Priestess burning incense. Parian marble. Roman, circa. 125–130 CE. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

The elderly woman is garbed as a priestess and is engaged in an act of sacrifice. Her missing right hand is to be imagined as scattering grains of incense, taken from a box held in her left hand, upon a small cylindrical altar, or incense burner, part of which is still to be seen at her right side. She wears her mantle as a veil and a long tunic or chiton, which is buttoned on the right upper arm and tied with a cord beneath the breasts in a knot of Hercules. A thick-soled sandal appears on the right foot.

Five heavy braids of hair encircle the head, a style associated with the Empress Sabina and other women of the Imperial Court under the Emperor Hadrian. When combined with the fact that the pupils of the eyes are unincised and with the natural yet coldly sculptural wrinkles of the face, these coils indicate the statue was carved in the Hadrianic period, probably about A.D. 125-130.

The end of the nose, the right hand, the left forearm and hand with the incense box, and most of the shaft of the incense burner have been broken away. There is a crack in the right elbow and some damage to the base. The injuries presumably were caused when the statue fell from a niche four feet above the floor of the tomb.

This is interesting to me, not only because the woman depicted is not young, but because it could be a depiction of Hadrian’s wife, Vibia Sabina, who lived to be 54 years old.


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