This mummified body belongs to a man whose name is unknown. A panel was inserted over his face and is still in its orginal position. The portrait depicts a youth with large deep-set eyes and a down-turned mouth. His downy moustache indicates that he is no older than his early twenties. A number of mummy portraits represent youths with their first facial hair, a feature that had particular connotations in the Greek-educated society of Roman Egypt. The incipient moustache was both an indicator of the young man's entrance into important social groups and a signal that he was at the prime of sexual attractiveness and vigor.
In this era mummies might be kept above ground for periods of some months up to several years before final burial. Most probably they were deposited in chapels in cemeteries, where they were visited by relatives for ritual meals.
Panel portraits continue to fascinate visitors and scholars in our day and age. This portrait here was even used to illustrate racist and antisemitic literature. To learn more about this dark moment in the object’s biography, read the curatorial interpretation below (also available, with images, here).
Medium:Human remains wrapped with linen and mummification material; panel portrait: encaustic on limewood
Dimensions:Mummy: L. 169 cm (66 9/16 in.); W. 45 cm (17 11/16 in.); Panel as exposed: H. 38.1 cm (15 in.); W. 18 cm (7 1/16 in.)
Credit Line:Rogers Fund, 1911
Until recently, the list of references for this panel portrait included a variety of publications in which this piece is discussed. Among these books and articles, one could have also found its controversial use in a 1943 publication entitled Das Antike Weltjudentum (The Ancient World Jewry). Following an inquiry from a scholar outside the Museum, the Department decided to amend this oversight by removing the reference, and also to address this dark moment in the object’s biography by inviting this contribution from Amos Morris-Reich, Director of The Stephen Roth Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism and Racism and a professor at The Cohn Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Ideas in Tel Aviv University.
One of the strangest chapters in the history of the ancient panel portraits from the Fayum region in Egypt took place in the 1930s and 1940s in Nazi Germany. In a process that involved archeologists, art historians, scholars of ancient Judaism and early Christianity, and geneticists, the panel portraits became scientific, "racial" evidence in the study of ancient and contemporary "races," and in the "biological history" of ancient Egypt and ancient and contemporary Jews. How did ancient portraits come to be viewed as bearing importance on twentieth century Jews in Poland? What visual and material processes did the panel portraits undergo in the process? And what intellectual and political ends were they intended to serve?
The first scholar who identified some of the portrayed persons as Jews was, interestingly, the 19th century German-Jewish Egyptologist and writer Georg Ebers. For him, these panel portraits revealed the high social status of Jews in the Hellenistic period (in which the portraits were initially thought to have been created, though they have since been dated to the Roman Period). The British archaeologist Flinders Petrie was the first who used the portraits as scientific evidence for his discussion of "racial mixture," closely related to both the discussion of "race" in terms of "racial purity" and "racial degeneration" in late antiquity. After 1900, the portraits were increasingly discussed by archaeologists and art historians, and, in these discussions, anti-Jewish biases could often be sensed. Yet the identification of portraits with Jews tended to focus on five to ten out of many panel portraits from the Roman Period. In the course of these discussions, portraits that Ebers and Petrie initially identified as Jewish, were seen instead as illustrating "pure Greek" or "pure Roman" and similarly portraits that were previously considered "pure Greek" or "pure Roman" were identified as "Jewish."
The process by which the Fayum panel portraits came to be used as racial scientific evidence with regard to contemporary European Jews involved not only archaeologists but art historians as well. While dating the collection in 1933, art historian Heinrich Drerup determined the Jewish identity of the person in a panel portrait (now in Würzburg, Germany) based on comparisons to contemporary antisemitic caricatures.
