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Department of Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities: Roman Art
© 1996 RMN / Hervé Lewandowski
Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities
The five-line inscription engraved on the pedestal tells us that Melitine was a priestess in the temple of the Great Goddess at Piraeus. The provincial nature of this work can be seen in the stylization of the folds of the cloak and the realism of the figure, which is more marked than those created from official models during the same period.
A non-idealized representation
This is a portrait of a mature woman. Her hair, held in place by a chignon and organized in neat waves, frames a serious face in which the marks of time are unsparingly depicted. The asymmetry of the features is a particular indication of just how lifelike this portrait is.
The bust, draped in a cloak that covers a tunic, appears to emerge from a bouquet of acanthus leaves. An ancient Greek inscription on the pedestal reveals the identity of the person:
"Under the archonship of Philistides, Melitine, daughter of Primos of the demos of Peania, has consecrated [this bust], having served as priestess, with Philemon, son of Praxiteles of the demos of Phlya, serving as priest."
Priestess of Demeter
This bust was found in Piraeus, in the ruins of the Metroon, a temple dedicated to Demeter. Melitine probably held the post of priestess for a year before returning to private life. In the ancient Greek world, the function of priestess was not a calling, but rather a position similar to that of a judge, and it was not for life. Priesthood was available to all citizens of both sexes, and basically consisted in ensuring the proper performance of rituals and maintaining the temple. A priestess did not preach; rather, in a religion founded on ritual observation, her role in the organization of these rituals made her a crucial part of religious life.
The inscription tells us that the bust was sculpted after Melitine had quit her position as priestess, and it is quite likely that it was made after her death. Indeed, bouquets of acanthus leaves are found on certain funerary busts: the acanthus is a plant whose leaves are perennial, and thus a symbol of eternal life.
An exceptional and well-attested piece
The arrangement of Melitine's hair is reminiscent of simpler portraits of Faustina the Younger, wife of Marcus Aurelius (161-180 AD). In Roman-era portraits of women, there is a tendency to copy the hairstyle of the reigning emperor's wife. In addition, the arrangement of the drapery across the chest is typical of portraits from the second century AD.
The date ascertained from comparing this piece with other second-century works can be refined even further thanks to the inscription, which makes reference to the archonship of Philistides. Lists of the archons have come down to us, and it is possible to precisely date each archonship. Philistides exercised this function in 163/164 AD. This is the date that has been retained for the creation of the portrait of Melitine.
It was probably created in the region of Piraeus. The tendency toward schematization, quite clear in the treatment of the folds of the cloak, as well as a severity of expression that is quite different from the idealization of imperial Antonine statues, tells us that this was a provincial creation.
BibliographyH. Jucker, Die Bildnisse im Blätterkelch, Lausanne et Fribourg, 1961, n 45 , p. 97, pl. 38
K. de Kersauson, Catalogue des portraits romains, II, Paris 1996, n 139, p. 308
H. 70 cm
Found in 1855. Marquise de Vassoignes sale, 1914
Priestess of the Poraeus Metroum
N° d'entrée MND 1014 (n° usuel Ma 3068)
Roman art. Rome and the provinces in the 3rd century AD
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