It is an endlessly arresting encounter when your eyes meet a seemingly familiar face, looking out across the millennia. With their life-like colour and unerring gaze, the paintings on thin wooden panels that depicted the dead of Roman-period Egypt have an immediacy to them, seducing us to believe we are seeing the portrait of an individual from antiquity.
Around 1,000 of these paintings on imported limewood are known, but only about 100 are attached to the mummies of the deceased, where they still cover the face. Most of the images are painted in encaustic, mixing hot wax and pigment, but tempera was also used. Though they are known as Fayum portraits, from the numerous discoveries in the Fayum oasis area, examples have been found across Egypt. The most recent discovery – announced at the end of last year – came from Egyptian archaeologists excavating a large funerary complex in Gerza (Philadelphia) in the Fayum and represents the first new examples uncovered in more than a century. Their use is thought to have started in the Roman period in Egypt, from the end of the 1st century BC, and lasted until the 3rd and 4th centuries AD, with longevity varying in different parts of Egypt.
Egyptologist William Matthew Flinders Petrie excavated many of these paintings more than a century ago. He uncovered his first finds at Hawara in the Fayum, the site of a 12th Dynasty pyramid, in early 1888. Decades later, he wrote, ‘though I came for the pyramid, I soon found a mine of interest in the portraits on the mummies’.
Petrie attributed various traits to the faces he encountered, describing them as ‘The Mother’ or ‘a hardworking curate with a tendency to pulpit hysterics’. One was ‘tolerably good-looking and evidently thought herself still more so’. Another, ‘a charming head of a girl with an ingenuous sparkling expression, but very modern in appearance – such as one might meet in any drawing room these days.’ This sense of modernity, or at least not of remote antiquity, something more relatable to any viewer, adds to their timeless appeal.
The portraits – and other finds – from the excavations at Hawara now reside in a number of museums around the world, including the newly reopened Manchester Museum in the UK, where Victorian cotton industrialists supported the work of Petrie and the Egypt Exploration Fund (now the Egypt Exploration Society) and secured objects for the institution. Drawing from Manchester Museum’s collection, Golden Mummies of Ancient Egypt displays about a dozen of these fascinating paintings of men and women, most shown together in one striking group within the museum’s new exhibition gallery. As alluring as these painted faces may be, they are part of a whole package of presentation for the wealthy, as shown by the three portraits still part of their respective mummy in the exhibition.
Are we actually looking at portraits? ‘I don’t think they were based on real life,’ says Campbell Price, curator of Golden Mummies of Ancient Egypt. For Petrie, the portraits were for the living to enjoy. As Price explains, Petrie claimed to have found a frame, and he believed that an individual would sit for a portrait to immortalise them in the prime of their life, hang it framed in the home, and then it would be included with their mummy after their death. ‘The problem with that theory is that there are lots of faces of children. If you’re doing it in your prime, it doesn’t explain that. I personally think they’re posthumous.’
Petrie’s temporary exhibition of his finds at the Egyptian Hall in London was a popular attraction, and visitors included artists like Lawrence Alma-Tadema, known for his studious paintings of ancient settings, and possibly the author Oscar Wilde, whose The Picture of Dorian Gray, Price believes, is likely to have been inspired by Fayum paintings. In Love’s Jewelled Fetter, painted around 1895, Alma-Tadema even includes in the background a frame hanging, within it a small rectangular painting of a man, head and shoulders, looking straight out, exactly the format of Fayum portraits. The painter seems to be well aware of the work of his Romano-Egyptian predecessors, and perhaps he might have known about Petrie’s interpretation that these are portraits for the living.
The paintings may not even closely resemble the person they are meant to represent. Price adds, ‘Assuming you don’t have an artist in the family, the artist doesn’t know what you look like. By the time there would be time to make a portrait, you couldn’t really base it on what someone looked like.’
The difficulty of interpreting these paintings as portraits – thinking that we are looking at an accurate likeness of the deceased – comes to the fore in one intriguing case in the exhibition. One man had a double-sided panel painting (so two potential portraits), and wrapped up in the mummy was a third, broken panel. ‘None of them, to me, necessarily look like the same person!’, remarks Price.
