Portrait Art in the 1st Century AD

Among the many interesting discoveries from Pompeii and Herculaneum are the frescoes that graced the walls of the 1st century homes. They reveal a mastery of painting that would have been largely lost to us were it not for the preservation of these amazing 1st century AD towns. In fact, two frescoes from Pompeii actually depict artists (both women) in the process of painting portraits. One is the cover photo for this post; the other (below) is even more well-preserved.

Fresco of a woman painting a portrait, from Pompeii, 1st century AD.

Artists had been experimenting with various pigments for centuries, and the Egyptians had developed a wide variety of color-fast paints. These are best preserved in the tombs of ancient Egypt, although traces can also be seen in some of the better preserved temples. The Romans, however, took this further and could mimic nearly any naturally occurring color. Since the towns destroyed by Mount Vesuvius in AD 79 were buried quickly, it is not surprising that bowls of pigment have also been discovered, probably in rooms where frescoes were in the process of being created.

Small cups with a sample of various pigments, from Pompeii, 1st century AD; photo by Todd Bolen.

The frescoes produced by the Romans around the time of the Apostle Paul represent still lifes, outdoor scenes, architectural views, and battle scenes. But the most commonly found frescoes are those that represent scenes from Greek or Roman mythology, snapshots of some moment in the myth that is particularly poignant. These scenes often exhibit the remarkable ability of the artist to render human faces in exquisite detail. They are shown from a variety of angles, and illustrate a mastery of color and light.

Detail of a fresco showing onlookers as Theseus defeats the Minotaur, from the house of Marcus Gavius Rufus at Pompeii, 1st century AD.

Detail of Agamemnon and Briseis, from the House of the Tragic Poet, Pompeii, 1st century AD.

Detail of the parents of Alcestis, refusing to die on his behalf, from the House of the Tragic Poet, Pompeii, 1st century AD.

Mythological scenes were not the only setting for portrait artists to showcase their skills. Some home owners commissioned portraits of themselves or family members to be painted on the walls of their homes. The two portraits shown here both happen to include writing instruments, indicating that the subjects were literate. Literacy was uncommon in the 1st century, and it is estimated to have been a skill mastered by less than 10% of those living in the Roman empire at that time.

Portrait of the baker Terentius Neo and his wife in an intellectual pose, from the House of Terentius Neo, Pompeii, 1st century AD.

Fresco of a woman with a gold hairnet and earrings, holding a stylus and tablets, from Pompeii, 1st century AD.

Its intriguing to think that travelers of the NT period, like Paul, Barnabas, Priscilla & Aquila, Timothy, and others, likely saw this kind of artwork in some of the wealthier homes they visited. How fun would it be if one of them had sat for a portrait? As it, the earliest known portrait of Paul comes from many centuries later, and at best must have been based on a verbal description.

Portrait of Paul, from a cave at Ephesus, circa AD 500; photo by Todd Bolen.


    1. Amazing to see these. Thank you!

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