ON MAY 10th the Religion of Antinous honors two men we call the Two Lovers of Antinoopolis who lived in the Sacred City of Antinoopolis and who worshiped the Beauteous Boy and whose joint portrait is one of the great mysteries of Egyptology.
This round portrait, called a "tondo" because of its circular format, was used as a face plate on a mummy. The vicinity of Antinoopolis and the Fayoum Oasis region is famous for hundreds of such mummy portraits which give us a priceless look at how the residents of the Sacred City actually looked. It is believed these were portraits which had hung in people's homes and which were interred with the deceased, as a reminder to their Ka about who they were in mortal life.
The tondo is unique, though, because it shows two faces. Archaeologists have no explanation as to why anyone would want the face plate on a mummy to show two men's faces. The conventional explanation is that they were perhaps brothers and when one of them died, his surviving brother insisted on burying him with their joint portrait to show his fraternal love.
But one glance at the portrait shows that the two men bear little resemblance to each other.
Even more striking is the difference in skin coloring. Throughout Egyptian art, males were portrayed as having typically ruddy-brown skin and girls and women as having creamy colored skin — that was the iconic rule in Ancient Egyptian art. The skin colors do not represent the ACTUAL skin tones of the people, just as the idealized features of pharaohs don't reflect how they actually looked.
In Ancient Egyptian art, even if two individuals appear to be identically dressed with wigs and flowing robes, you can distinguish gender roles by skin color. Ruddy skin means male. Creamy skin means female.
That makes it all the more interesting to look at the Tondo of the Two Lovers, because one man has dark "male type" skin coloring and the other man has very light "female type" skin coloring. Such contrasting skin coloring traditionally was used only for married male-female couples in Ancient Egyptian art.
Even when the hairstyles and clothing are barely indistinguishable in Egyptian art, the difference in skin tones is a gender-role clue. Any Egyptian would instantly register the visual "pun" and would think it no accident.The artist who painted the Tondo of the Two Lovers appears to have been giving us a clue as to the relationship between the two men.
The Tondo has been dated between 130-150 AD which would place them as nearly contemporaries of Antinous, living in His Sacred City in the first bloom of the Religion of Antinous. French architectural historian Jean-Claude Golvin painted this stunning rendering of Antinoopolis at its height.
But of even more significance are the small images of Greco-Egyptian gods placed above their shoulders. The darker man is guarded by a figure which some experts identify as Hermanubis, a god of the underworld adored in the nearby city of Hermopolis. His name is variously interpreted as "Hermes/Anubis" or "Horus-as-Anubis", depending on whether you read the Latin or the Egyptian spellings.
The cult of Hermanubis was on the rise in Rome at this time and he was interpreted as a solar deity who (like Hermes/Mercury and Horus) led the dead through the darkness to everlasting sunlight. A crack runs through the figure, however, making its identity somewhat unsure. At one point Hermanubis had a large cult following in Rome itself and his face graced Imperial coins. But his cult was suppressed almost as quickly as it rose, for moralistic reasons which are hard to reconstruct.
The lighter skinned and more beautifully dressed boy is watched over by Antinous, the patron god of Antinoopolis, who grasps a Dionysiac scepter and who wears the SWTY (Two Feathers) crown of divinity symbolic of his many-faceted Sacred Powers. It is ironic that the Christians later suppressed the cult of Antinous for moralistic reasons, just as the cult of Hermanubis had been suppressed by the Romans. Was there a sexual/moral connection between the two cults?
At any rate, this makes the Tondo of the Two Lovers the only portrait painting of Antinous to have survived, and the only image of two probable followers of HIS religion.
The faint inscription beneath the image of Antinous reads 15 Pachon, which is a date in the Greek calendar that corresponds to the 10th of May. No one knows what the significance of this date might be. An anniversary, perhaps.
The younger figure is wearing a splendid red wrap held in place by an impressive amethyst brooch in a gold setting — a family heirloom perhaps. The artist has gone to pains to render it perfectly. The embroidery on his white tunic is very fine. An oriental swastika good-luck charm is stitched into his right sleeve.
Perhaps the portrait was commissioned for the day (May 10th) when he donned his manly robes for the first time on his 16th birthday, as was the Roman custom. The peach-fuzz on his face gives him the appearance of an adolescent.
The older man (who could 30-something) stands behind him, as if symbolically showing his love and support of his young companion. He could be an older brother or uncle. He could even be the youth's father — life expectancies were shorter then, and people married early in those days and were grandparents by their mid-30s.
But just perhaps the composition and skin-tone nuances are subtle clues by the artist that these two men shared an older-man, younger-man relationship — a Classical Greek-style erastes/eromenos relationship — similar to that of Hadrian and Antinous. After all, this city was founded on Hadrian's love for Antinous.
The Religion of Antinous honors these two men on May 10th — the day which was so special to them, for reasons known only to them and to the gods they worshiped — Hermanubis and Antinous!