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Head of Theodora

Constantinople (?), about 530-540 
Marble, 27 cm

Castello Sforzesco, Museo d'Arte Antica in Milan

The neck is broken off below chin; nose broken, and numerous chips and scratches mar surfaces, especially right cheek, both eyes, right front of coiffure, and various jewels and pearls in crown. A slender-faced woman of mature years looks straight ahead; her large eyes have incised irises and drilled pupils, with crisply cut eyelids under broad, arching brows. Mouth, cheeks, and chin are delicately modeled. The headdress is an advanced version of the style initiated by Ariadne, with the diadem binding a snooded coiffure, and is called the "melon" type. It is taller than the head of Ariadne at the Louvre, with the diadem high off the brow, and the entire mass balanced farther back on the head. The three hoops of pearls over the cap are all longitudinal, with only the central one a double row. The diadem itself has two rows of pearls and an elaborate central jewel with three pendants; it is tied behind with an elaborate knot. The Western provenance of this head, and certain superficial similarities to such works as the Aelia Flacilla in Paris or the Colossus of Barletta, have led to widely varied identifications, as Galla Placidia. Sande states that this attribution is weakly based on comparisons with partly doubtful works, while the form of crown did not appear before 500. The compact form and the contrast of delicately worked surfaces with the geometrical composition conform with our evidence for sixth-century sculptural style. The physical similarities between this face and that of the mosaic portrait of Theodora in San Vitale, Ravenna—and the descriptions of Theodora given by the contemporary chronicler Procopius—make the identification of this head as a portrait of that empress all but certain. Subtle as the differences are, comparison of this head with that of Ariadne shows that early Byzantine portraitists could, when challenged by a sufficiently interesting sitter, achieve likenesses that are convincing not only as to physical similarity but psychological truth as well. The head was discovered during demolition of the medieval walls of Milan.

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