Palmyra Faces That Belong to Eternity

By Zibawi, Mahmoud | UNESCO Courier, June 1997 | Go to article overview

Palmyra Faces That Belong to Eternity


Zibawi, Mahmoud, UNESCO Courier


Palmyra, "city of palms", was founded in an oasis between the Orontes and the Euphrates in the heart of the Syrian desert towards the end of the third miLLennium B.C. It was the capital of Palmyrene, an ally of Rome at the beginning of the Roman empire (late 1st century B.C.). It enjoyed a golden age during the reign of Zenobia in the third century A.D., until it was sacked by the Roman emperor Aurelian in 273. In the foLLowing centuries it recovered some of its importance, but never again played its former role. Its ruins are among the most important of late Antiquity. One original feature of PaLmyra is funerary sculpture whose hieratic images and spiritual intensity transcend Greek, Roman and Persian influences and foreshadow Byzantine art.

The finest specimens of Palmyrene sculpture were produced during the first three centuries of the Christian era, at a time when the pax romana encouraged long-distance trade. They belong to the art of the Roman Middle East, where Hellenistic influence prevailed in an area stretching from Egypt to the borders of Mesopotamia. The blending of civilizations and cultures in the melting pot of the Roman Empire infused a new spirit into art. The classical models of Rome, which still lived on, were taken up and recreated rather, than imitated. The art of Palmyra incorporates features that came from the Persian empire, while also displaying the influence of local Syrian and Mesopotamian traditions and of Oriental traditions in general.

A salient feature of this sculpture is that each figure is presented frontally and as an individual. This concern for individuality is particularly noticeable in the funerary statues, in which Palmyrene sculptors gave their own twist to classical Roman portraiture, which in the second century A.D. was moving away from realism towards idealization. The extraordinary variety of types produced by the realism of early Roman statuary is replaced in the imperial period by a gallery of idealized portraits. Strict individual resemblance is abandoned. Artists depict personages with imaginary features. Figures from the past .and portraits of contemporaries are reinvented. Rulers and subjects alike are shown with divine attributes and are masked with idealized faces.

This trend in Roman statuary had a profound effect in the eastern provinces of the Roman empire. Emphatic stylization deliberately transgressed the canons of naturalistic beauty. An attempt was made to purge the human face of earthly affinities and invest it with celestial qualities. In the painted portraits of Fayoum in Egypt and the stone carvings of cities in the Arab desert alike, the face is shown as transcending place and time. With its thin lips, sharp nose, inordinately enlarged eyes and open gaze, it belongs to eternity.

HOUSES OF ETERNITY

Palmyrene sculpture takes this stylistic evolution to its highest point. In the hypogea, underground burial vaults known as "houses of eternity" are a pleiad of faces carved in rock. On each tomb is a stele depicting the deceased full-length or as a bust. In accordance with the convention of frontality, the figures face out to us, almost always in high or low relief (sculpture in the round is very rare in Palmyrene art). Their idealized and youthful faces fit into a conventional mould and all possess similar features. Men, women and children are depicted as types. Veils and curls of hair frame oval faces. The features are simplified; movement is restrained; expression is concentrated.

Contemplation is the sole form of action. Two concentric circles (the iris and the pupil) represent the eye. The pupils are frozen between the eyelids. "These enormous eyes, as unreal as the folds of the robe, seem to want to pour forth a torrent of life, and they alone perform the magic task of giving life to a bust which otherwise lacked all semblance of being," wrote the archaeologist Henri Seyrig. "For the Palmyrene sculptor the most interesting aspect of being is its deepest and most permanent content. …

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