Fragments of a Mummy Portrait of a Man

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Fragments of a Mummy Portrait of a Man, c. 150 CE
2nd century CE
Roman Imperial period, Middle
Creation Place: Fayum (Egypt)
Encaustic on panel
29.3 x 13.2 cm (11 9/16 x 5 3/16 in.)
Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Gift of Dr. Denman W. Ross
, 1924.80
Department of Ancient and Byzantine Art & Numismatics
Mummy portrait of a bearded man wearing a white tunic. His face is highly detailed, with large brown eyes and a light beard with moustache. His hair is dark and holds the remains of a gold diadem. His tunic is white, with a navy blue vertical stripe over his right shoulder. There is a red band with gold studs running from behind the right side of his neck across the front of his chest.

The panel is broken into eighteen pieces, some of which do not appear to be original. It has been reassembled, but many of the pieces do not belong. The left side of his head does not align with his face, there are remnants of gold on a panel by his right ear that does not fit in, and both shoulders of his tunic are missing.

Almost all mummy portraits from the Roman period came from Northern Egypt, in an area called the Fayum. Mummy portraits are a unique representation of the human form. This medium developed in Egypt and had its roots in Egyptian burial practices. Egypt was taken over by the Romans in 30 BCE, after Octavian (later Augustus) defeated Marc Antony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium in 31 BCE. Roman Egypt became a mixture of imported customs and deep-seated, Egyptian tradition. Mummy portraits were most popular in the 1st to 3rd centuries CE.

Mummy portraits were probably painted while the deceased was still alive. There is some debate as to whether they are idealized or painted in the exact likeness of the person. They are usually painted on wooden panels or on linen, most often utilizing the encaustic technique. Encaustic painting uses heated wax with pigment added to create colors.

The portrait was attached to the coffin or mummy in the place where the face would be. They give us a glimpse into upper-class life in Roman Egypt, since only a wealthy person could afford to commission their painting. In addition, most females (and some males) are depicted wearing elaborate jewelry, often made of gold and featuring many precious stones. Some female mummy portraits show the deceased wearing up to seven necklaces.

[Jessica Pesce, 8/2010]
Exhibition History
HAA 1 Survey Course: Landmarks of World Art and Architecture [Spring 2007], Harvard University Art Museums, Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, 02/26/2007 - 04/08/2007
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