Another example of a double-sided portrait is known, where one side has what appears to be a practice version and then the finished portrait is on the other side, as Price explains. With the Manchester trio, it could be that one side was also a practice version or a first attempt, perhaps commissioned by a family who were unsatisfied with the likeness. As limewood is expensive and imported, the first version was scratched out and the other side of the same panel was used for what was the approved final, outward-looking face of the mummy.
The third, broken image is more perplexing. We see a topless a man, a somewhat more athletic guise, and perhaps even the third persona of the man, though the reasons for its inclusion are far from clear. ‘Is this meant to be the same person?’, Price wonders. ‘Is it meant to be a relative, a lover?’
These paintings were detached from the mummy, but clearly their placement – one visible, two hidden (and one of these even broken) – affects their interpretation. This is an issue for many of the paintings, which have often been divorced from their context. It is easy to look at them as stand-alone works of art.
This makes the roughly 100 mummies still with their portraits attached all the more significant, especially for understanding how they were just one part of a larger funerary process. One example in the exhibition is the mummy of a young man from Hawara, with beautiful, elaborate wrapping arranged into rhomboid shapes with gold studs. In his painting, he wears a golden laurel wreath, and there is a glint of gold between his lips. Based on his hairstyle (seen in portraits of the emperor), he has been dated to the reign of Hadrian, AD 117-138.
All three of these elements – the wrapping, the gold, and an imperial haircut – suggest a play with presentation, a desire to become the image of the divine, Price argues. With the hair, he explains, ‘If you accept that the Roman emperor was also a god – he was certainly worshipped as a god in Egypt – by showing them in that way, you’re also showing them as gods.’
The wrapping is technically very difficult and may imitate a shroud worn by Osiris, lord of the underworld and god of rebirth. This may hint that becoming like a god is more important that preservation through mummification, as Price elaborates: ‘In Egyptology, histories of mummification (of which there are many!) say in the Roman period you get these beautiful portraits, you get elaborate wrapping often, and this is at the expense of the preservation, as if they don’t care about it. When in fact, if – as I say – they believe in turning the body into a divine statue-like thing, a divine effigy, actual preservation of the flesh is not the main thing.’
Gold – comparatively more sparingly used with this man than some of the other mummies in this exhibition – is an important feature in Egyptian beliefs about death and the afterlife. Ancient Egyptian texts says that the gods have bones of iron and hair of lapis lazuli, but their flesh is gold. The ‘Embalming Ritual’, a 1st-century AD text, says: ‘You will breathe because of gold, you will come forth because of gold.’ So gold can enable the dead to breathe again, and to resemble a god.
The application of gold is particularly striking in the mummy of Artemidorus, whose funerary treatment eloquently evokes the multiculturalism of Graeco-Roman Egypt. He has a (poorly preserved) portrait of the Roman tradition, a Greek inscription (‘Artemidorus farewell’), and on the rich red plaster outer coating that encases his body are numerous pharaonic motifs depicted in gold. This imagery includes two falcons wearing crowns (a symbol of royalty); the god Osiris; and a goddess (probably Nut) flanked by two rearing cobras (symbols of protection). His feet are gold too, and in the panel portrait you can see golden laurel leaves around his head. ‘The iconography emphasises protection,’ says Price, ‘but also it places the deceased – and you see this again and again – in the realm of the gods, among their peers. I think that’s what we should take from it.’
It is hard to ignore the dramatic red paired with the gold, evidently intended to make an impression. As Price says, ‘In pharaonic times, red is the colour of the sun, so there is kind of a default iconography, where women are yellow and men are red. I’m not sure that’s quite what is happening here, because there are some female mummies that have this red coating. Yes, it could have had some resonance in the Roman period, but I just really suspect it could also have been a way of showing off that you had access to the pigment. Maybe it’s this general idea that ostentatiousness helps you get to the divine world and become a god.’
