I'm curious about the Noblewoman's portrait.
This woman lived in Egypt in the Roman period. We can tell because she is wearing Roman-style clothes and she was painted in a Greco-Roman style, but this portrait was designed to woven into her mummy.
The artists used melted wax as a medium, building up thick layers of pigment and highlighting the facial features with touches of white, making it look strikingly realistic. This wax-based paint is called encaustic.
This 150 CE portrait from Egypt is remarkably lifelike for the time. Would the Egyptians have learned this technique from Roman fresco painters or were there portraits of comparable skill being made in Egypt prior to the Romans' arrival there?
We are not aware of any earlier Egyptian paintings in this style, it's something unique to the Roman period. The large, expressive eyes are especially typical of Roman portraiture from the same time. It seems the Egyptians were simply not interested in painting people in this style before the influx of Roman tastes.
Expressive indeed! Thanks so much
All of these have a strong stylistic consistency. Same artist?
Good eye. Not all by the same artist but produced during the same period and in the same region in Egyptian history, the Roman period. They reflect the multicultural nature of the society at the time. These would have been attached onto the faces of human mummies. Around 900 such mummy portraits are known today and they are referred to as "Fayum portraits" Named after the Fayum Oasis south of Cairo where most of them were found.
Do we know for sure different artist? Do we know names of artists or dates?
We do know for sure that they were produced by different artists because they range in date from 95 to 230 CE and were found at different sites.
It's not surprising that they are similar though. Egyptian art through time tends to follow relatively rigid iconographical schemes. These portraits were likely coming out of workshops where many artisans were trained to produce them in very similar styles.
What does the C.E. mean?
C.E. stands for Common Era, the era we are in now; this year is 2017 C.E. You may be familiar with the acronym A.D. which stands for Anno Domine, but many scholars have stopped using this term.
Because it refers to after the death of Jesus?
Yes, even more so that "Anno Domine" is Latin for "in the year of our Lord," a direct reference to the Christian God.
Some scholar do continue to use AD, however, because regardless of what we call it, we are still using the same calendar system based on the life of Christ.
Tell me more.
This portrait of a noblewoman is is known as a Fayum portrait. It is painted with encaustic (wax based) paint in a style similar to that found in Greco-Roman portraits, but is from the Roman Period in Egypt. The noblewoman pictured was probably Egyptian.
Portraits like this represent the mix of cultures common in Egypt at the time.
That is just a remarkable portrait!
I agree, it is a remarkable portrait. This is what's known as a Fayum portrait, and dates to Roman period Egypt. You can see the mixture of cultures present in Egypt at the time in the influence of Greco-Roman painting traditions on the portrait, though it would have been part of an Egyptian style mummification.
We were really surprised to see such a realistic portrait from 100 CE. I feel like most of the art we see from that period is not like this at all.
In 100 CE, many paintings of this style were actually made in Greece and Rome, but most of them did not survive because the climate there did not preserve them.
Traditional ancient Egyptian art had different priorities---like perfection, completion, and communication---rather than realism.
However, by this time, Egypt was part of the Roman Empire. Starting from the conquest by Alexander the Great around 330 BCE, there was a lot of Greco-Roman influence in Egypt. Portraits like this are some of the only examples we have of the Greco-Roman painting tradition.
Is this pigment original or has it been restored?
The pigment you see is all original! Mineral pigments with refined beeswax as a medium can be quite durable.
Egypt's consistently dry climate and the darkness of being buried contribute to the preservation of a variety of organic materials, like the wood panel, that would not have survived elsewhere.
Thank you. Bees have helped for centuries!
You're absolutely right! Beeswax was very important throughout ancient Egyptian history and honey was used in both food and medicine (at the very least!).
I was just wondering where this piece might have been displayed with it's original owner.
We do know that a painting like this would have been wrapped into a mummy in Roman Period Egypt. The face you see is a portrait of the deceased.
Some scholars speculate that these portraits would have hung in the home while the person was still alive and were repurposed at the time of their death.
These portraits from Egypt are special and important because they are some of the only Greco-Roman paintings that survive. Outside of Egypt, the climate was not conducive to preservation.
How was this preserved?
Egypt's consistently dry climate and the protection of being buried has lead to the preservation of much more organic material there than in other parts of the world. This Greco-Roman style of painting was popular throughout the Mediterranean at the time, but most of those outside have largely degraded.
It looks more recent to many viewers because we think of painting like this beginning in the Renaissance period in Italy, but, in fact, those painters were trying to recreate this Greco-Roman style.
I would like to know what natural materials were used in the paint that led to them being so well preserved.
This type of paint is known as encaustic and its on a wooden panel. Encaustic is a wax-based paint. The pigments would have been made from minerals and metals which are not prone to fading.
For the most part, the preservation of this painting can be attributed to the consistently dry climate of Egypt and the protection of being buried.
The lack of light and moisture beneath the Egyptian sand has lead the preservation of many more organic materials than elsewhere in the world.