While Drerup made this determination based on the identification of the "Jewish expression" found in contemporary antisemitic caricatures, the gradual incorporation of Fayum panel portraits into the racial-scientific literature was on the whole based rather on the assumption that the portraits were realistic and representational, like scientific, "racial photographs." A related nuance pertains to then contemporary assumptions found in art history/Egyptology, which contrasted "Egyptian realism" with classical "Greek idealism," the former created realistic portraits as part of their attempt to preserve the integrity of the body whereas the latter aestheticized it. Indeed, to employ them as racial photographs, they treated the portraits as racial photographs. In the process of being incorporated into professional and popular scientific publications on "race," the portraits were brought closer to the photographic orbit in general and to the conventions of scientific, racial evidence in particular: highly colourful portraits were photographed and reproduced in standard black and white. These photographed were then resized so that the panel portraits, which are greatly irregular in size and shape, appeared instead to have a standardized shape and size. The portraits were cropped, centered, and scaled. The diversity of the materials on which the portraits were made was photographically supressed and diminished. Their use leapt over time, space, as well as their material and assumptions about their production, use and intention. Serialized as "racial type" photographs, the portraits were transformed into photographic evidence in the scientific discussion of "race."
Fayum panel portraits were employed in this context by the most celebrated theoretician of "race" in Weimar and Nazi Germany, Hans. F.K. Günther, whose books circulated in millions. But the most comprehensive and vile use of the portraits is found in a book co-authored by one of the most prominent German scholars of ancient Judaism and early Christianity, Gerhard Kittel, and one of the most famous contemporary German geneticists, Eugen Fischer.
The Antike Weltjudentum was written in 1942 at the height of German military success, when the German army appeared invincible and after the majority of European Jews had already been killed. However, the book only appeared in print shortly after the German defeat in the battle of Stalingrad, which marked the military turn of events in WWII. A deeply racist and antisemitic study combining scholarship and propaganda, the book was a study of ancient Jewry which simultaneously celebrated the then almost complete eradication of the "Jewish race" from the face of the earth. Kittel and Fischer included tens of photographic reproductions of Fayum panel portraits, in black and white, cropped and centered. Sometimes, they were organized alongside photographs of Africans (to emphasize in their terminology the "negroid" features of ancient and contemporary Jews) and anthropological photographs of Jewish men taken by Fischer’s assistants in the ghetto of Lodz/Littzmanstadt in occupied Poland in the fall of 1940, to demonstrate their shared racial composition.
Page 117 of the book is laid out to emphasize the similarity between an ancient Egyptian and a Jew from Lodz, implying the permanent essence of the Jewish phenomenon as primitive and alien across time and space (Fig. 12). The photographic layout on the right-hand page is accompanied by short explanations on the left-hand page. Fischer describes his figure 71, under the heading of the Oriental and Near-Eastern races, as "Near-Eastern nose, narrow, long Oriental facial form, thick, fleshy lips. On the whole a very crude type (sehr grober Typ)." And 71a is described as: "Very similar type: Jew from Lodz, photographed 1940." (116)
With the defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945, the use of photographs for the scientific study of "race" declined instantly and sharply. This decline was faster and sharper than other media such as statistics or the sciences of "race" as a whole. The Fayum panel portraits were never used again as "evidence" in the scientific study of Jews, but for many years publications such as The Antike Weltjudentum, and the scientific methods on which they were based, were largely considered simply controversial chapters in the history of science. It was only decades after the demise of "racial photography," following long and arduous historical research and transformations in the public understanding of "race," that these publications were redefined as, simultaneously, malicious expressions of murderous racist and antisemitic ideology and propaganda.
Prof. Amos Morris-Reich The Geza Roth Chair of Modern Jewish History The Cohn Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Ideas Director, The Stephen Roth Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism and Racism The Lester and Sally Entin Faculty of Humanities Tel Aviv University December 2021
For further reading:
Mareile Haase, „Mumienporträt und ‚Judenbild‘ 1933 – 1943 – 1996", in: C. Auffarth, J. Rüpke (eds), Epitome tes oikoumenes: Studien zur römischen Religion in Antike und Neuzeit für Hubert Cancik und Hildegard Cancik-Lindemaier. Potsdamer Altertumswissenschaftliche Beiträge 6. Stuttgart: Steiner 2002, 237–261.
