Art Through Time: A Global View
Death Art: Funeral Portrait of a Woman
Egyptian beliefs held that the preservation of the physical body was crucial to the survival of the deceased in the afterlife.
Sarcophagi in human form were created as a means not only of protecting the actual body, but also as an alternate anchor for the life force, or ka, in the event that the corpse was damaged. An early development in anthropoid coffins during Egypt’s First Intermediate Period (ca. 2160–2025 BCE) was the introduction of face masks, placed over the heads of mummies. Images like the one seen here continue this tradition. Painted on wooden panels or linen shrouds, they were affixed over the mummy’s wrappings.
Rooted in Egyptian practices and beliefs, mummy portraits from the Fayum region of Egypt are also indebted to art of the Classical world. Created from the first through the third century CE, during Egypt’s Roman period, the images draw stylistically on Graeco-Roman models. Although they appear to be naturalistic likenesses, there is debate over whether these “portraits” are actually drawn from life. Some believe they were painted and first displayed in the home during the subject’s lifetime, while others suggest that they were produced at the time of death to be carried with the body in a procession known as the ekphora, a tradition originating in Greece.
In this portrait, a young woman wears valuable jewels; her bust is enveloped in a gold pectoral. Associated with immortality, the presence of gold in this and other Fayum portraits suggests the divinity of the individual in death as well as his or her wealth in life. The rich colors of these paintings were created using the encaustic technique, in which artists combined pigments with beeswax and other ingredients, such as egg, resin, and linseed oil.
Roberts, Paul, ed. Mummy Portraits from Roman Egypt. London: The British Museum Press, 2008.
Walker, Susan, ed. Ancient Faces: Mummy Portraits in Roman Egypt. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Routledge, 2000.