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Exhibitions/ Ancient Faces

Ancient Faces: Mummy Portraits from Roman Egypt

February 15–May 7, 2000
Exhibitions are free with Museum admission.

Exhibition Overview

From the first to third century A.D., the art of painted panel portraits flourished in Roman Egypt. Called Fayum portraits, these images were sometimes placed over the heads of mummies. Until recently almost entirely overlooked by scholars and the public alike, these are startlingly realistic portraits of men and women of all ages. With their direct full gaze and strong presence, these portraits, at once Greco-Roman in their painting style and intrinsically Egyptian in their purpose, bring the inhabitants of ancient Egypt before us with compelling immediacy.

Based on a similar exhibition at the British Museum in 1997, Ancient Faces presents approximately seventy of the finest Fayum portraits, drawn from museums throughout Europe and the United States. Accompanied by examples of beautiful mummy coverings and masks, jewelry, funerary stelae, and related works from the same period, the exhibition contextualizes the portraits in the complex culture of Roman Egypt and explores the full range of mummy portrait techniques—encaustic and tempera on wood panels, tempera paintings on linen, and painted masks and coffins of plaster and cartonnage.

Egypt became part of the Roman Empire after the battle of Actium and the death of Cleopatra VII (30 B.C.). The importance of the new province was expressed by its special status as the personal estate of the emperor, ruled by a prefect. Rome's interest in Egypt was, to a large degree, economic: the fertile lands along the Nile were capable of producing a rich surplus of foodstuffs, especially grain, that became essential in feeding the populace of the city of Rome. Moreover, the city of Alexandria exported Egypt's manifold manufactured goods—such as papyrus, glass, and other luxury articles—while the Nile and the desert routes that linked to the Red Sea provided trade connections with inner Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, and India. Egypt's deserts furnished a great variety of minerals, ores, and hard stones.

The beneficiaries of such advantageous economic conditions were—for a while, at least—not only the Roman rulers but also a rich upper class of landowners and merchants in Egypt itself, a class that consisted of a diverse mixture of indigenous Egyptians and descendants of people from countries all around the eastern Mediterranean who had settled in the Nile Valley and oases (such as the Fayum) during the rule of the Ptolemies (332–30 B.C.).

The truly multicultural population in the cities of Roman Egypt provided a fertile ground for phenomena such as the painted panel portraits on mummies. In their artistic style and technique, the portraits on wood panels followed the Greek painting tradition of depicting the subject in three-quarter view, with a single light source casting realistic shadows and highlights on the face. Indeed, since practically no panel paintings from the Greek world have been preserved, the mummy portraits—conserved by Egypt's arid climate—are the only examples of an art form that ancient literary sources place among the highest achievements of Greek culture.

The clothing, hairstyles, and jewelry worn by the individuals represented in the panel portraits display fashions that were prevalent throughout the Roman Empire—most likely under strong influences from the imperial court—but also incorporate special eastern Mediterranean idiosyncrasies, such as a profusion of curls in some of the female hairdos. None of these styles and fashions had any connection with traditional Egyptian customs. Taken by themselves, the encaustic panel portraits appear to have no links with Pharaonic Egypt. Seen in their original context, however, the character of the painted portraits changes. Placed over the faces and fastened into the linen wrappings of Egyptian mummies, the portraits demonstrate clearly that the seemingly Greco-Roman individuals represented in the paintings adhered to traditional Egyptian beliefs about the afterlife. Strong ties to the traditional Pharaonic religion can also be deduced from the popularity of Hawara as a burial place for panel portrait mummies. This site, at the entrance to the Fayum oasis, was the place of the pyramid and mortuary temple of the Middle Kingdom pharaoh Amenemhat III (ca. 1844–1797 B.C.). Greek authors called the temple the "Labyrinth" and described statues of "monsters"—that is, crocodile and other animal-headed deities—still standing in their chapels in the first century A.D. The wish to be buried in such a place signals not only veneration of Egyptian deities, but a deep-seated need for a connection to the traditional religion and culture.

