Roman Period Egyptian Mummy Portrait Depicting a Young Man

SKU X.0381

2nd Century AD


11.75″ (29.8cm) high


painted wood



Gallery Location

S Korea


Although commonly referred to as “Faiyum portraits,” mummy portraits from Roman Egypt have been found throughout the country, from the Mediterranean coast to the banks of the Nile Valley; however, many of the most celebrated works come from cemeteries in the desert oasis of Faiyum. These fascinating paintings are the product of two worlds, combining Egyptian funerary beliefs with the sophisticated portraiture of the Greco-Roman tradition.

The preservation of the physical remains of the deceased was a central focus of Egyptian funerary customs, eventually leading to the creation of mummies. However, mere preservation of the corpse was not sufficient, the mummy itself had to appear alive. Elaborate coffins and funerary masks evolved to present the remains with the appearance of vitality. Although mummification was still practiced during the Roman Period, the techniques had begun to devolve and many of these mummies have since decayed, leaving behind only these haunting portraits.

While the painting technique of Faiyum portraits is unmistakably Roman, their presence on or near the remains of the deceased is an Egyptian custom, representing a fusion of technique and belief. The people portrayed were likely the administrative elite and their families who ruled over this multiethnic, multicultural frontier of the Roman Empire. No doubt they held faith in the Ancient Egyptian cults, as evident by their focus on preparing for the afterlife; but they also chose to depict themselves as Romans, wearing customary Roman fashions and jewelry. The heightened realism of the portraits was made possible by the relative fluidity of the encaustic technique where pigments were mixed with hot or cold beeswax as well as other ingredients, producing a medium that is very similar to oil paint.

This striking portrait of a young man was painted in the encaustic technique on a panel composed of a series of vertical wooden slats that have been bound together. Although the vibrancy of the hues has diminished somewhat over the centuries, the work remains remarkably well preserved. His dark brown eyes, thick eyebrows, and dark curly hair are all features characteristic of the people depicted on such portraits. The painter has managed to capture the effects of light and shadow on the curves of his face, most noticeable around his mouth and chin. He wears a simple white tunic decorated with a thin blue collar. Like an old photograph that has faded over the years, we recognize something familiar in this work, and in the eyes of this man, something we recognize in ourselves too.

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