known as a peplos. She is very much smaller than the priest, and is perhaps his daughter. Wives are frequently depicted beside their husbands on such reliefs, but usually on about the same scale.

The style of this sculpture, with protruding ears and the pupil and iris of the eye represented as engraved concentric circles, shows that it belongs to an early phase in the sculpting of such images.

There was a hierarchy of priests in each temple in Palmyra. One of the best known groups were the priests of Bel, the major deity of the city. They must have performed many of their rituals in the open air within the sanctuary courts. Sculptured monuments show that processions, sacrifices and ritual meals were important. 

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More information

Bibliography

M.A.R. Colledge, The art of Palmyra (London, 1976)

Dimensions

Museum number

ME 125033

WCO24975

Gift of Lady Howard de Walden

Location

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