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HOME : Egyptian Antiquities : Masterpieces of Egyptian Art : Roman Period Egyptian Mummy Portrait Depicting a Woman
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Roman Period Egyptian Mummy Portrait Depicting a Woman - X.0554
Origin: Egypt
Circa: 1 st Century AD
Dimensions: 13" (33.0cm) high x 6.5" (16.5cm) wide
Collection: Egyptian
Medium: Paint on Wood

Location: UAE
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The so-called Faiyum portraits are the fascinating result of cultural fusion between indigenous Egyptian and invading Roman cultural styles. The Romans had a fascination with the longevity of Egyptian mummies and the immortality they promised, and introduced to the mummification process the relatively innovative and to Egypt revolutionary art style of perceived representationalism. The reign of Akhenaten had been the only flirtation Egypt had had with such a style, and the violent end of him and his short-lived dynasty (including the possible murder of Tutankhamun) heralded the return of traditional Egyptian styles.

This piece, 13 inches tall by 6.5 wide, is both spectacular and highly significant to the development of Egyptian and Roman art styles. It has been published in full as is appropriate for a piece of this importance (H.F. in Klaus Parlasca and Hellmut Seemann (editors), Augenblikcke. Mumienporträts und ägyptische Grabkunst aus römischer Zeit (Munich 1999), pages 220-221, catalogue number 129). The piece is described below by Dr R.S. Bianchi:

The sitter of this engaging, life-like portrait is a mature, full-figured woman with her head turned slightly to the left. Her visage is round with wide-open, olive-dark eyes set into rather deep sockets, casting their glance upward and to the left in the direction of her turned head. Her eyebrows are full and the lashes of her eyes well defined as if lined with mascara. Her sensuous lips are closed and set above a prominent chin. The sensuality of the figure is enhanced by her fleshy, exposed neck, itself lined with rings of Venus, an ancient sign of beauty and desirability. Her dark hair is arranged along her forehead in a series of short, loop-like curls, behind which are a series of horizontally arranged, well-articulated braids, apparently tied into a bun at the back of the head. She is depicted wearing a chiton dyed a grayish-purple color which is decorated with wide, black clavi, or stripes, and finished at the seams in white. Over this and draped over both shoulders is a thick mantle, dyed purple as well. Her accessories include earrings featuring large, white pearls and a gold necklace with flame-like drop pendants radiating over the top of her chiton.

The predominant purple color of her costume and its clavi identify our subject as an elite member of aristocratic society in Roman Egypt, purple being the color generally reserved for Roman emperors. Her gold necklace suggests both wealth and status, as does the presence of pearls in her earrings, this depiction being among the earliest documents of the use of pearls as a fashion accessory. The portrait can be securely dated to the Flavian Period of the Roman Empire on the basis of the style of the sitter's coiffure, because it reflects the taste and fashion of Roman empresses of that period.

This portrait belongs to classification of Faiyum portraits, so-called because Sir Flinders Petrie, the father of modern archaeology, first called attention to the type at the site of Hawara in the Egyptian Faiyum, that rich agricultural district to the southwest of modern Cairo. Subsequent research has shown that only ten percent of these elite Romans buried in Egypt possessed mummies equipped with such portraits. The portraits were painted on wafer- thin panels of wood in either the encaustic or tempera technique. The encaustic technique involves suspending pigment in molten wax and applying it while still hot to a wooden panel. The tempera technique, which is rarer for these portraits, is employed for this panel and resembles the technique employed by artists of the West since the time of the Renaissance. As a result, the artist of this panel has achieved a mastery of detail which includes a nascent chiaroscuro in which highlights on the face and neck are given a three-dimensional quality by means of the use of white. One has, therefore, correctly compared Faiyum portraits of the quality of this one under discussion to the Baroque portraits of both Rubens and Hals. The portrait originally hung in the house of the sitter in much the same way that oil paintings and photographs of loved ones are still to be found in our homes today. Upon death, her heirs carefully delivered the portrait to the funerary home where the priests intentionally cut the top in order to accommodate it more efficiently over the face of the mummy where it was placed. Traces of the mummy bandages used for that fastening are still preserved, as are traces of the unguents and balms used in that process.

It is rare to find a Faiyum portrait of such quality that has been published and featured in an exhibition, as this one has been. The sitter exudes a warmth and immediacy which evokes the very best of European portraits and would be at home in any consummate art collection. - (X.0554)


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