The “Sabouroff Head”: an early portrait?


Altes Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Altes Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

The finely executed head from a statue is striking due to the modelling of the hair and beard, as well as the technical skill of its finish. The skin has been carefully modelled and smoothed while the surface of the hair and beard has been coarsely pricked using a sharp chisel; perhaps a painted layer of plaster was applied here. The relief of the face with its pronounced cheek bones is clearly accentuated, the lids of the slightly aslant eyes have a sharp finish that ends in the tear ducts. The basic shape of the face is rectangular. The head has been viewed from four vantage points, each clearly distinct from the other. This articulate form of modelling links the head with Attic works, such as the ‘Berlin Goddess’ for instance, even though it must be older than that work as the relaxed shape of the mouth and the more highly polished relief suggest. The style of the hair and beard may be unusual but does have parallels in Archaic art. There is no reason to believe that the head once bore a ‘wig’ of metal. This frequently asserted hypothesis would still not explain the unusual contour of the hair and beard, in fact it would only present more questions than it would answer. In the 6th century BCE men would normally wear their hair long. The style of the moustache, here clearly distinct from the beard on the cheeks and chin, is extremely unusual. Hair was first only worn short by boxers and wrestlers due to the nature of their work, only later towards the end of the 6th century BCE was such a style also taken up by the wealthier sections of the population. The exceptional appearance of this head has caused some archaeologists to surmise that this sculpture represents the Athenian founder-hero Theseus while others have claimed the head represents the beginnings of portraiture and have identified it with the tyrant Peisistratos. However, there are no concrete references to support either of these suggestions and neither of them go any way to explaining the unusual style of the hair, which could in fact be a sign that the person portrayed here is either a heavy athlete or not a native of Greece. The closest iconographic parallel we have to this head is a tomb relief, dated only a little earlier, of a boxer with short hair and a shaved beard from Kerameikos. However, the person portrayed in this case is clearly characterised as a heavy athlete due to his beefy head, broken nose and mangled ears. Of all the foreign peoples that had contact with the Greeks in the 6th century BCE, their northern and eastern neighbours can be ruled out as they also wore full beards and their hair long. Only in depictions of Egyptians in vase paintings from the time do we see a comparable hairstyle, which we know also corresponded with Egyptian custom. The technical singularity of the execution could be interpreted as an attempt to create a likeness of short, curly hair that may have been, in addition, painted black. The fact that the sculptor has avoided a clear physiognomical characterisation of the person as a boxer or Egyptian, as commonly found on vase paintings and subtly apparent on the tomb relief, could be related to the fact that such characteristics mostly had a caricaturing intent in Archaic art. In the case of this particular head they have been suppressed because the intention here was to erect a statue as a monument or memorial.

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  • Title: The “Sabouroff Head”: an early portrait?
  • Creator: Unknown
  • Date Created: -550/-525
  • Location: Supposedly from Athens or Aegina
  • Physical Dimensions: h23 cm
  • Type: Statuette
  • Medium: Marble
  • Inv.-No.: Sk 308
  • ISIL-No.: DE-MUS-814319
  • External link: Altes Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
  • Copyrights: Text: © Verlag Philipp von Zabern / Antikensammlung, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin / Matthias Hofter || Photo: © b p k - || Photo Agency / Antikensammlung, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin / Ingrid Geske
  • Collection: Antikensammlung, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin - Preußischer Kulturbesitz