Ph.D. Candidate, Art and Art History
2019-2020 Rothman Doctoral Fellow
We think of the twenty-first century obsession with taking and enhancing self-portraits as a product of the digital age. But contemporary western society is not unique in its fixation with self-representation and expression through portraiture. Ancient Roman citizens were just as obsessed with visual modes of self-representation, leading to the large proportion of portraiture among what is traditionally considered to be Roman art. It is somewhat counterintuitive then to see the development and use of so-called “blank” portraits on sarcophagi later in the Empire. These portraits maintain the shape of a head but their smooth marble lacks any facial features. These blank faces can seem as shocking within the context of Roman culture as a selfie with a featureless, blank face would today. This project contends that we can better understand the unique features of Roman sarcophagi in late antiquity, such as blank portrait faces, by placing them within the context of a shift in Roman religious experience and expectation that occurred between the second and fifth centuries. This shift is characterized by a movement away from the site-specific and collective characteristics of traditional civic religion to the simultaneously universalizing and personalizing character shared by mystery religions, neo-Platonic philosophy, and Christianity.