Sculpture 48 Can you identify the subject and sculptor of this bust of a woman wearing a classical medallion?

BST_BMAGG_K4745-001
Topic: Subject or sitter

The bust has a classical face. She is wearing a medallion with the profile of a Roman emperor.

The woman’s garb recalls that of a Vestal virgin. There was one instance of a Vestal marrying an emperor, the notorious Elagabalus, and her name was Julia Aquilia Severa. Examples of sculptures depicting Vestal Virgins:

https://bit.ly/2THGXgL
https://bit.ly/2LZERVc
https://bit.ly/36CbK3v

Another possibility would be a bust of a young Empress Helena (mother of Emperor Constantine), later Saint Helena.

The safest title might be ‘Ancient Roman Lady’.

Jacinto Regalado, Entry reviewed by Art UK

48 comments

Jacinto Regalado,

The other possibility, already entertained by the collection and perhaps the most likely, is that this is Antonia Minor, the mother of the emperor Claudius and grandmother of Caligula.

Jacinto Regalado,

If the medallion is of Nero, the woman could be his virtuous first wife, Octavia, or less likely his second wife Poppea.

Louis Musgrove,

Well - the medallion is just like the image on a coin of Nero. The lady's face does look a bit like Nero's first wife Claudia Octavia, but not like his mother Agripina , nor his daughter Claudia Augusta.Unlikely Rubria the vestal virgin would carry a "torch " for Nero- Hmn! Doesn't look like the images on coins of Julia Aqilia Severa, or the bust identified as her.
Is this a genuine classical bust- ie 1800-2000 years old , or is it a Italian 18th century one as you suggest in the intro.

Louis Musgrove,

Oh - and Antonia Minor was Great Grandmother of Nero ( Emperor ) - so if the medallion is an image of Imp Nero that wouldn't follow --I think.She died just about when he was born AD 37.

Jacinto Regalado,

I think this bust depicts a notable ancient Roman woman, but I doubt it is ancient Roman in date of execution. I also tend to doubt that it is British School as listed, unless there suitable evidence for that. Input from the collection in that regard would be desirable.

Surely the radiant crown worn by the figure on the medallion is significant? Aside from Alexander the Great, did all Roman Emperors use it?

Jacinto Regalado,

I suppose another possibility, due to her prominence in Roman history and the great esteem in which she was held, would be Octavia the Younger, who was an ancestor of Nero.

Jacinto Regalado,

Conceivably, this could be a generic Roman empress not meant to depict a specific woman, but that would be rather less interesting.

Jacinto Regalado,

Ideally, an expert on Roman coins would determine (if possible) the identity of the emperor, but Nero seems quite plausible.

Andrew Shore,

Nero's coins featured several different busts, which you can see reasonably clearly here: https://finds.org.uk/romancoins/emperors/emperor/id/12/name/nero

Although coins were sometimes used as jewellery, the sculptor could perhaps have intended this to be a cameo (although it's a bit of a strange shape for that).

More info: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cameo_{LPARENTHESES} carving)

Some 'Nero' cameos here: https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/search?keyword=cameo&keyword=nero

Jacinto Regalado,

The sculptor, of course, may or may not have been numismatically accurate, meaning he could have used an image from a Roman coin indiscriminately, simply to convey "Roman emperor."

Mark Wilson 01,

The bust was originally a "gift from Mr Hudson Heaven" in 1906. This was presumably a member of the Hudson Heaven family that had owned Lundy Island since 1834, probably (a brother seems to be in Australia) the Reverend Hudson Grosett Heaven who owned the Island in 1906. About a decade before he had built a new church there, dedicated to St Helen:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St_Helen's_Church,_Lundy

And I wonder if the rather odd description: "Possibly a Saint or the Roman Empress Antonia" derives from this being thought be a representation of the mother of Constantine. Certainly the medallion might be thought to be similar to his features:
https://www.bonhams.com/auctions/22460/lot/44/

The idealised, youthful features of the bust don't match those thought to be of the actual Helen(a):

https://www.uffizi.it/en/artworks/statue-of-empress-helena

or indeed any other prominent woman from antiquity, but they are typical of the way that female saints have been portrayed in recent centuries. And most women in antiquity are only shown with veils when in some religious role (including of course the vestal virgins) - an iconographic tradition that becomes near universal among their Christian successors.