Scholars recently have described the society for whose members the mummy portraits were painted as one in which the individual played a number of different roles, according to their activities and functions. People may have felt as Greeks in the gymnasium, as Romans in administrative roles, and as Egyptians in their village communities, and when venerating the gods or contemplating the afterlife. This situation must have caused considerable tension in the society, but it may be one of the factors that make the painted portraits such important works of art. A present-day artist, Euphrosyne C. Doxiadis, succinctly described this aspect of the paintings in the exhibition catalogue: "Of these two strands [the Greek painting tradition and Egyptian funerary beliefs], the sophistication of the first and the intensity of the second combined to produce moments of breathtaking beauty and unsettling presence."

The technique used in painting the majority of mummy portraits is called encaustic (Greek for "burnt in"). This term, used by ancient authors, is somewhat misleading, because heat is not absolutely necessary to attain the effects seen in the encaustic panels. Therefore, encaustic has come to mean any painting method in which pigment is mixed with beeswax. Researchers have found that a great variety of methods were used to achieve the desired effects in the encaustic paintings: hot or cold wax, under-painting with various colors, and a variety of soft or hard tools that were used cold or heated. To the modern viewer, part of the attraction of encaustic paintings is their similarity to oil painting, since the wax medium could be applied in thick layers showing a great variety of tool marks and free brush strokes. An important characteristic of encaustic mummy portraits is the use of wafer-thin gold leaf. In some pieces, the entire background is gilded, in others, wreaths and fillets are added, and jewelry and garment decoration is emphasized.

Another painting technique found in mummy panel portraits is tempera, in which pigments are mixed with water-soluble binding agents, most frequently animal glue. Tempera portraits are painted on light or dark grounds in bold brush strokes and fine hatching and cross-hatching. Their surface is matte, in contrast to the glossy surface of encaustic paintings. This style of painting—which has antecedents in ancient Egyptian painting of Pharaonic times—calls for sure draftsmanship, and has been described as "calligraphic." Since the faces in tempera paintings usually are shown frontally, and the complex treatment of light and shadow is less prominent than in the encaustic works, tempera painting may be linked more closely to indigenous Egyptian artistic traditions. There are, however, many indications that the mummy portrait painters using the tempera technique were strongly influenced by the paintings in encaustic. In addition, some works were created in a mixed encaustic and tempera technique. It is not known whether the same painters used all of the methods (encaustic, tempera, and mixed).

Mummy portrait panels consisted of a variety of woods—indigenous (sycamore), imported (cedar, pine, fir, cypress, oak), and possibly imported, but also growing in Egypt at the time (lime, fig, and yew). Some portraits are painted on linen stiffened by glue.

In the exhibition, encaustic panel paintings are presented in chronological groups, separating the colorful, very painterly Julio-Claudian panels (A.D. 35–69), which seem to capture a fleeting moment, from the full-blooded Flavian panels (A.D. 69–96), and the sculptural Trajanic paintings (A.D. 96–117). A number of very striking images from the period of Emperor Hadrian (A.D. 117–38) show interesting differences between the works from the Fayum and those from Antinoopolis, a city founded by Hadrian in A.D. 130. The following Antonine period (A.D. 138–92) was a peak in the painting of mummy portraits, with many unforgettable images, such as the priest of Serapis, the young man from the Munich Antikensammlung, the young man from Berlin, and a number of the Museum's own portraits, all masterpieces of characterization through paint. Some late Antonine to early Severan pieces from the turn of the second to the third century include a boy's portrait from the Getty Museum, and a bearded man from the Louvre, the latter again from Antinoopolis. Since the later first century, but especially during the Antonine period, tempera paintings appear parallel to those in encaustic. These tempera paintings, which took on increasing significance during the last period of mummy portrait painting (early third century), are exemplified by such highlights as two panels with young boys' images from the Brooklyn Museum of Art, and a man with a short beard from the Getty Museum.

