Excavations during the late nineteenth century in Egypt’s Fayum revealed a large number of mummy portraits dating to Roman times. The portraits display the faces of many inhabitants of Roman Egypt in a naturalised fashion and these quickly became popular around the world. Recently, the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) in Toronto reacquired a mummy portrait that had left the collection in 1912 and was sold to Ottawa’s National Gallery of Canada. In celebration of International Museum Day last week, the ROM unveiled this Mummy Portrait and the Nile Scribes were in attendance to write about this acquisition.
What is a Mummy Portrait?
We are very familiar with the Egyptian practice for mummifying their bodies in order to preserve them for the afterlife. After all, one’s life-force (or ba) needed to recognise their body in the afterlife to be able to return to it every evening. Egyptians designed many protective elements to encase the body of the deceased, including funerary masks worn over the head that depicted the deceased in an idealised style. The funerary mask of Wah, an official who lived in the early Middle Kingdom, shows a bearded man with a gilded face in typical idealised fashion so popular in Egyptian iconography.
Over the course of the following periods (especially during the New Kingdom and Third Intermediate Period), funerary masks, coffins, and sarcophagi became more numerous and more elaborate as cultural traditions changed. By the time of the Roman period, Egypt had already been adopting Greek artistic traditions for several centuries. However, while these new Greek and Roman influences made their way into Egypt, the older, Egyptian traditions still survived and the two were often blended together.
In Roman times, mummy portraits became popular alternatives to creating funerary masks out of plaster and cartonnage (a combination of several layers of linen, glue, and plaster). First appearing in this period, mummy portraits were painted on wooden panels (or shrouds of linen) using the encaustic (heated beeswax mixed with paint) or tempera (watercolour) technique. The portrait would then be placed atop the head of the mummified deceased, often affixed to the body with elaborate wrappings.
Since their discovery, these mummy portraits have been associated ubiquitously with Roman influences on Egypt. They first came to the forefront as early as the early seventeenth century and over the course of the following centuries they were found in larger numbers. However, great interest in Western imagination was peaked by William Flinders Petrie’s excavations at Hawara: in his surveys near the pyramid of Amenhemhat III, he also excavated the Roman-period cemetery, unearthing a large number of mummy portraits! From these excavations stem a second mummy portrait in the ROM’s possession: that of a young woman (see the photo below – accession no. 918.20.1).
Mummy Portraits in Roman Egypt
Mummy portraits, such as the one the Royal Ontario Museum acquired last year, have been found most commonly in the Fayum region, although they are attested all over Egypt. Scholarship may have focussed a little heavily on these portraits over other funerary artefacts of the same period, but recent research sees them as just one aspect of the diverse variety of Roman-Egyptian funerary practices. Many early examples most likely were painted when the person was still alive and there is also some evidence suggesting that these portraits may have hung in the home of the deceased. Several panels show evidence that they were looped at the top prior to being fastened onto a mummy. Petrie even found one mummy portrait within a wooden frame!
Unfortunately, the mummified remains of the deceased associated with these burials were often discarded by early archaeologists who were only interested in the portraits. Petrie, though, did preserve many of the bodies with portraits. The Royal Ontario Museum owns another mummy portrait (accession no. 918.20.1) which may show remains of the cloth of the mummy’s wrappings above the forehead (1). Petrie described the discovery of the portrait in his journal:
“Two mummies with portraits in one tomb; both covered with cloth resined on. The portraits are therefore invisible till properly cleaned with spirits, though I can just see one through the resin: but they are certainly in first rate condition preserved thus. One was knocked about the feet & not beautiful in its wrappings, so I gave that up & only took the portrait; but the other is so perfectly preserved that I shall bring it.” (2)
Where is the portrait from?
The newly acquired portrait is that of a woman and was painted using the encaustic technique onto a wooden panel. Unfortunately, not much is known about its provenience, although it is surmised that it originated in the Fayum area. It may derive from Petrie’s excavations in the Fayum area, though further details are unfortunately not apparent.
While Petrie is famously associated with the Egypt Exploration Fund as backers of his excavations, he also worked for several years in the late nineteenth century with the backing of two private individuals: Jesse Haworth and H. Martyn Kennard. Finds that were uncovered during these sponsored excavations were split between Petrie, Haworth, and Kennard. This is most likely how this mummy portrait ended up in the collection of Kennard, who chose to keep many of his allotted finds for his own collection.
How did the portrait come to Canada?
H. Martyn Kennard passed away in 1911 and shortly afterward many items from his collection were put up for sale through Sotheby’s. Back in Toronto, Charles T. Currelly, an important figure in the founding of the Royal Ontario Museum, was busy collecting objects for the museum’s collections. His fieldwork in Egypt and close contacts with not only important wealthy Toronto donors, but also William Flinders Petrie, enabled him to amass an outstanding collection of Egyptian antiquities for the ROM. In 1912, when Kennard’s collection went up for sale, he purchased two mummy portraits from Petrie’s excavations. Currelly kept one of these portraits for the Royal Ontario Museum, but sold the second portrait to the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa. The portrait was displayed on several occasions, though was mostly kept in storage.
In 2018, the National Gallery decided to deaccession the piece as it “no longer fall[s] under our collection mandate and we do not have comparable examples to provide context. As a result, [it] ha[s] not been displayed at the Gallery for decades. Canadian museums have important examples of all these objects” (3). It was then offered for sale which prompted the Royal Ontario Museum to repurchase the piece with the generosity of the Mona Campbell Endowment Fund and the Louise Hawley Stone Charitable Trust. Visitors can see the new mummy portrait on display in the Eaton Gallery of Rome on the third floor. It hangs beside other mummy portraits near the entrance to the ROM’s Egyptian Gallery.
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The museum curiously refers to the two Fayum mummy portraits it purchased in 1912 as “sisters”. While it seems likely the term “sisters” is employed here in the sense of being purchased together by the museum, there is no compelling evidence that connects the portraits on a relational basis. While we do have proper documentation as to the provenience of the first mummy portrait (918.20.1), the portrait repurchased in 2018 does not bear reliable information regarding provenience. Whether the lack of provenience was discussed prior to the purchase is not something that came up in the talk given by Curator Paul Denis last week.
- Some cloth marks are also visible to the lower right of the portrait.
- The excerpt was taken from an entry dated 12-17 February 1888 from the journals by William Flinders Petrie. They are in possession of the Griffith Institute Archive and available at: http://archive.griffith.ox.ac.uk/index.php/petrie-1-7. The entry can be found on page 45 in a PDF available there: http://archive.griffith.ox.ac.uk/uploads/r/null/f/7/e/f7e8bbc09a99651a27011eb73546fbbffb8bff7430e902fbe03117f8fa6c86f5/Petrie_MSS_1.7_-_Petrie_Journal_1887_to_1888_p._001-050.pdf.
- The quote is taken from L. Sandals. 2018. ‘National Gallery of Canada Deaccessions Eight More Objects’. Canadian Art, 4 April 2018. Available at: https://canadianart.ca/news/national-gallery-canada-deaccessions-8-objects/ (last accessed, 23 May 2019).