That said busts rather than full length statuary are a fairly unusual way of representing saints - most of the exceptions seem to be medieval reliquaries - particularly for use in a church. And it doesn't show the usual 'attributes' of St Helena - especially the Cross as shown on the external statue on the Lundy Island church:

https://sthelenslundy.co.uk/news/2017/07/restoration-work-underway/

So even if the bust was purchased by or given to Hudson Heaven as being of St Helen, there may have been some doubt over its identity. And one thick-necked Roman Emperor looks very much like another on medallions, so the Neronean possibility that Jacinto spotted could well be seen by others at the time. A bust thought to be Poppea or Agrippina would still be valuable, but maybe not seemly for a clergyman and certainly not a church. Donation to a local museum might be an appropriate compromise.

Is there any view on who might have made this as another way round?

One of the great gaps in reference resources is a 'subject index' to at least the main exhibitions covered by Graves. Such a thing could never be perfect where titles are unspecific (e.g ' Bust of a Roman lady' rather than 'Bust of the Empress Antonia') but even lists of artists doing unspecific 'subjects' would help narrow possibilities. This looks of a quality to have been shown somewhere and whoever did it was probably one of a few dozen rather than hundreds.

Louis Musgrove,

The Church on Lundy is dedicated to St 'Elen- who was the wife of Magnus Maximus- Magnus was big in Britain and France but failed in his bid to rule the whole Empire.380AD ish. It is not dedicated to St Helena, wife of Imp Constantius. If you look at the statue of St Helen at the Church on Lundy ( carrying a cross) the face looks a lot like the bust under discussion here.Church built in the late1880's to early 1890's. by the Rev Heaven. I wonder if he owned this bust at that time and used it as a model for the statue????? So the association to St Helen/Helena might be coincidental and irrelevant.It could just be an Italian decorative bust of the late 18th century.
What makes me curious- why is the Medallion on our Bust --,Heart Shaped??

Jacinto Regalado,

Louis, I doubt that the Lundy church is dedicated to your Elen, who is far more obscure than the mother of Emperor Constantine, was never formally canonized in Rome, and is primarily or entirely associated with Wales and the Welsh Church.

The image of St Helen on the exterior of the church (linked above) is perfectly in keeping with the standard iconography of St Helen as the finder of the True Cross (it seems rather unlikely that the Welsh "saint" would share the same iconography). What is the source or basis for your assertion?

Mark Wilson 01,

Louis, there is no doubt that the current church on Lundy (built 1895) is dedicated to St Helen(a) of the Cross, consort of a Roman Emperor based in Britain and mother of Constantine. The iconography of the statue on the church and all evidence from the time makes that clear.

What is also known however is that there was an earlier church and associated burial ground (where the Hudson Heavens are actually buried) at a different place on the Island, which is most often named as St Helen - for example by Camden. This may well have referred to your St Elen, consort of a Roman Emperor based in Britain and mother of (another) Constantine. For some reason the two saints get confused.

Being in the Bristol Channel, Lundy could well be influenced by Wales and other ancient dedications to St (H)Elen in the South West are on the North coast of Devon and may be similarly derived. All the evidence for church dedications in Lundy is laid out in a 2008 article by the late Myrtle Ternstrom:

https://lfs-resources.s3.amazonaws.com/j1/LFS_Journal_Vol_1_Part_8.pdf

in the Journal of the Lundy Field Society (note that the link from the Wiki article is now dead).

Jacinto Regalado,

Although the drapery looks relatively baroque, the face looks neoclassical, suggesting latter 18th century to well into the 19th century.

Louis Musgrove,

I just followed the link Mark Wilson posted above and read the blurb. Yes the Early Chapel to St 'Elen fell into disrepair-- and as the dedication of the new church was to St Helen-- and not St Helena I assumed it was a continuation.
But the face of the Lundy St Helen still looks a lot like our bust, and I still wonder why the Medallion is heart shaped?
I have also just read Myrtle Ternstrom-- So many saints- 'Elen ,Helena, another Helen,Michael and Cloue and St Ann. My impression of the article was that there was a slight favouring by the author ,among the confusion ,to an dedication of St 'Elen. And the archaeology. Well ! Fifth century Romano British graves grouped round a grave of someone of High Status. The suggestion of a monastic community and an earlier small chapel also of the fifth/six century. Was the Chapel of St Ann another building- or an oratory recess in the Chapel of St 'Elen.The Vitctorian church records state clearly that the new church is decicated to St Helen and not St Helena.
I think the Rev Heaven was a bit of an archaeology and local history Buff. Choosing to be buried inside the medieval chapel wall affirms this to me. I bet he was really conversant with early British Saints- as quite a lot of Church of England priests are in this day and age. Thats my best opinion.
But to get back to our bust. Is it 18th century Italian ???

