A PALMYRENE STELE OF A WOMAN
3rd Century AD
Limestone with traces of red paint in the inscription
20 inches (50.8 cm) high
16 inches (40.6 cm) wide
8 inches (20.3 cm) in depth
Elias Solomon David (E. S. David), 11 Rue d’ Obligado (now Rue d’Argentine, Etoile), Paris; by 1940
Purchased from the above by Joseph (died 1947) and Ernest Brummer (died 1964), Brummer Gallery, 55 E 57th Street. New York,
September 28, 1940 for $ 400. (cf. Brummer Archive Card at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, no. 4668).
Ernest Brummer sale, Sotheby’s, London, November 16-17, 1964, lot 172); where purchased by:
Private Collector, New York (1964-2018)
Art of the United Nations, M.H. de Young Memorial Museum, San Francisco, May 15 – 30 June 1945 (typescript checklist p. 10 sv Syria)
Dr. Jasper Gaunt has prepared the following entry:
A woman of youthful impression is portrayed, with an elongated face, small mouth with cupid-bow lips and prominent Venus rings on her neck. Her drooping eyes and labeo-nasal markings indicate, however, that she is older than a first glance might suggest. Her hair is parted centrally, arranged in wave-like scallops, and swept upwards to either side in thick spiraling locks. It is kept in place by a turban-like clothe fillet, tied with a central fold or knot.
The canonical inscription, read by Prof. Jean-Baptiste Yon, University of Lyon, is written in the Palmyrene dialect of Aramaic using a semitic alphabet. As on many other examples, traces of red paint are preserved here. The text records the name of the deceased (interestingly with two names), her patronymic, and a lapidary expression of grief:
"Hadirat Katthina (?) daughter of Sha‘ad, alas!"
Jürgen Stark’s standard monograph Personal Names in Palmyrene Inscriptions does not appear to record Kattina, or cognate names. However, Hdyr (compare our Hdrt) is recorded and means “she who is adorned”, while her father’s name is attested in Arabic and Syriac contexts; it means “luck” in Arabic.
Palmyra was a prominent city on the Syrian fringes of the Roman Empire. It lay on the important trading route that led to the adjacent (and usually hostile) Parthian Kingdom. The so-called Tax Law of Palmyra, discovered in 1881 and now in St Petersburg, documents the tariffs levied on goods passing east and west along the caravan routes in the second century AD. So significant was the city that it briefly splintered away from Rome and ruled its own empire until the Emperor Aurelian took control and sacked it in 274 AD.
The inhabitants of Palmyra evidently took pride in commemorating their prominent citizens with portraits. A number of bronze statues were set up on brackets half way up the columns of the colonnades that lined public thoroughfares and provided shade; these of course have not survived. More plentiful was the extensive series of portrait busts like the present example. Carved from local stone, these were intended to seal the ends of niches (loculi) where the remains of the deceased had been laid to rest. Some of these structures were architectural (like the ‘house of eternity’ built by Yarhai son of Elahbel: see fig. 1), while others made use of or adapted pre-existing caves. Several hundred portraits would have been visible to the viewer. Instantly recognizable, these distinctive sculptures reflect local traditions and Eastern ethnicities blended together with elements taken from, or emulating, the higher strata of cosmopolitan Roman society.
Her wardrobe marks our subject as an inhabitant, and with her wealth likely a citizen, of the Eastern (Greek speaking) Roman Empire. Over a long-sleeved dress (chiton) she is enveloped in a fringed mantle (himation) that is also raised as a veil over her head. Her right hand, held at her breast, grips rope-like folds of drapery. Her left, crossed before her, cradles her right elbow. When originally painted, the two pieces of clothing would have been readily distinguished. The arrangement of her hands is derived from Roman sculptural traditions. Maura Heyn has suggested that the gestures convey a sense of the prized Roman virtue of pudicitia – modesty and fidelity.
In keeping with Palmyrene tradition, the subject has adorned herself with jewelry. Her earrings have spherical pendant beads, a type evidently fashionable in Palmyra because they are often depicted on portraits. The short necklace is made up from faceted elements; and a signet ring set with a stone is placed on the small finger of her left hand.
The overall structure of the narrow face and the arrangement of the hair scalloped across her face reflect indebtedness to Roman imperial portraits, like those of Furia Sabinia Tranquillina, the wife of the emperor Gordian III (ruled 238-244 AD) (see fig. 2). Images of imperial family members would have been familiar in Palmyra both from sculpted portraits and, more widely, from coins. Together with her dress and gesture, these elements contribute a sense of aristocratic loyalty towards Roman rule. On the other hand, her family names reveal an altogether different lineage. Her facial features suggest strongly that the sitter came from a family with eastern roots. The turban-like fillet in the hair, the high arching eyebrows, the sagging eyes and the cupid’s bow lips are all more easily paralleled in Gandharan traditions than Roman (see fig. 3). Furthermore, the preferred media for Roman portraits were bronze and marble, not limestone. It is precisely in places like Palmyra, whose wealth was based on travelling merchants, that these seemingly disparate ingredients naturally come together on portraits like this.
Figures above from left to right:
Fig. 1. The tomb, “house of eternity” constructed by Yarhai son of Elahbel at Palmyra. Photo: Judith Weingarten for her blog sv Zenobia, Visionary Queen of Ancient Palmyra, 3 May 2017.
Fig. 2 Palmyrene Stele (detail)
Fig. 3. Portrait of Furia Sabinia Tranquillina, wife of Gordian III,mid 3rd c AD. Rome, Museo Chiaramonti 241. Photo: Tetraktys, Wikipedia.
Fig. 3. Gandharan Bodhisattva Maitreya, 4th century AD. Once Milan market, Renzo Freschi. Photo: Gallery.
Further reading and resources:
The Palmyra Portrait Project, Aarhus (Denmark; director, Rubina Raja Rubina.firstname.lastname@example.org) aims to document all known Palmyrene portraits. It is, however, not yet available online.
Maureen Heyn, “Gesture and Identity in the Funerary Art of Palmyra,” American Journal of Archaeology 114 (2010) 631-661.
The Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Near East, ed. Eric M Meyers. 1997, sv Palmyrene inscriptions.
J.K. Stark, Personal Names in Palmyrene Inscriptions. Oxford 1971.
D.R. Hillers and E. Cussini, Palmyrene Aramaic Texts. Johns Hopkins 1996/
J.F. Healey, Aramaic Inscriptions and documents of the Roman period. Oxford 2009 (online).