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Bust of Yarhai, son of Elahbel

© 1997 RMN / Hervé Lewandowski

Near Eastern Antiquities
Levant

Author(s):
Benoit Nicolas

This bust of a prominent local figure is a typical example of the funerary sculpture of Palmyra in the early first millennium AD. Such portraits, accompanied by an inscription giving the name and genealogy of the deceased, adorned the stone slabs which sealed the niches (loculi) in the walls of tombs. Dating from the late second century, this bust of Yarhai is striking for the opulence of the subject's dress, and intriguing in its mysterious allusion to the Palmyran priesthood.

The funerary tradition of Palmyra

This bust would have been only one element in the complex funerary practices that characterized Roman Palmyra, and indicates their elaborate nature. Alongside the city's numerous individual pit graves, marked by a simple stone or stele, powerful families erected three distinct types of collective sepulchre. Until the first century, the funerary tower (built over the tomb) coexisted with the hypogeum (a chamber cut into the rock), smaller in size but richly carved. In the second century "temple tombs" appeared, combining Eastern and Graeco-Roman architectural traditions. Founded by a single individual for the members of his family, these collective tombs were considered as properties, parts of which could be let out to other families. They had deep individual niches (or loculi) cut into the walls to accommodate the bodies of the dead, which were sometimes mummified. The opening of the niche would then be sealed with a slab of stone, which in the first century began to be adorned with funerary images. The dimensions of the slab rapidly ensured that busts became the standard form of representation, and it is these that make up the majority of Palmyran sculpture at the Louvre. An inscription in Palmyran (a dialect of Aramaic) gave the name and genealogy of the deceased, in this case "Yarhai, son of Elahbel."

A sculpture of note

A characteristic example of its type, the bust of Yarhai is none the less remarkable in a number of ways. It is distinguished by the unusual opulence of the dress: the overtunic has two bands of embroidered vine-shoots, amongst which putti gather grapes, an exuberance of detail that contrasts with the simplicity of the Greek costume then widespread. Yarhai's dress suggests rather the beauty of oriental textiles, the availability of which is confirmed by fragments found in tombs of the same period. The ring on the little finger of the left hand is by contrast a common feature of these funerary portraits. The same is true of the palm frond, a symbol of social prestige or perhaps of victory over the maleficent forces of the other world. Yarhai's pose, which is not frontal as in many of these reliefs, displays a certain Greco-Roman fluidity and realism, increasingly valued in the second century. Through these details, this work demonstrates that, alongside the standardized funerary busts current in Palmyra at this time, there also existed examples of true portraiture.

Yarhai and the priesthood of Palmyra

One last remarkable feature of this relief lies in the modius, or flat-topped cylindrical headdress, set on a draped pedestal to the subject's right. This headdress, of Persian origin, was the sole feature to distinguish the priests of Palmyra from the laity. Here it is encircled by a laurel wreath, inherited from the Greek tradition; in the middle is the bust of a priest of conventional type, the significance of which remains unclear.
Among surviving depictions of priests, some, probably of Roman or Arab origin, officiate bareheaded, the modius being set down beside them in exactly this way. On the other hand, the beard sported by Yarhai is in principle incompatible with the priesthood, so he may simply have been connected with some cultic activity; or possibly his father Elahbel or another member of the family was a priest

Bibliography

Dentzer-Feydy J., Pic M., Teixidor J., Les Antiquités de Palmyre au musée du Louvre, Paris, Editions de la Réunion des musées nationaux, 1993, p. 190.
MacKay D., "The Jewellery of Palmyra and its Significance", in Iraq, XI, Londres, British School of Archaeology in Iraq, 1949, pp. 160-187.
Starcky J., Gawlikowski M., Palmyre, Paris, Librairie d'Amérique et d'Orient, 1985, pp. 124-133.
Stucky R.-A., "Prêtres syriens : Palmyre, 6", in Syria, 50, Paris, Geuthner, 1973, pp. 163-180.

Technical description

  • Bust of Yarhai, son of Elahbel

    Late 2nd century AD

  • H. 52 cm; W. 44 cm; D. 24 cm

  • Acquired in 1894

    AO 2398

  • Near Eastern Antiquities

    Sully wing
    Ground floor
    Arabia: the caravan cities, Dura-Europus, Palmyra, 3rd century BC–3rd century AD
    Room 20
    Display case 1

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