Portrait mummy of a youth
Roman Imperial Period
about A.D. 50
Findspot: Egypt, Hawara
Height: 113 cm (44 1/2 in.)
Medium or Technique
Encaustic (colored wax) on wood; linen; and human remains
Egyptian Funerary Arts Gallery (Mummies) (Gallery 109)
An innovation of Roman times was the beautiful lifelike portrait painted onto a wooden panel to be inserted into the mummy bandages. Such portrait mummies are contemporary with cartonnage mummy masks but present a very different appearance. Because the majority have been found in the cemeteries of the Faiyum, an oasis west of the Nile, about 80.5 kilometers (50 miles) south of Cairo, they are traditionally called “Faiyum portraits.” But finds at other sites indicate that the practice was widespread. Portrait mummies were neither placed in coffins, nor were they even buried right away. Classical authors comment on the Egyptian practice of dining with the dead, and it appears that the wrapped mummies of relatives were kept in the home as cult objects for a generation or two before being consigned to burial.
Much attention has focused on the funerary panels as the only painted portraits in the Greco-Roman style to have survived from antiquity, especially as so many have been detached from their mummies and displayed independently. However, it is important not to lose sight of the mummy for which each funerary portrait was specifically made and of which it was an integral part. The complete ensemble consists of three parts: portrait, mummy, and footcase. The portrait presents a moving, if not haunting, and lifelike image of the deceased. The subject here is a young boy with round, dark eyes, and dark hair combed close to the scalp. A wisp of hair behind the right earmay represent a sidelock of youth. He wears a white tunic and a gold amulet case suspended by a black cord. The gilded lips are rare. The gold may symbolize the deceased’s transformation into an akh, or blessed spirit, a being of light.
The mummy has been bound lengthwise in a rhomboid or diamond pattern approximately three layers deep with gilded stucco studs in the center of each rhombus. Bands of linen across the chest secure a strip of cartonnage with gilded studs. Plain linen bands, perhaps once holding a similar strip, gird the ankles. The wrapped feet are enclosed in a cartonnage footcase. The upper part of the footcase is modeled in relief with the sandaled feet of the deceased painted pink with gilded toes and resting on a checkered floor. The soles of the sandals on the underside of the footcase (not visible in the photograph) are painted with figures of bound prisoners, a motif borrowed from the royal sphere, and symbolic of the deceased’s victory over opposing forces in the underworld.
Although the art of bandaging reached new heights in the Roman Period, mummification itself lagged behind, and the fancy wrapping conceals shoddy preservation of the body. Even x-rays have not allowed experts to determine whether the occupant was a boy or girl. However, the lack of any specifically female clothing or adornment may indicate that the coffin was intended for a boy.
From Hawara. Excavated by William Flinders Petrie for the Egyptian Research Account; awarded to the Egyptian Research Account by the government of Egypt; given to the MFA by the Egyptian Research Account.
(Accession Date: December 7, 1911)
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