Louis Musgrove,

Jacinto- BTW that Statue of St Helena Augusta in St Peters is really impressive :-) .

Jacinto Regalado,

Louis, Helena is the Latin form of Helen, so the name per se is the same. It is regrettable that the matter is subject to so much confusion in this case, given the existence of the Helen treated as a saint in Wales, who is associated primarily with the building of roads but *not* with the True Cross, with which the other Helen/a is always associated and depicted (as in the Lundy church). Catholic churches dedicated to the latter saint in English-speaking countries often use Helen as opposed to Helena for linguistic reasons.

As for the statue of St Helena in the Vatican, you can be certain that it was expressly meant and designed to be impressive.

Jacinto Regalado,

So we have the Reverend Hudson Heaven, whose chief legacy is St Helen's Church on Lundy Island (which he owned from 1883 to 1916), who donated this bust in 1906 to a museum in Bristol. The St Helen emblematic of the Lundy church is the mother of Emperor Constantine the Great, with the standard iconography. Our neoclassical bust shows an ancient Roman woman wearing a pendant depicting a Roman emperor. She is veiled, indicating purity or holiness (like the Lundy St Helen), and she is of the same age as Bolgi's statue of St. Helen in the Vatican. While the preceding does not constitute definitive proof, it does point toward and suggest that the bust is of St Helen or Helena, which I find plausible.

Now there is the matter of origin, authorship and date.

Jacinto Regalado,

The collection has this as British School. What is the basis for that?

Jacinto Regalado,

This bust could obviously be Italian, which would seem to be most likely, but that is not necessarily the case. Again, it would be of significant interest to hear from the collection what is the basis for the current attribution to British School.

Louis Musgrove,

If it is thought to be British School -- How about Harry Helms of Exeter?

Jacinto Regalado,

Louis, is Helms a sculptor, or someone you think should be consulted?

Louis Musgrove,

Harry Helms was a Victorian sculptor or perhaps stone carver.Among his work he did a statue of St Helen(a) for St Alban's Cathedral. He used the image of her from Imperial Roman coins in the British Museum to get a facial likeness. The statue of St Helen(a) at Lundy church is a (perhaps smaller) copy of the St Alban's Cathedral one. In my post above I noticed that our marble bust here looks a somewhat like the statue of St Helen(a) at Lundy. And when I discovered he referred to images on Imp. Roman Coins I thought -Aha! Because the thing that is very unusual about our bust is the heart shapped Medallion featuring what looks like a coin of the Imp. Nero.

Jacinto Regalado,

You must mean Harry Hems, who was an architectural ecclesiastical sculptor. Even if he was responsible for the exterior sculpture of St. Helen in the Lundy church, that is a different sort of sculpture. Our bust is a considerably finer piece which I doubt was by him or a sculptor like him. His Mapping Sculpture entry is below:

https://sculpture.gla.ac.uk/view/person.php?id=ann_1303935746

Louis Musgrove,

Here is extract from the Ilfracombe Gazette 19th June 1897. Note the reference to the polished alabaster reredos of St Helena !

There are also other associations which indirectly link
the church with the principles of the Camden Society. Above
the tower entrance is the statue of St Helena by the sculptor
Harry Hems of Exeter. The face and the head-dress of the statue
are modelled from a medal or coin of hers in the British Museum.
The statue is a replica of Harry Hem's, " celebrated statue of this saint
in the high altar screen at St Alban's Abbey" (llfracombe Gazette 27th February1897). The altar and the polished viened alabaster reredos of StHelena's is also his work. The artisan· Hems attended the consecration service of St Helena' s as an acolyte (llfracombe Gazette 19th June 1897
).

So I still think it quite possible old 'arry is our man :-)

Jacinto Regalado,

Here is the screen at St Albans:

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:St_Albans_Wallingford_Screen_2,_Hertfordshire,_UK_-_Diliff.jpg

Clicking on the image twice when it comes up will yield suitable enlargement at good resolution.

St Helen is second from left in the middle row of statues. Her face is sweetly Victorian, not at all neoclassical. Also, the inscription below the statue reads St Helen, not St Helena, though this is clearly the mother of Emperor Constantine. Hems was no doubt very good at his sort of work, but as I have said before, I do not think he was our sculptor.

