Funerary Statue of a Girl
Highlighted Works of Art - 2014 Winter

The Roman marble statue of a girl was obtained by the Museum of Fine Arts in 1908 as part of the collection of Paul Arndt; it is said to have been found in Rome.

The girl is wearing a thin dress (chiton) girt low on the hips that reveals the contours of the front of the body, while concealing the back. The girl stands on her left leg, while her right foot extends forward. She raises her left hand to secure her dress, which has already slid off her left shoulder, from slipping further down. The position of the right shoulder indicates that her right arm, now missing, was raised; she probably held some object in her hand, maybe something like a toy. The statue was restored in modern times in several places: a strip of marble was inserted in the break just below the knees. And the even, trimmed surfaces on the neck, right shoulder, right foot, left index finger, little finger, together with dowel holes suggest further additions that now are lost.

Although her precise age cannot be fixed - the statue reflects an artistic construction rather than documented reality, as is the case with most Roman images of children - she clearly is depicted as prepubescent: she possesses plump thighs and a rounded belly, features commonly used to characterise children, while the budding breasts suggest the early stage of sexual maturation.
The thin garment, revealing the body more than hiding it, the chiton sliding down the shoulder and leaving it bare is known from the Greek tradition of art (late 5th c. B.C.) as typical iconographical markers of the goddess of love, Aphrodite. In Roman portrait sculpture the statue type - combined with an individual likeness - was often used to identify the depicted woman or girl with Venus. In addition the very low position of the girdle, familiar from statues of Aphrodite and other female deities, suggests the ancient iconographical concept of a nymph; the Greek term nymphe, usually used to identify a water-goddess, was also used for girls just before marriage (in antiquity at the age of about 14).

The childlike body in combination with the features alluding to Venus or a nymph, make our statue a good example of consecratio in formam deorum, a common format in Roman art for showing the deceased in the guise of a deity. Therefore it is likely that the statue in Budapest once had a portrait head and depicted a specific girl. All the iconographical features point to the interpretation as a maiden who died before marriage - as a nymphe -, whose relatives set up a likeness of her in a funerary context such as a mausoleum or cemetery; maybe the figure was standing in a niche where the back of the statue, which is worked less carefully, could not been viewed very well.

This form of representation (consecratio in formam deorum) was common between the 1st and 3rd centuries A.D.; the majority of such images in Roman art we find in the Antonine period (140-190 A.D.) when interest in using mythological forms for private likenesses was at its height. These include sculptures in the round, images on reliefs in architectural context, such as mausolea, and on funerary reliefs and sarcophagi.
It was customary for female portraits of mortals to adopt the coiffure of the contemporary empress, thus making it easy for us to date such images by comparing them to Imperial likenesses. Since the head of the statue in Budapest is lost we are restricted to other criteria to determine the chronology of the work. The carving of the dress, i.e. the sharp edges and the long, deep channels of the folds which produce effects of light and shadow; the soft forms of the body; and the polished surface of the bare skin are typical stylistic features of the Antonine period. The moulded base is rounded but 'squared off' - from below the right foot to her left side - to indicate the 'front' of the statue or the intended viewing point. This practice is well-known from many statues produced during the decades between 130 and 160 A.D. Therefore, the marble statue in our collection can be dated in the 2nd quarter of the 2nd century A.D.

Depicting mortals in the guise of a hero or god was not new in the Roman Imperial period. Greek historical rulers had been shown in this fashion, and later public images of members of the Roman Imperial court employed the same strategy. Especially in the Antonine period, the imperial couple was depicted several times in the form of Mars and Venus. Already during the rule of the first emperor Augustus, portraits of princes and princesses combined individual likenesses with ideal Greek statue types of mythological heroes and gods. These depictions of the imperial heirs served as propaganda concerning Imperial succession and therefore guaranteed security of the state to the public. In addition, such images influenced statue types of private persons, and the Imperial fashion of depicting children contributed to a growing demand of portraits of non-Imperial children, which was a relatively new practice. However, there was one important difference: private families usually commissioned statues of a son or daughter to commemorate the premature death of the child.

Sculptures similar to this one, a portrait of a deceased child, commonly adopted the positive characteristics of mythological figures or deities to emphasize the merits of the individual depicted. In the case of likenesses of boys, Cupid, Hermes or Hercules - who already in his childhood performed admirable deeds - were popular choices. For girls, Diana, protectress of virgins, was often favoured; the well-known attributes of the virgin goddess, including the bow, quiver and hunting dress, marked the visual assimilation.
Sculpted portraits, such as the Budapest statue, frequently employed Venus as a model of female beauty as well. In addition, epitaphs from the 2nd century A.D. commemorate unmarried girls by likening them to Venus. For example, the grave inscription of Gallia Agrippiane identifies her as the owl-eyed Venus (Glaucopis Venus), while another epigram refers to the deceased Virgo Venus Iulia Orfita. The identification with the goddess of love, as well as with nymphe, alludes to the desired marriage, never to take place, of the deceased girl.
In these inscriptions, however, the references to owl-eyed Pallas Athena, a virgin goddess, and the characterization of Venus as a virgin de-emphasizes the erotic aspects of analogy. Similarly, the simultaneous presence of the childish body and the transparent clothing discernible on the statue in Budapest does not create any contradiction: in fact, it is what so aptly expresses the girl's untimely death (mors immatura), for it creates an association between the realm of childhood and the unfulfilled future role of marriage.

Szilvia Lakatos

We are grateful for the generous support of the Hungarian Cultural Fund and the Hungarian National Bank for the restoration of the statue.

The Publication of the information leaflet was kindly supported by Bencsik Ltd.