Mummy portraits painted on wooden panels or linen shrouds were an invention of the Roman Imperial period in an otherwise millennia-old Egyptian funerary tradition. Such painted portraits were enclosed over the head within the linen wrappings of the mummified remains of some of the wealthiest inhabitants of Roman Egypt.
As their first significant archeological discoveries were made in the Fayum Oasis to the southwest of Cairo, they are commonly known as Fayum mummy portraits – although they have been found elsewhere along the Nile valley too (such as Memphis and Thebes, Hermopolis and particularly Antinopolis).
A mummy portrait of a young woman with a gilded laurel wreath, which is part of the archeological collection of the Allard Pierson Museum in Amsterdam (APM inv. 724), offers an interesting illustration of the relevance of provenance research, technical analyses, museological implementation, as well as education and outreach efforts.
The naturalistic portrait depicts a girl of about fourteen years of age from an affluent family. With her head turned slightly to the (viewer’s) left and a twinkle in her eyes, she seems still very much alive. She wears a red tunic with black stripes, golden ear pendants, a barely visible pearl necklace, and is crowned with a wreath of gilded laurel leaves.
That golden wreath symbolizes her blissfulness due to the divine favor she enjoys in the afterlife. While average life expectancy in Roman Egypt was low (about 40 for men, and younger still for women), members of the elite would have doubtless reached a higher age. The youthfulness of the portrayed girl therefore indicates the exceptionally early age of her death.
Provenance and acquisition
The Allard Pierson Museum acquired the portrait of the girl with the golden wreath in 1934 from the former collection of the Dutch banker and art connoisseur Constant W. Lunsingh Scheurleer (1881-1941).
Through the mediation of his acquaintance Willem J. Leyds, a former Dutch statesman and diplomat of the South African Republic (Transvaal) then residing in The Hague, Scheurleer had purchased the portrait in 1907 from the German diplomat and Orientalist Karl Reinhardt, the first dragoman of the Imperial Prussian General Consulate in Cairo.
Reinhardt for his part likely bought it together with several other specimen in the 1890s from a local antiquities dealer. In 1897, Reinhardt moreover bought a great many papyri perhaps from the same dealer in Cairo that became the foundation of the University of Heidelberg collection of Demotic, Greek, Coptic and Arabic papyri.
At that time (the 1890s), painted mummy portraits had mostly been found on three sites. Specifically, on the necropolis of Philadelphia (present-day Rubbayat), which were offered on the art market by the Viennese dealer Theodor Graf since 1887; and on the cemetery of Crocodilopolis (present-day Hawara), excavated by English archeologist W.M. Flinders Petrie in 1888 – both in the Fayum; as well as in Antinopolis (now El-Sheikh Ibada), excavated by French archeologist Albert Gayet from 1895 to 1912. So, while the exact provenance of the Amsterdam portrait panel is unknown, it’s very likely that the mask was found at one of the aforementioned sites.
The importance of this acquisition history is first of all to authenticate the portrait’s bona fide possession – i.e. that it wasn’t stolen or plundered. However, the above sketch also allows further speculation about the portrait’s origin. For, while Graf did not discover his hundreds of portraits in controlled archeological excavations, the Amsterdam panel does not have the official stamp of the dealer’s name on the back (as recent x-ray imaging has demonstrated). It is glued to a rectangular modern panel with its obliquely cut corners restored and covered with a layer of solvent varnish of some sort supposedly to protect it from damage (but due to which it has greatly discolored to a dark brown hue).
These are not common features of the Graf collection, but seem to point to an attempt at restoration by the art dealer from whom Reinhardt acquired it. The oblique corners at which the portrait panel was cut is a common feature of the Hawara examples, and less so of those from Antinopolis. Further examination of the Petrie archive might perhaps confirm whether portrait APM 724 does belong to the Hawara
Painting style and technique
Fayum mummy portraits are often painted on thin linden panels with colored pigments mixed with beeswax. In some cases, another organic medium was used (from animal bones) or a combination of the two mediums. Oil was added to prevent the paint from drying up too quickly.
The painting technique based on beeswax is traditionally called encaustic (from the Greek word for “heat”), as the wax had to be kept molten with heat, or a heated metal spatula was used to apply the paint.
Fayum mummy portraits can generally be dated to the early first century of the common era to the mid-third century (ca. AD 25-250). In his encyclopedic Naturalis Historia (ca. AD 77-79), the Roman author Pliny asserts that this encaustic technique was developed by the Polygnotus of Thasos (fifth century BC), the Classical painter of the famous Athenian Stoa Poikilē (“Painted Porch”).
