Panel painting of a woman in a blue mantle

Period: Roman Period

Reign: Nero

Date: A.D. 54–68

Geography: From Egypt

Medium: Encaustic on wood

Dimensions: H. 38 cm (14 15/16 in.); W. 22.3 cm (8 3/4 in.)

Credit Line: Director's Fund, 2013

Accession Number: 2013.438

Description

This young woman is revealed frankly in direct white light, her tiny, elaborate curls and gay light-blue mantle striking a somewhat discordant note with her somber eyes and large, strong face. In her ears she wears ball earrings and around her neck, a double-wound chain from which hangs a small golden figure. The texture of the encaustic medium, worked with brushes and tools, reveals the artist’s careful shaping of the curves and dimensionality of the face.

A date for this panel in the mid-first century A.D. is indicated by the sitter’s hairstyle—modeled on that of the Emperor Nero’s mother, Agrippina—as well as other features of the painting. The work belongs to the first generation of painted panel portraits, which only emerged as an Egyptian funerary style just before the mid-first century A.D., to continue for only approximately two hundred years. The delicately thin panels were attached over the faces of wrapped mummies, so that the curvature of the panel reflects this original use.

The mummies with their portraits might be kept on view in funerary chapels or other locations before finally being buried. This panel appears to have been slightly updated before final burial....the neckline was lowered and the necklace and pendant seem to have been added at that time. The pendant on the necklace has recently been identified as Omphale, a figure of Greek mythology whose liaison with Herakles gave her power over the womb and the travails of childbirth and, by extension, over rebirth after death.

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