Mark Wilson 01,

I don't think the Helen/Helena thing matters much - the external statue on Lundy is labelled Helena, even though the church is St Helen. And Louis has shown that that was by Hems (probably with family). Those statues are also much more in the standard iconographic tradition showing her with the cross and so on.

But they also differ quite a lot from this bust not just facially but in terms of the draping, the crown and so on. Sculpturally it's much more in the tradition of depicting ancient Romans, showing Helena (if it is her) as Empress rather than Saint. (While she was never married to a reigning Emperor, Constantine did give her the title of Augusta after he gained power). And as I said above busts of saints are fairly rare after the 15th century and mostly reliquaries before that.

At the same time there are also elements in the bust of how saints are depicted, such as the face. And empresses tend not to be depicted with head coverings - though Livia sometimes is - unlike saints. The medallion is also an oddity for either category and seems to be more crudely carved than the rest - is it a later addition?

My first thoughts were also that it was Italian 18th Century, perhaps with some Baroque influence on the drapery. British 19th Century work tends to have less movement and prefer very white marble (and when women are involved, much less clothing). But in the 19th Century Italian sculptors often deliberately imitated feature from previous centuries (or faked the whole thing) and there were many Italians working in Britain supplying the expanding middle class markets and the church building boom (Catholic and Anglican). And of course there were Brits living working in Italy. So drawing lines is difficult.

So more questions than answers. Myrtle Ternstrom's paper mentioned private papers still with the Heaven family, so there might be something there. But even that would just tell us who it was thought to be (and possibly by) when bought, not necessarily when created.

Jacinto Regalado,

We need the collection to explain the basis for the British School attribution, but it may be circumstantial. The Heaven private papers might be more productive.

Mark Wilson 01,

Jacinto - I think 'British School' is just the way Bristol have of describing anonymous works that have some connection with the UK - or at least no provable one to elsewhere. Bristol Museums have are 120 on ArtUK with that description - about 8.6% of their total collection on here.

Jacinto Regalado,

That may be, Mark, but I'd still like to hear from the collection in case there's a more definite or more plausible reason.

Louis Musgrove,

I have consulted a real top notch expert on Ancient Rome and they confirm the medallion is theEmperor Nero and they suggest the identity of the "sitter" could be Agrippina the Younger- but not 100% sure.

Kieran Owens,

That's a dark suggestion - sister of Caligula, niece and wife of Claudius, mother of Nero! This bust, however, looks nothing like other classical representations of her.

Has anyone considered the relevance the letters S.I. that are inscribed on the base of the bust? Are they the Museum's or might they be an artist's mark.

Jacinto Regalado,

As I noted previously, even if the medallion was based on a coin of Nero, we cannot assume the sculptor was numismatically accurate, meaning he could have used an image from a Roman coin indiscriminately, simply to convey "Roman emperor."

Mark Wilson 01,

Kieran, looking at the mark in more detail it actually seems to read "S.13." though the 3 is very faded and could be an 8. From the shape of the letters it looks 20th century, so I suspect it's a museum mark relating to an old catalogue, with the S possibly standing for 'sculpture'.

Jacinto Regalado,

I suppose one could say one idealised classical face is the same as another, but for what it may be worth, here is the so-called Juno Ludovisi, actually an idealised portrait of the young Antonia Minor, mother of the emperor Claudius (she was not an empress herself, as apparently implied in the current Art UK entry for this bust):

https://bit.ly/2GiITZA

Louis Musgrove,

Antonia was given the title "Augusta " postumously by Claudius- which means she was a sort of empress.I suppose he wanted to do right by his mother. The Juno Ludovisi is very like the many images of "Libertas"- which of course inspired the Statue of Liberty in Manhattan.-- similar forehead crown.

Jacinto Regalado,

Louis, Antonia Minor was an extremely important woman in her day, but an empress is the wife of an emperor, which she never was.

Louis Musgrove,

Jacinto- I did say " a sort of empress", And anyway - a Roman Emperor of that time - that is Claudius-- could do whatever he wanted- and whatever he said was to be- became fact.

Jacinto Regalado,

I take your point, Louis, but it remains incorrect to speak of an "Empress Antonia" as the current title does. Antonia Minor was related to two actual empresses, Agrippina the Younger and Valeria Messalina, who were both married to an emperor.

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