Dr. Annette Paetz gen. Schieck

Programme Manager, Reiss-Engelhorn-Museen, Mannheim

Roman mummy portrait from Fayum

Self-Depictions in Roman Egypt – Iconographic Analyses of Egyptian Mummy Portraits and Painted Shrouds

Due to the special climatic conditions in the Near East, numerous Egyptian paintings such as those on mummy portraits and shrouds have survived. These colourful presentations of high quality, naturalism and realism convey detailed information on dress ensembles, and give an idea of the symbolic function of colour, combined with the characteristic and individual features of individuals. These paintings at the end of their life were used for funerary purposes, and they are part of the Egyptian tradition of mummification of the body in the Roman and late Roman periods. The containers for the corpse that were decorated with these paintings represent a perfect blend of local traditions and Hellenistic and Roman influences, and they are an authentic creation of Hellenized Egypt in the Roman era.

The unique Egyptian practise of mummifying the body of the dead was common until the fifth and sixth centuries A.D., regardless of Hellenistic, Roman or Late Roman influences. Changes are apparent, however, in the declining quality and durability of the mummification itself and in the types and styles of the decoration of the body. Mummies of Pharaonic times were covered by stylized, hieratic, and traditional types of masks; the later impact of Hellenistic art manifests itself in slightly individual details such as curls and hairdos, as well as in the use of plaster. The use of gold leaf, however, was retained as a symbol of eternity. A Roman innovation of the first century A.D. was the application of portraits and masks of ancestors and family members to the practice of mummification in the Egyptian tradition. Mummy portraits, painted shrouds and plaster masks were en vogue until the late third or early fourth century A.D. Another Roman innovation was the dressing of the body in clothing or wrapping it in sheets or blankets.

The mummy portraits, on which this projects focuses, are composed in purely Roman manner, presenting the individual´s face and torso shown slightly in profile, the deceased being clothed, coiffed and made up after Roman fashion and in Roman style. The fundamental thesis of the ongoing research is that most of the paintings were made during the lifetime of the individual, at a certain stage in his or her life, being kept in the home; such portraits were expressions of high status and conveyed the image of wealth and dignity. The images convey personal and sociological information to the viewer by reflecting the wealth, success, social and legal rank, profession and education of the deceased. Furthermore, they reflect family ties, ethnic and regional origins and religious affiliations. Signs, symbols, codes and metaphors are utilised that derive from common knowledge and are understood by observers of a certain regional and cultural background. As such, the elements of dress, their combination, and the colour-codes represented in these portraits are the focus of this investigation.