Mummy portraits A visual record of changing fashions in Roman Egypt

Mummy portraits: A visual record of changing fashions in Roman Egypt

Hauntingly lifelike, these remarkable portraits were positioned over the heads of mummies and wrapped in place almost 2,000 years ago. Two exceptional examples are offered in the Antiquities sale in New York on 25 October

Painted mummy portraits from Roman Egypt are among the most remarkable survivors from the ancient world, providing insight into Romano-Egyptian burial customs as well as style and fashion trends from the 1st-3rd century A.D.

The ancient Egyptians believed that the transfigured spirit of the deceased aspired to dwell in perpetuity in the realm of Osiris, God of the Underworld. For this to happen the body needed to be preserved for the spirit to continue to exist. The time-honoured Pharonic tradition of mummifying the deceased continued for several centuries into the Roman period in Egypt, although in some regions, instead of placing the body in an anthropomorphic coffin of wood, stone or clay, the deceased was ornately wrapped in linen with a naturalistic painted wood portrait positioned over the head. 

One discovery suggests that these painted portraits hung in frames in homes until eventually they were placed over the mummy. It has also been suggested that they were painted close to the time of death and carried around the local city during a procession (ekphora) celebrating the deceased before being taken to the embalmer. Since a large number were found in the towns around the Fayum oasis in middle Egypt, these painted panels are traditionally called Fayum portraits, even though some have been found in many other parts of Egypt.

An Egyptian encaustic on wood mummy portrait of a woman. Hadrianic period, c. 2nd century AD 12 116 in (30.6 cm) long. Estimate $150,000-250,000. This lot is offered in Antiquities on 25 October 2016 at Christie’s in New York, Rockefeller Plaza

An Egyptian encaustic on wood mummy portrait of a woman. Hadrianic period, c. 2nd century AD 12 1/16 in (30.6 cm) long. Estimate: $150,000-250,000. This lot is offered in Antiquities on 25 October 2016 at Christie’s in New York, Rockefeller Plaza

The female portrait above dates to the Hadrianic period on account of her distinctive hairstyle, worn up with a single braid encircling the crown. Her earrings are also common to this period, although the gold necklace with lunula pendant was more common in the 1st century A.D., suggesting it may be an heirloom.

Remarkably, assessment of hairstyles, clothes and jewellery allows scholars to date the paintings to within a decade or so. This dating is based on comparison to similar finds in other parts of the Empire, since even in remote locations there was a strong desire to imitate the evolving preferences of members of the Imperial families. 

Most portraits depict their subjects in the prime of life rather than in old age; CT scans of mummies confirm the relatively young ages of the deceased, indicating the relatively low life expectancy of most people in the ancient world.

An Egyptian encaustic on wood mummy portrait of a bearded man. Hadrianic period, c.  2nd century AD 12¼ in (31.1 cm) long. Estimate $100,000-150,000. This lot is offered in Antiquities on 25 October 2016 at Christie’s in New York, Rockefeller Plaza

An Egyptian encaustic on wood mummy portrait of a bearded man. Hadrianic period, c. 2nd century AD 12¼ in (31.1 cm) long. Estimate: $100,000-150,000. This lot is offered in Antiquities on 25 October 2016 at Christie’s in New York, Rockefeller Plaza

The careworn expression and unkempt hair of the man in the portrait above suggest that he might have been a soldier. His plain white tunic, however, shows no military accoutrements, which may be a result of the damage to his left shoulder. Like the female portrait, this piece can be dated to the Hadrianic period based on the hairstyle and facial hair.

Fayum portraits have been a source of inspiration for artists working in the modernist tradition, with Picasso known to have studied them carefully at the Louvre. Buste d'homme, painted in 1965 and sold at Christie’s in 2016, echoes the intense, confronting eyes found on mummy portraits from Graeco-Roman Egypt. Frida Kahlo also seems to visually quote the Fayum aesthetic in her Self-Portrait with Curly Hair (1935), sold at Christie’s in 2003 — her curled coiffure, provoking gaze and the inclusion of contemporary jewellery calling to mind the female portrait shown above.

The two exceptional Fayum portraits in this story are from the Collection of Rudolf Mosse (1843-1920). A successful entrepreneur, progressive political thinker and philanthropist, Mosse founded a publishing and advertising conglomerate that included the Berliner Tageblatt, an early and outspoken critic of the Nazi party. 

A painted wood mummy portrait of a woman. Roman period, c. 55-70 AD. Sold for $262,400 on 7 December 2006
A painted wood mummy portrait of a woman. Roman period, c. 55-70 AD. Sold for: $262,400 on 7 December 2006
A painted wood Fayum portrait of a man. Roman period, c. 80-140 AD. Sold for $116,000 on 13 June 2000
A painted wood Fayum portrait of a man. Roman period, c. 80-140 AD. Sold for: $116,000 on 13 June 2000

Mosse was a committed patron of the arts, particularly in the field of Egyptology. He sponsored digs led by Heinrich Karl Brugsch, whose excavations yielded the foundation for what is now the Cairo Museum. It is likely that the Fayum portraits offered in this sale were a result of this relationship. 

When Hitler’s party rose to power in 1933, 13 years after Mosse’s death, his daughter and sole heir, Felicia Lachmann-Mosse, and her husband, Hans Lachmann-Mosse, the publisher of the Berliner Tageblatt, were forced to leave Germany. Their considerable art collection was seized and subsequently dispersed at auction.

The Fayum portraits were acquired by Erich Maria Remarque, author of the World World I novel, All's Quiet on the Western Front, and his wife, the actress Paulette Goddard-Remarque. In 1979, the University of Zurich acquired both portraits from Mrs. Remarque. The works are now being sold on behalf of the Mosse Foundation, which represents the current heirs of Felicia Lachmann-Mosse.