Art or craft?  How were those realistic mummy portraits created?

Art or craft? How were those realistic mummy portraits created?

Ben van den Bercken, curator of the Allard Pierson Museum in Amsterdam, taps on a large screen. A portrait of a bearded man with a golden wreath appears on screen. It is one of 38 approximately two-thousand-year-old mummy portraits on display at the exhibition Eye in eye.

“This comes from the collection of the University of Heidelberg,” says Van den Bercken. “The portrait previously belonged to the collector Gabriel von Max (1840-1915), a professor of art history from Munich. There are strong indications that he edited and restored his mummy portraits himself. Not all of these restorations can be seen with the naked eye, but they can be seen with modern techniques such as ultra-high-resolution photography, which has recently also been used for The Night Watch has been used.”

Van den Bercken swipes and a detail of the golden wreath appears. “The original gold leaf has a reddish shine, but the supplemented gold leaf appears to have a different shine. By the way, we found out about it here at the exhibition, through a comment from a visitor.”

The exhibition is intended to introduce the public to the results of the international (natural) scientific research project Appear (Ancient Panel Paintings: Examination, Analysis and Research), which involves sixty institutes and museums. Much of that research has not yet been completed, says Van den Bercken.

Multispectral imaging of a mummy portrait
Photo Niels Ruitenbeek/Face to Face

For example, he is still waiting for the outcome of research with ultra-high-resolution photography. “Robert Erdmann and Alessandra Marrocchesi, from the University of Amsterdam and the Rijksmuseum, examined twelve portraits from home and abroad for a few months with a relatively inexpensive photo installation they designed. If all goes well, this will provide more insight into the painting techniques used and modern restorations.”

The Appear Project is an initiative of the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. “We started in 2013,” says project leader Marie Svoboda, specialized in the research of ancient materials and technology, in a video call. “Until then, hardly any technical research had been done into how the approximately one thousand known mummy portraits were made.”

The mummy portraits are a mixture of different cultures

Between the first and fourth centuries AD, when Egypt was a Roman province, a painted portrait of the dead was placed on the mummified bodies of some wealthy people. The portraits are a mixture of different cultures: the mounting on mummies refers to ancient Egyptian religious traditions, the painting technique used including beeswax and the clothing of the portrayed are Hellenistic, and the representation of individual features is reminiscent of realistic Roman portraiture.

Most mummy portraits have only come to light since 1887. Theodor Graf (1840-1903), a Viennese dealer in Egyptian carpets and antiquities, managed to acquire 330 complete and fragmentary portraits after his local contacts plundered an old cemetery. It was probably a necropolis of ancient Philadelphia in the Fayum, an oasis about ninety kilometers southwest of Cairo. At a time when Egypt was under British rule, the Austrian trader was able to export everything to Vienna without any problems. He then sent a selection of 93 portraits on a sales tour through Europe and the United States. Because of his high prices he only sold forty. After his death, Graf’s heirs sold the remaining portraits to museums, collectors and art dealers.

Official excavations

Not all known mummy portraits come from looted tombs. British archaeologist William Flinders Petrie excavated more than 140 portraits in Hawara, the cemetery of the ancient capital of the Fayum. These were divided between Petrie and the Egyptian Museum in Cairo according to the then current agreements. Despite the fact that these portraits come from official excavations, little has been published about the precise circumstances of the discovery, Van den Bercken knows. “The excavations were so large that it was impossible for Petrie to be present and document everything himself.”

Mummy portraits were seen in the West as one of the earliest phases of portrait art and a precursor to Coptic and Byzantine icons. That explains why art museums also have or had mummy portraits in their collections. “Portraits from the British Museum were first owned by the National Portrait Gallery,” says Van den Bercken. “And since 1998 we have had a copy on permanent loan from the Hague Municipal Museum, which bought it in 1952.”

Photos: Allard Pierson, Reiss-Engelhorn-Museen, Musee du Louvre

Because the mummy portraits were seen as ‘art’, researchers made attempts to attribute them to ‘artists’ on the basis of painting styles, Svoboda says. “A particularly well-painted mummy portrait in the Getty Collection of a woman named Isidora in Greek letters on the accompanying mummy casing was attributed to the ‘Master of Isidora’: an outgrowth of research into the painters of Greek vases, whose names are sometimes were on the vases. We no longer make those kinds of attributions. I prefer to see painters as craftsmen.”

Van den Bercken agrees: “In Würzburg they once attributed a mummy portrait to the Würzburg painter, and in St. Louis to the St. Louis painter. But they are stylistically very related, they could have been made by the same craftsman, the same workshop or in the same region.”

Van den Bercken and Svoboda much prefer to make statements based on scientific research into the materials and pigments used. “By comparing the results we may be able to distinguish about six different workshops,” says Svoboda.

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Imported lime wood

Various research methods were used for this research. After examination with a scanning electron microscope, a wood specialist concluded that about three-quarters of the mummy portraits examined were painted on limewood panels (Tilia europaea). This had the advantage over native wood, such as wild fig wood and tamarisk, that it could be sawn into straight, thin and therefore light planks. Svoboda: “But this wood had to be imported. So that says something about the economy behind the portraits.” It also explains why some portraits are made on wood that is two hundred years older. “Egyptians were economical and reused everything.”

Using various techniques, it became clear that the makers of the mummy portraits first made underdrawings, that they used animal material as a paint binder and that they used a rich range of pigments. “By indigo [blauw] with madder [rood] By combining them they made purple, for example. And the combination of indigo and orpiment [geel] delivered vergaut [groen] on. Our research therefore brought the oldest known use of this pigment combination back five hundred years in one go.”

Last year Svoboda published with four co-authors HeritageScience There is also research showing, including C14 dating, that chicken yolk and chicken egg white were used as a coating on at least two portraits. “That raises the question of whether it was a protective layer or whether the layer had a symbolic meaning.”

In the Fayum they have come to identify more with the people in the mummy portraitsHeba Abd el Gawad University College LondonUniversity College London

Several questions are still open, such as whether the portraits were made during life or after death. It is also still unclear how realistic the portraits are. “It is possible that some kind of templates were used for the face, for example,” says Van den Bercken.

Answers to these questions may come from the modern excavation of the Necropolis near Philadelphia. In 2019, the Egyptian archaeologist Basem Gehad found two almost complete mummy portraits together with fragments in their archaeological context for the first time in a long time. “He told me that he found even more last year,” says Van den Bercken. “I don’t know anything more yet.”

The researchers also put their hopes in the database. Svoboda: “We now have all kinds of research data from 375 portraits. This makes it possible to create statistical visualizations. And they can be updated again and again as new data becomes available.”

Fayum portraits

In the meantime, Egyptian Egyptologist Heba Abd el Gawad from University College London is conducting research into the current meaning of mummy portraits for Egyptians, especially in the Fayum. “In Egypt they are called Fayum portraits, after the place where most of them were found,” she says from Cairo. Especially in the Fayum, where about four million people live, she comes across portraits in all kinds of modern forms: on the street, in messages on social media, on cups, as graffiti, in photos in shops.

During the Football World Cup in 2018, an artist depicted star footballer Mo Salah as a Fajoem portrait. “Since the 2011 revolution, ordinary Egyptians have wondered what it means to be Egyptian today,” says Abd el Gawad. “In the Fayum they have come to identify more with the people in the mummy portraits. Even though there is no direct genealogical relationship, they still see them as ancestors and themselves as indigenous.”