In 1887, while looking for 5,000-year-old pharaonic tombs near the Faiyum oasis in Egypt, the British archaeologist Flinders Petrie unearthed a treasure trove of around 60 realistic portraits fastened to the heads of mummies buried in a Roman-era cemetery.
Petrie’s fieldwork diaries from the time describe the 2,000-year-old faces as if they were alive. One entry reads: ‘A young, married woman of about 25, of sweet dignified expression, with beautiful features.’
According to Christie’s antiquities specialist Hannah Fox Solomon, ‘these haunting funerary portraits, painted on wood panels or stiffened sheets of linen with pigments mixed into beeswax or egg yolk, provide some of the most authentic eye-to-eye encounters with the inhabitants of the Roman world.’
‘Funerary portraits were meant to keep the essence of the deceased intact as they transitioned from this life to the afterlife’
Lifelike funerary portraits flourished in Egypt between the first and third centuries AD, after the country had been annexed by the Roman Emperor Augustus following the battle of Actium in 31 BC.
‘This unique art form combined the Egyptian funerary custom of mummification, which had been taking place for thousands of years, with the Classical tradition of naturalistic portrait painting,’ says Solomon.
And their purpose? ‘To keep the essence of the deceased intact as they transitioned from this life to the afterlife,’ she says. It’s likely that the portraits were painted while their subjects were alive. By some accounts they even hung on the walls of their homes.
CAT scans have shown that the portraits accurately reflect the gender, age and physical appearance of the mummies to which they were fastened. ‘People often ask why they all died so young,’ says Solomon. ‘In fact, their ages tend to be in line with life expectancy at the time.’
Solomon and her colleagues have been able to date the portrait offered from the sitter’s hairstyle and jewellery, as well as other surviving portraits that have been dated by archaeologists.
‘Her high-piled ringlets, gold earrings and gold crescent-shaped necklace hanging from a red cord were all very fashionable in Egypt during the first or second centuries AD,’ explains Solomon.
‘She also wears a Roman-style blue-grey striped tunic draped across her chest, and what looks like heavy black kohl [eyeliner made from burnt almonds and ochre], which is similar to the makeup worn by the pharaohs of Egypt, but was also popular in Rome. I think she was proudly multicultural.’
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This mummy portrait comes from The Collection of James and Marilyn Alsdorf, the renowned Chicago-based collectors and philanthropists. ‘Over four decades of marriage, they amassed one of America’s greatest collections of ancient Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Islamic, Asian and early Renaissance art,’ says Solomon.
From 2 to 16 June 2020, Christie’s will host an online dedicated single-owner sale of more than 60 Greek, Roman, Egyptian and Near Eastern works of art from the collection.