Contemporary to the Fayum portraits, the linen shrouds wrapped around mummies were painted with representations of full-length figures, usually in tempera, or in a mixture of tempera and encaustic. In the exhibition, some shrouds are shown side-by-side with panels of the same period. One especially beautiful shroud and a fragment of another, both from the Louvre, were among the latest objects in the exhibition. The more complete shroud, which is from Antinoopolis, pictures a woman wearing a purple dalmatic (a wide-sleeved garment) and holding in her left hand an Egyptian ankh (symbol of life); she lifts her right hand, palm open, in a gesture of protection and veneration known from images of Isis. The shroud illustrates the period of transition between paganism and Christianity that marked the fourth century.

Various styles are discernible inside the two main categories of encaustic and tempera paintings. In some cases, a particular style of painting can be linked to a particular place. Paintings on mummies found at Hawara and el-Rubayat (the cemetery of ancient Philadelphia) are the largest groups, and since both places are located in the Fayum region, this has led to the practice of calling all mummy paintings "Fayum portraits." Other important groups were excavated at Antinoopolis, Memphis, Thebes, and various places along the Nile in the vicinity of the Fayum. The mere fact that both encaustic and tempera paintings have been found at el-Rubayat shows that not all portraits found in a cemetery were painted by artists of the same school. Literary sources indicate that mummies could, on occasion, be transported over rather far distances. There is also evidence for traveling artists. The most obvious regionally confined traits, finally, concern the shape into which the panels were cut, an observation that has more to do with burial customs than painting style, because most of the cuttings were made just before the piece was attached to the mummy. Nevertheless, it is possible, to some extent, to consider artistic peculiarities among a localized group of portraits as constituting the style of that region. Antinoopolis paintings, for example, are characterized by a striking austerity in the representation of the individuals, while the encaustic painters of the Fayum sites show the richest palette and greatest sophistication in juxtaposing light and shadow.

Unmistakable stylistic differences also exist between portraits of different dates, and the dating of mummy portraits is a hotly debated subject among scholars. There is general consensus, however, that mummy portrait painting began around 30–40 A.D. The dates of encaustic pieces from this period to the beginning of the third century are fairly well established on the basis of the hairstyles and jewelry worn by the persons represented in the paintings. The dates of some major tempera paintings are still under discussion, however, as some scholars believe they continued to be painted through the fourth century. In this exhibition and its catalogue, the more convincing earlier dates for the tempera pieces are used.

News of the existence of mummy portraits reached Europe in the mid-seventeenth century, when Pietro della Valle (1586–1652) published an account of his travels to Persia and India by way of Egypt. Although the two mummy portraits he acquired in Saqqara (outside Cairo) were described and depicted in the book, they were perceived as curiosities rather than as works of art. Another two centuries would elapse before mummy portraits would attract a sustained level of attention in Europe.

In the early nineteenth century, archaeological excavations by the British and the French yielded several portraits, but it took several extensive finds late in the century to pique the interest of scholars and connoisseurs. 1887 marked a surprising turn of events: inhabitants of the area near el-Rubayat (in the Fayum) discovered and excavated numerous mummies with portraits. Purchased immediately by Theodor Graf (1840–1903), an Austrian businessman, these works were exhibited in various European cities and in New York City before being sold to buyers worldwide.

Just a year later (1887-89), the noted English archaeologist W. M. Flinders Petrie (1853–1942) discovered a major Roman-period cemetery at Hawara (also in the Fayum), the burial site of many mummies with finely rendered, mainly encaustic portraits. The importance of the Hawara find cannot be overstated, as most of the mummy portraits now in the United Kingdom were discovered there by Petrie. In the 1890s, a German expedition to Hawara was mounted, and Petrie himself returned in 1911.

In the decades that followed, however, public as well as scholarly interest in mummy portraits waned. Egyptologists devoted their investigations to the art of the pharaohs, while scholars of Greek and Roman art considered the mummy portraits an expression of Egyptian art, and therefore outside their purview. With the rise of interdisciplinary studies came renewed interest in Roman Egypt, and mummy portraits have once again attracted general interest and attention. Subsequent excavations at sites such as Fag el-Gamus, el-Hibeh, Antinoopolis, Akhmim, and Marina el-Alamein suggest that mummy portraits actually were painted throughout much of the country.

The exhibition is made possible in part by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.