What Is in a Head?
Figural representation often emphasizes the head and face. Eyes, ears, nose, and mouth hold particular potential for interaction with the viewer, and the face is frequently perceived as a mirror of the mind. In ancient Egypt, the Near East, and Greece, most depictions of humans and deities included the full body. This allowed the subjects to strike a distinctive pose, while their clothing indicated social standing. Portraits in head or bust form became common in Roman art and have played a major role in Western art ever since. The art of other cultures around the world also reflects special significance attributed to the head. The Edo peoples of the Benin kingdom in present-day Nigeria, for example, regarded the head as the seat of knowledge and decision-making power and crucial to a person’s, or in the case of a king, the state’s well-being. In this space outside the Roman gallery, several sculpted heads — self-contained images, a vessel, and statue parts — invite comparison across continents and millennia.
The sculptures place varying emphasis on accessories, such as the royal coral-bead cap and collar of the Benin bronze head and the “barbarian” floppy hat of the Roman marble head. Hairstyle and physique can express social roles and character traits, as in the case of the philosopher’s beard of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, seen here in an Italian Renaissance version, and the princely topknot of the Gandharan bodhisattva, an enlightened, compassionate being distinguished from other Buddhist figures by his depiction in royal Indian attire.
The individualized features of the ancient Peruvian stirrup-spout bottle — probably portraying a historical or mythical figure — contrast with the idealized face of the bodhisattva and the classicizing one of the Roman marble head of what may be a generic Easterner. The heads meet the viewer’s gaze with unemotional, controlled expressions that correspond to the codes and conventions of their time.