The Herculaneum Women

The first sculptures discovered at Herculaneum, the three draped statues are also among the best preserved of all the sculptures found at the site.

The Herculaneum Women are Roman versions of sculptural types deriving from Greek art. The two Herculaneum Women in this exhibition have idealized facial features and wear elegant, enveloping drapery. They share the same distinctive hairstyle, the so-called melon coiffure, which became fashionable in Greece after 350 B.C., when the models for the Herculaneum Women were created.

Lg Herculaneum Woman / Unknown
Sm Herculaneum Woman / Unknown

The third Herculaneum Woman, which is not on view in this exhibition, was missing its head when it was found. Her portrait head, probably with individualized features, was carved separately for insertion into the neck cavity.

Who Are the Herculaneum Women?
The Large Herculaneum Woman (near right) represents a matron and has part of her mantle pulled up over her head, signifying piety. The Small Herculaneum Woman (far right) depicts a younger woman drawing the end of her mantle up over her shoulder in a gesture of modesty. These body types were widely used for portraits of Roman women.

Whom did the original Greek models for these statues represent? They may have been goddesses or muses, although the sculptures lack any attributes that link them to characters from mythology. More likely they were portraits of priestesses, poets, or other eminent Greek women.

The Roman figures from Herculaneum are equally difficult to identify, though their theater setting provides a clue. In Roman cities, theaters were a common place for the display of honorific statues of patrons and benefactors of the community. The Herculaneum Women may thus have represented members of the local elite.

The Herculaneum Women in Ancient Art
The Herculaneum Women are the most prevalent images of the draped female form in the classical world. Their elegant, enveloping drapery and composed stance represented feminine virtues of beauty, grace, and decorum in both Greek and Roman societies. More than 180 examples of the large statue type and over 160 of the small statue type are known, along with dozens of variants and reliefs on tombstones and sarcophagi.

The majority of the figures are combined with individualized portraits. The J. Paul Getty Museum's collection alone contains four of these sculptures, including a monumental portrait of the Roman empress Faustina the Elder with the body of the Large Herculaneum Woman.