Mummy Portrait of a Girl

Roman Egypt
120–150 AD

Encaustic on sycamore wood
Height 35.5 cm



Even during the period of Greek and Roman rule in Egypt, the old burial customs from the days of the Pharaohs were not abandoned. The dead continued to be embalmed and laid to rest in the form of mummies. However, a new element was introduced: a very faithful portrait of the deceased, painted on a wooden panel, was sometimes enclosed with the mummified body. This lively portrait of a young Roman girl, whose beautiful hair is adorned with a wreath of leaves, is painted on a panel of sycamore wood. Thick eyelashes frame her large eyes. She looks sideways and into the distance, not directly at the viewer.

We learn from ancient writers that the art of painting on wooden panels had been brought to perfection as early as 350 BC. Because of the perishable nature of the material, however, the masterpieces of the admired painters of antiquity have been lost. It is therefore all the more significant that mummy portraits survived in the hot, dry climate of Egypt. They were executed in the tradition of the Greek artists’ workshops and testify to the efflorescence of ancient painting. Areas of light and dark (chiaroscuro) lend depth and threedimensionality to the girl’s face. Beneath the fine curls on her forehead lies a delicate shadow, a highlight accentuates the ridge of the nose, and the shadow cast by the nose is brought out by hatching.

According to the Roman writer Pliny, the leading panel painters were also commissioned to apply polychromy to marble sculptures. We have to imagine ancient sculpture from around 350 BC onwards as being painted in as sophisticated a manner as this mummy portrait.