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The youth’s portrait was painted on a thin panel of wood in an encaustic technique using pigments blended in hot wax. It depicts the head and upper torso of a young male, perhaps only fifteen or sixteen years of age. He wears a dark red tunic with a mantle over one shoulder. The youth is beardless and sports a tuft of hair, or “Horus lock,” tied with ribbons that hang down over his right shoulder. Upon death, and after the lengthy process preparing the body for the afterlife, the portrait was trimmed and placed over the head of the mummy. The edges were then carefully secured in the wrapping with strips of linen leaving the face of the portrait exposed. As a final touch, gold leaf was applied to frame the face and to create a wreath of leaves and flowers around the head. The gold preserves the line where the linen wrappings stopped.
Per Christies Auction Catalogue at time of purchase: Painted in the encaustic technique, depicting a young man with short curly dark hair, adorned with a wreath of applied gold leaf leaves springing from a stem, with three delicate flowers emerging from long stems, two ribbons falling onto the back of his neck, with thick dark eyebrows above his light brown almond-shaped eyes, with delicate pursed lips and pointed chin, wearing a dark red tunic and mantle, the background with applied gilt leaf.
Produced in Egypt for a relatively short time during the Roman period, from the mid-1st Century A.D. to the 3rd Century A.D., mummy portraits present us with the hauntingly life-like portraits, thought to depict the deceased at the age of their death. The panel would have been positioned over the head of the mummy and wrapped in place with linen bands. The gilded background immediately surrounding the head and neck indicates the extent of the portrait originally revealed in the mummy wrappings.
The panel is only 1.5 mm. thick. Doxiadis explains that “the thinner the panel, the better it would be able to curve slightly in accord with the shape of the upper part of the body. The wood of the sycamore fig is particularly flexible – especially if boiled in water before use – and does not break even when forced to acquire a round shape…A final advantage of thinness would be that wood in Egypt was scarce and expensive” (“The Mysterious Fayum Portraits, Faces from Ancient Egypt”, London, 1995, p. 94). Sycamore fig was the most widely used wood for these portraits, though cypress, cedar, pine, fir and lime were also used. Discussing the use of colours and gilding on the portraits, Doxiadis says “on certain portraits, part of the background left exposed by the wrappings is covered in gold leaf, giving a god-like, eternal glow to the picture and symbolizing eternal life” (“op. cit.” p. 99).