3rd Century AD
29.5″ (74.9cm) high
The ancient Egyptians pioneered the practice of painting on linen because flax, from which linen is woven, lacks mordents to which dyes can adhere. It is for that reason that most of the clothing depicted in ancient Egyptian art is white, the colour of un-dyed linen. In order to compensate for this lack of mordents, the Egyptians as early as the Pre-Dynastic Period (about 3200 BC) began the practice of painting on linen, paint taking the place of dye. By the time of the Roman Imperial Period this long- established practice was employed for the decoration of funerary shrouds, of which ours is an outstanding example.
Our subject is an elite woman depicted wearing two garments. The first is a lavender coloured tunic, over both shoulders of which is draped a darker, purple- coloured shawl. The colours chosen are intentional marks of her status within society because during the Roman Imperial Period, purple was generally reserved for the clothing of the reigning emperor and members of his immediate family. Living in Egypt, this anonymous matron could wear the imperial purple with impunity. Her accessories include a pearl-like necklace which slips beneath the neckline of her tunic and elaborate earrings which are accurate depictions of actual earrings known to have been worn during this period. Her hair is deceptively arranged. It is not cut short, but is rather looped loosely around her ears and drawn up and tied at the back of her neck.
She is shown standing against a background, but the damaged state of the shroud, due to its age, precludes a precise identification of the environment in which she is posed. In parallel examples, one often encounters a depiction of a rectangular panel, which in one instance was inscribed in Greek, the official language of Roman Egypt.
There are numerous parallels for this shroud, including a virtually identical example in the Louvre. This group of shrouds has been assigned to the site of Antinopolis, which was founded by the Roman Emperor Hadrian in AD 130 in honour of his favorite, Antinous. The site continued to prosper, particularly in the third century AD under the Severan emperors, namely Septimius Severus, the founder, Caracalla, his son, and their successors. It is to this period that this group of shrouds is dated.
The shrouds in this group are all representations of women. They are all identically posed with one arm bent at the elbow and extended forward with its open palm raised. The other hand holds an ankh cross.
The interpretation of this small and select group of shrouds of elite, aristocratic matrons from Antinopolis remains enigmatic. If they are to be understood as an expression of prevailing Egypto- Roman funerary praxis, then the raised hand represents an apotropaic gesture intended to ward off evil so that the matron may enjoy eternal life, symbolized by the ankh-sign. Alternatively, it has been suggested that the population of Antinopolis may have contained a number of prominent individuals who were Christians. That suggestion has led other commentators to interpret the gesture of the open palm as that of a blessing. In this context, the ankh sign recalls the Greek letters Chi- Rho, which form the Christian monogram for Christ.
In conclusion this shroud may have covered the remains of either a pagan or a Christian. In fact, given that this period was one of great religious transition, it may well represent an individual with syncretic beliefs. The treatment of the body which appears flat and non- sculptural, the attention focused on the hands, and the emphasis placed on the eyes as windows of the soul clearly point toward stylistic conventions which later Christian monks would employ to advantage in their creation of the first Christian icons.
E. Doxiadis, ‘The Mysterious Fayum Portraits. Faces from Ancient Egypt’, (New York 1995), pp. 118-119, p. 215, cat. 91 & 94 (Louvre, No. AF 6440, excavated at Antinopolis by the Guimet excavations in the 1900-1901 season).
S. Walker, ‘Ancient Faces. Mummy Portraits from Roman Egypt,’ (New York, 2000), pp. 147- 148, No. 99.Login to view price