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HOME : Egyptian Antiquities : Archive : Roman Period Egyptian Mummy Portrait Depicting an Aristocratic Young Man
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Roman Period Egyptian Mummy Portrait Depicting an Aristocratic Young Man - X.0553 (LSO)
Origin: Egypt
Circa: 175 AD to 200 AD
Dimensions: 18" (45.7cm) high x 8.5" (21.6cm) wide
Collection: Egyptian
Medium: Paint on Wood


Additional Information: SOLD

Location: United States
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Description
This beautiful portrait is a rare examples of secular, non-royal portraiture in the ancient world, and is also one of a small collection of Faiyum portraits – arguably the most important example of cultural syncretism in antiquity (the other candidate is the Gandharan cultural tradition) – that has come down to us. Faiyum portraiture was the fusion of Roman socio- economics, Greek painting traditions and Egyptian stylistic conventions. The Romans combined these elements when they invaded Egypt, and were so struck by the idea of mummification that they had their dead mummified, then applied a portrait of the deceased – painted on thin wood – over the face. The tradition also gave rise to the Coptic style, which went on to define the iconography of early Christendom, Byzantine artistic traditions, and, eventually, the Renaissance.

The subject is a young man, seated with his body turned toward the left and his head slightly turned back toward the right in a pose which places emphasis on his relatively long neck. His curly hair is arranged in loose curls on top of his head, but has been neatly styled around his ears and neck. His bushy eye brows rise over his hieroglyphically-rendered brown eyes and frame the thin bridge of his nose. His mouth is emphasized by its rosy-coloured lips, the upper designed as a sensuous Cupid’s bow. The sparse nature of the youth’s beard and moustache suggests that he is in his late teens or early twenties, as also indicated by his firm, fair skin. The youth is depicted wearing a tunic, the neckline of which falls relatively low on his upper chest, and a mantle, draped over each shoulder where it is decorated with the clavi, or stripes of rank. The youthful character of the portrait suggests that the subject died prematurely.

On the basis of the style of his coiffure and the appearance of both his beard and moustache one can suggest a date for this portrait in the last quarter of the second century AD (about 175-200). That dating is based on the observation that the aristocratic members of Roman Egypt’s elite society, to which this young man and his family must have belonged, chose to have themselves depicted in the prevailing fashions established by the emperor and his court in contemporary Rome.

The portrait may have been originally been placed on a wall in the home of the sitter or in that of his parents in the manner in which we still hang pictures of family and friends on the walls of our own homes. When the youth died, the portrait was removed and entrusted to the funerary priests. These priests then trimmed this thin, wooden portrait panel by cutting each of its upper corners at a diagonal. This purposeful trimming then enabled those priests to place the portrait upon the youth’s mummy and secure it in place with mummy bandages.

This is a beautifully conceived and executed piece of ancient portraiture, as well as being a historically important document of the birth of Western art traditions.

References:

Euphrosyne Doxiadis, 'The Mysterious Fayum Portraits. Faces from Ancient Egypt', (New York 1995) - (X.0553 (LSO))

 

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