Roman Period Mummy Portrait

CULTURE:
Egyptian
DATE:
late 2nd century CE
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General Description

The practice of making plaster mummy masks to place over the embalmed body of a dead person had a long tradition in Egypt, ultimately going back to the reserve heads of the Old Kingdom. When the Greeks of the Hellenistic age and later the Romans of the Empire ruled Egypt, they adopted this custom. The well-to-do Greco-Roman elite ordered such plaster or cartonnage masks to suit their own artistic taste.

This Roman portrait mask is an interesting counterpoint to the DMA's marble Figure of a woman (1973.11). The mask blends the idealism of Greek art with realistic Roman style, creating a head that is both beautiful and psychologically forceful. The woman wears recognizable types of late second-century C.E. earrings and necklace, similar examples of which are in the DMA's ancient jewelry collection (1996. 35.A-B) and (1995.26). The inlaid eyes and the remains of paint on the cartonnage give the portrait a remarkably lifelike appearance. While the style of the head is Roman, the funerary symbolism of the portrait head, which implies eternal life, is Egyptian. This syncretism of belief and style is also seen in the contemporary portrait paintings in encaustic paint over wood from the Fayum area of Egypt. Like the DMA's Syro-Roman Head of a priest (1994.51), this head illustrates the spread of Roman ideas of portraiture in the eastern empire.

Excerpt from

Anne R. Bromberg, and Karl Kilinski II, Gods, Men, and Heroes: Ancient Art at the Dallas Museum of Art. (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1996), 102.