The Egyptian mummy portraits, with their striking naturalistic features, are the oldest surviving examples of ancient portrait paintings – not only of the Mediterranean, but of the world. Painted in originally Classical Greek technique, often on southeastern European wood for members of the Greco-Roman elite in Roman Egypt to decorate the remains of the deceased (who were mummified according to age-old Egyptian tradition), the Fayum portraits are testament to an intricately entangled multicultural society.
Preliminary non-invasive technical analysis of the panel was performed in June 2018 at the Rijksmuseum Atelier. Through a combination of visual observation, digital microscopy and x-ray fluorescence spectroscopy it was possible to establish that the portrait was painted in a single layer on a calcium-based ground.
The analysis also confirmed the use of a relatively simple palette, consisting of lead white and iron-based earth pigments. Visual examination leads to the assumption that madder is the main colourant in the girl’s tunic, but this could not be substantiated through analysis. Madder (with which actual clothing was dyed) however is commonly used for painting red tunics of Fayum portraits.
Highlights were added in pure lead white. The girl’s characteristic wreath was applied on top of the paint layer through mordant gilding. X-radiography of the painting shows the artist’s brushstrokes and under-modelling. This is a strong indicator for a paint on basis of pure molten beeswax.
It should be pointed out that gold-leaf funerary wreaths are generally uncommon among the Fayum mummy portraits (less than 10%). The girl’s laurel wreath is characterised by its stencilled polygonal leaves. There are very few other examples of this type of funerary wreath (less than 1.5%). This leads to the assumption that this type of wreath was either produced in the same atelier of by the same gilder.
Comparison of the wreath and the style of painting reveals a striking similarity with the portrait of a young woman in a red tunic in the Metropolitan Museum (MMA inv. 09.181.6), which was acquired from the famous antiquities dealer Maurice Nahman in Cairo in 1909 (together with six other portraits, none with further provenance information).
Dating the corpus of Fayum portraits has been a highly problematic endeavour – based for instance on stylistic and thus subjective grounds, such as artistic style, hair style, clothing or jewelry style. Indeed, the Amsterdam portrait has been first dated to the Flavian period (AD 69-96), and subsequently rather to the late Julio-Claudian period (ca. AD 50-68).
As other portraits with this type of wreath are generally dated from the late first to the late second century (ca. AD 50-200), it would seem preferable to reconsider the dating of the Amsterdam girl to the Nerva-Antonine period (AD 96-192).
In the Allard Pierson Museum, panel portrait APM 724 is displayed as one of the key objects illustrating the wide variety of physical appearances within the Roman Empire.
It thus offers the visitor a glimpse not only of Romano-Egyptian funerary practices, but also of the blending of different religious, cultural and artistic traditions: the painting technique that was first developed in Classical Greece; the red tunic with black stripes and the hair style that belong to Roman fashion; the European linden panel that itself was inserted into the wrappings of a mummy – a millennia-Egyptian funerary tradition; the golden wreath in her short hair that symbolizes her good fortune and the gods’ protection in the afterlife after passing through the judgment before Osiris. A more appropriate example of multicultural and multiethnic entanglement can hardly be found.
For educational purposes and community outreach efforts, a mummy portrait such as APM 724 can be used to illustrate museum visitors the relevance of ancient artefacts for modern society.
As an example of the multicultural entanglement of Roman Egypt it offers us a mirror to our own multicultural society. The portrait of the young woman allows us to pose questions such as: to what cultural identity did this girl’s family adhere; what is your ethnicity; how old was this girl when she died; what is an average age to die; what did people in Roman Egypt believe happened to the deceased in the afterlife; do you believe in life after death?
Most if not all historical societies mutually interacted with neighbouring regions – adopting and adapting each other’s customs and traditions, wisdoms and beliefs. In today’s world, it is of utmost importance to demonstrate that multicultural societies have a long history and are not a new phenomenon.
Suggestions for further reading are listed below:
- Barbara E. Borg, Mumienporträts: Chronologie, und Kulturelle Kontext (1996).
- Euphrosyne Doxiades, Mysterious Fayum Portraits (1995).
- Klaus Parlasca, Ritratti di Mummie: Repertorio d’Arte dell’Egitto Greco-Romano, Serie B, 4 vols. (1969-1980).
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