Woman's Head, mummy mask, linen cartonnage, Roman period, 1st-2nd centuries CE, Egypt
Mask and Portrait in Egypt
of the Roman Era
December 6, 2008 - June, 2009
Curator: Avshalom Zemer
Characteristic of the burial arts in Egypt during the Roman period were the burial masks and painted portraits. Use of the mask, an idealized portrait of the deceased, was widespread in burial rites during the First Intermediate period (2181-2035 BCE). Conversely, the painted portrait placed between the bindings of the mummy was naturalistic. The painted likeness of the departed was a phenomenon deriving from the Hellenistic culture that predominated in the East, in particular after the conquests of Alexander the Great (356-323 BCE).
After Alexander conquered Egypt in 332, many immigrant Greeks brought their own material culture. During that period a large population of immigrants settled in the province of Fayum. Some of them continued the secret burial rite of their ancestors, cremation, but others adopted the Egyptian traditions of mummification and of placing the body in a sarcophagus.
When Egypt was annexed to the Roman Empire in 30 BCE, the traditional Egyptian mode of burial declined, and was replaced by burial masks in Graeco-Roman style, and by painted portraits. The latter, known as the "Fayum Portraits" according to where they were first discovered, depicted the upper torso of the dead, usually wearing a tunic made of fine linen covered by a cloak, and sometimes holding some object in his hands.
The Egyptian portraits of the dead combine the Roman tradition of memorial busts of the paterfamilias with the ancient Egyptian tradition of mummification and preparation for life after death. This phenomenon clearly derives from the Hellenistic culture of retaining the individuality of each dead person.
The portrait artists used two methods: tempera - mixing pigment with adhesive; and encaustic - mixing the pigment with melted wax. The encaustic works resemble portraits painted in oils, so it is hardly surprising that they have often been compared to works by the late 19th century Impressionist artists. They are examples of the Alexandrian technique based on Greek art that reached its apogee in the 4th century BCE. Some of the early portraits also resemble the paintings at Pompeii from the 1st century CE.
Opinions of the experts are divided as to whether the likenesses were taken while the subject was still living or after death. This is essentially because, when they were discovered, most of the portraits had been detached from the mummies by grave-robbers in order to sell them, so that in many cases it was impossible to determine the age of the deceased.
In spite of differences in style, whether of mask or painted portrait, the obvious elements indicate that all of the subjects had belonged to the Egyptian social elite which tended to imitate Roman fashions. This is evident in the costumes, jewellery, and coiffures familiar from the courts of the Roman emperors. During the Roman period, both types of representation - burial masks in Graeco-Roman style and painted portraits - were used in Egyptian burials until the 4th century CE. The custom ceased after a decree forbidding ancestor worship by the Emperor Theodosius (379-395 CE) in 392 CE.