In Egyptian tombs, Japanese castles and Roman temples, it's always been imperative to dress for success
Instead of holding agricultural implements in their crossed arms as other shabtis do, these small Egyptian funerary figurines from circa 1200-1100 B.C. hold divine attributes — a tyet knot and a djed pillar.
The tyet knot was meant to protect the deceased through the power of Isis and was often placed on the mummified body. The djed pillar is a symbol of endurance and stability, possibly representing a stylized tree trunk without branches.
Shabtis wearing the ‘costume of the living’, or the dress of daily life, first appeared at end of the 18th dynasty (circa 1543-1292 B.C.). They depicted wealthy Egyptians dressed in heavily pleated garments, shawls, skirts, duplex wigs and sandals — the fashion of the day.
Many centuries later, the gorgeous fashions of the Genroku era in Japan (1688-1704) were epitomised by this highly decorative yet entirely functional armour that, in turn, reflects the position of the Satake family as one of the oldest and most warlike samurai clans.
Despite changes in fortune, the family remained prominent in military and political activities to the end of the Edo period. In 1711 the shogunate permitted Stake Yoshitada (1695-1715) to take up residence in Kubota castle in the family domain in Dewa province (Akita). It is most likely that he wore this fashionable armour when he entered Kubota castle for the first time.
In 18th-century France, on the other hand, female sitters were often shown in Ancient Roman costume, frequently in the guise of Vestals, the virgin priestesses chosen to guard the sacred fire of Vesta, Protectress of Rome. The Vestals were selected from the noble orders by the chief priest when aged between 6 and 10 years old, and were required to remain chaste for 30 years.
The impetus for Jacques-Louis David to create this painting of A Vestal is unknown, and there is no record of its having been commissioned. This singular masterpiece is the last pre-Revolutionary history painting by the artist in private hands, a period during which David galvanized and transformed European art with the creation of world-famous images.