Amos Morris – Reich, „ Album of an Extinct Race: Eugen Fischer and Photography," Photography and Jewish History: Five Twentieth-Century Cases (Philadelphia: UPENN Press, in print).
Excavated by Flinders Petrie at Hawara with funds from the Egyptian Research Account. Acquired by Petrie and the ERA in the division of finds. Purchased from the ERA by the Museum, 1911.
Metropolitan Museum of Art 1911. A Handbook of the Egyptian Rooms. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, fig. 59 (in all editions 1911-1922).
Petrie, William Matthew Flinders, Sir 1911. "Roman Portraits in Egypt." In Man: A Monthly Record of Anthropological Science, 11, p. 146, pl. K/a.
Petrie, William Matthew Flinders, Sir 1911. Records of the Past, 10, p. 306ff., fig. 3.
Petrie, William Matthew Flinders, Sir 1913. The Hawara portfolio : paintings of the Roman age, 22. Publications of the Egyptian Research Account and British School of Archaeology in Egypt, London, pl. XXII.
Reinach, Adolphe 1914. "Les portraits gréco-égyptiens." In Revue archéologique, 4-5, p. 1 n2, 13 n1, fig. 10.
Möller, Georg 1919. Das Mumienporträt. Berlin, p. 4, pl. 11.
Swindler, Mary Hamilton 1929. Ancient Painting, from the Earliest Times to the Period of Christian Art. New Haven, London: Yale University Press, p. 323, figs. 511 and 523.
Parlasca, Klaus 1966. Mumienporträts und verwandte Denkmäler. Wiesbaden: Steiner, pp. 50 n234, 51 n247 no. 2, 252, 253.
Parlasca, Klaus 1969. Ritratti di Mummie, Series B Volume 1. Repertorio d'arte dell'Egitto Greco-Romano, Palermo, cat. no. 50.
Corcoran, Lorelei Hilda 1985. "Hawara Portrait Mummy No. 4." In Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, 71, pp. 191-193.
Corcoran, Lorelei Hilda 1995. Portrait mummies from Roman Egypt (I-IV centuries A.D.) : with a catalog of portrait mummies in Egyptian Museums, 56. Studies in Ancient Oriental Civilization (SAOC), Chicago: University of Chicago Press, pp. 9, 20.
Borg, Barbara E. 1996. Mumienporträts, Chronologie, und kultureller Kontext. Mainz am Rhein: P. von Zabern, pp. 70, 72, 98, 106, 122, 129, 184, pl. 2.
Borg, Barbara E. 1998. "Die zierlichste Anblick der Welt ... ": Ägyptische Porträtmummien. Mainz am Rhein: P. von Zabern, p. 39 fig. 46.
Walker, Susan 2000. Ancient Faces: Mummy Portraits from Roman Egypt. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, pp. 46-7.
Mininberg, David T. 2001. "The Museum's Mummies: an Inside View." In Neurosurgery, 49, no. 1 (July), pp. 192–9.
Thompson, Randall C., Adel H. Allam, Guido P. Lombardi, L. Samuel Wann, M. Linda Sutherland, James D. Sutherland, Muhammad Al-Tohamy Soliman, Bruno Frohlich, David Mininberg, Janet M. Monge, Clide M. Vallodolid, Samantha L. Cox, Gomaa Abd el-Maksoud, Ibrahim Badr, Michael I. Miyamoto, Abd el-Halim Nur el-din, Jagat Narula, Caleb E. Finch, and Gregory S. Thomas 2013. "Atherosclerosis across 4000 years of human history: the Horus study of four ancient populations." In The Lancet, March 10, p. 4.
Bianchi, Robert 2022. "Sealing the Dead." In ENiM, 15, p. 86 n115.
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