The tradition of the Fayum mummy portraits, like that of Artemidorus, overlaps with that of cartonnage mummy masks, and both represent an intentional choice – as does the very act of mummification among newcomers to Egypt from Greece and Rome. ‘The interesting question for me is how does the family decide at some point to get a portrait rather than a funerary mask? What influences that decision?’, says Price. There may not be a clear answer: both were expensive and prestigious, the preserve of the wealthy, and both were used in the mummification of men and women, boys and girls. ‘I would suggest, frankly, it might have been fashion or just what was the prevailing thought of the family,’ he adds.
‘It’s undeniable that Greeks and Romans were coming into Egypt at that time: the Greeks as mercenary soldiers, the Romans as soldiers also and pensioned off with some land in Egypt. And if you know anything about Greek and Roman ideas of the afterlife, cremation was quite common, Hades wasn’t a particularly great place to be. So they come to Egypt and then there’s this incredible idea of the afterlife and becoming a god. Rich people and maybe other people became seduced by it and just wanted to opt into that world.
‘So it could have been fashion, it could have been personal choice of the people deciding, but generally it’s just much more exciting than what the Greek and Roman world offered at the time.’
Gold covers some of the mummies, harnessing the transformative and protective powers of this untarnishing metal. Petrie excavated many of these from Hawara too, but while he considered the proliferation of the painted panels to be a ‘mine of interest’, the golden mummies were a ‘plague’. He wrote disparagingly of these finds, calling them ‘wretched things with gilt faces and painted head pieces’ and concluding that ‘I suppose I must bring them all away, as they will be worth something in England, in spite of their hideously late style. I am not sure but what their gilt gaudiness may be very attractive to British Philistines.’
It may be easier to find resonance with a face that we think looks like ours rather than a visage of otherworldly gold, but if we are to think of the portraits as idealised versions, not based on real life, with golden trappings to emphasise divinity, as Price suggests, they both serve the same purpose.
Children were given the golden treatment too, and they were also presented essentially as miniature adults, so they weren’t stuck in perpetual childhood. The coffin of one mummified child, from Akhmim, takes the form of an adult female body. Clothed in a colourful striped garment, her flesh is not gold, but she sports an array of golden jewellery. Her pose – arms fixed at her sides, hands on her outer thighs – is like that of goddesses, particularly Hathor with her associations with regeneration, in some of the numerous terracotta figurines of Graeco-Roman period Egypt, thought to come mainly from houses. Like the imagined adult form of the child from Akhmim, these often have a fullness to them, seemingly an attribute of the period. ‘There’s just a plumpness to figures which doesn’t occur as much in pharaonic times,’ remarks Price.
There is no golden mask for this child. Others in the exhibition also have more realistic paint, and striking features that make it tempting to view them as modelled on the features of an individual. ‘Just because you make a face plausible as a living person, doesn’t mean it was actually based on a living person,’ warns Price. Some of the masks very closely resemble others from collections elsewhere and were perhaps made from the same mould, an element of mass-production in the funerary industry.
Yet these faces, whether glimmering in gold, made from a mould, or painted on a panel, still offer touching insights, a sign of the care with which the dead were prepared, even children in their hauntingly small coffins. Though mummification was only for those with the financial means, Price notes that the portraits might potentially reflect a more collective care for memorialisation. ‘It may not be the preserve of just one person: you could have a group of less well-off people club together for someone special and they can afford a Fayum portrait, so I don’t want to discount that possibility. We’ll just never know.’
However immortal these faces may be, other finds – like a little wooden toy horse on wheels and a small convex piece of glass that may have been used for magnification when reading – remind us of the humanity of those who sought to encounter divinity through mummification. And it is this humanity, a perceived sense of connection and character, that many of us seek when looking at any image of a face, and that makes these ancient representations so compelling.
All IMAGES: Manchester Museum/Julia Thorne
Golden Mummies of Egypt runs at Manchester Museum until 31 December 2023. Tickets are free.
The whole museum has reopened after a major renovation, including new galleries devoted to South Asia and China. See www.museum.manchester.ac.uk for more information about the museum, its exhibitions, and the events programme.
A lavishly illustrated book to accompany the exhibition, Golden Mummies of Egypt: interpreting identities from the Graeco-Roman period, by Campbell Price and with photography by Julia Thorne, is available from the museum shop and online in paperback (£25) and hardback (£30).