Ancient World, Antiquities, Getty Villa, J. Paul Getty Museum

Power in a Mummy Portrait

Look closely at this beautiful mummy portrait on display at the Getty Villa and you’ll find powerful signs of wealth, status, and beauty

Mummy Portrait of Isidora / Isidora Master

Mummy Portrait of a Woman (detail), about A.D. 100–110, attributed to the Isidora Master. Linen, pigment, and gold; encaustic on wood, 18 7/8 x 14 3/16. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 81.AP.42

Artists have a impressive bag of tricks when it comes to displaying the wealth of subjects they depict. This mummy portrait of a woman, a Romano-Egyptian death portrait that once adorned the mummy of an elite woman, is a good example.

From her gold and silver hair pins, to the cascading pearl earrings as bright as the subject’s eye, to the three stacked necklaces, Isidora, as she was called, is—to use an art-historical term—blinged out.

Not all signs of Isidora’s affluence hit you over the head. The unknown artist used color, tone, and lines to get at a more subtle way of showing power.

For one thing: Her skin tone, in comparison to other mummy portraits in the same gallery, is much lighter. That may be a result of makeup, or it may be her real skin tone, says Eric Bruehl, education specialist at the Getty Villa. In either case it indicates a wealthier woman, someone who wasn’t out in the sun all the time.

She also appears to be wearing a cloak of purple, a color that has always had a strong association with royalty.

The artist also added subtle but intentional lines around her neck. These “venus rings” hint at both her age and her size. “She’s probably a well-fed, healthy woman, which certainly would have been attractive two thousand years ago,” says Eric.

Centuries after her portrait was painted, Isidora still seems self-assured. “She knows exactly who she is,” adds Eric. “And she’s very, very proud of it.”

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      All Hail Tiberius, Least Media-Savvy of the Roman Emperors

      Tiberius was proclaimed Roman emperor on September 17 in AD 14, exactly 2,000 years ago.

      He was also a bit wacko. “He was the least media-savvy emperor you could imagine,” says curator David Saunders, who has been in charge of this bronze portrait of Tiberius which leaves us on September 22. He point to this description found in the writings of Cassius Dio:

      Tiberius was a patrician of good education, but he had a most peculiar nature. He never let what he desired appear in his conversation, and what he said he wanted he usually did not desire at all. On the contrary, his words indicated the exact opposite of his real purpose; he denied all interest in what he longed for, and urged the claims of what he hated. He would exhibit anger over matters that were far from arousing his wrath, and make a show of affability where he was most vexed…In short, he thought it bad policy for the sovereign to reveal his thoughts; this was often the cause, he said, of great failures, whereas by the opposite course, far more and greater successes were attained.

      Moreover, David tells us, “Tiberius’s accession itself was a farrago: Tiberius sort-of feigning reluctance, the Senate bullying him, he being all, ‘Well, if-I-have-to,’ and in the end—according to Suetonius—saying he’ll do it as long as he can retire.”

      Suetonius is full of great, albeit spurious, anecdotes about poor old Tiberius, David reports. “When someone addressed him as ‘My Lord,’ it is said, Tiberius gave warning that no such insult should ever again be thrown at him.”

      Happy accession, My Lord!

      Portrait Head of Tiberius (“The Lansdowne Tiberius”), early 1st century A.D., Roman. The J. Paul Getty Museum

      Statue of Tiberius (detail), Roman, A.D. 37, Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei – Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli, Laboratorio di Conservazione e Restauro. Currently on view at the Getty Villa following conservation and study.

      09/17/14

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