This elegant young woman turns gently toward the viewer and looks out with large, solemn brown eyes. She has adorned herself with a necklace of green, cylindrical emerald beads and another of large white pearls, with earrings to match. Her hair is parted in the middle and pinned back, carefully arranged over the ears. The light aubergine colour of her robe, her thick eyebrows and eyelashes, and her beautifully curving red lips set off her pale skin. However lively and immediate this portrait may be, it was found attached to an embalmed body.
The vigorous appearance of the ca. 900 extant mummy portraits depicting subjects in the prime of life contrasts with the somewhat older bodies they are found with. This raises the question of when the paintings may have been made. This wooden panel was cut at the shoulders and rounded at the top in order to fit into the last wrappings around the head and chest of the dead body. Traces of the sticky shroud are preserved on the lower portion of the portrait, where the painter decided not to fill in the bottom of the purple robe. Was this vivid portrait executed only after the woman’s death? If so, why wasn’t it shaped and painted in the required format from the beginning? Wood was rare and expensive in Egypt, so many of the panels are paper-thin and laboriously patched.
The dry climate of Egypt helped to preserve this rich corpus of mummy portraits stretching over nearly 300 years. The paintings offer a view of the diverse population of Egypt, from Jews and North Africans to Greeks and Romans, as captured by painters from the early Roman Imperial period to the early Christian era. However, this view only encompasses the middle and upper classes. That only a limited clientele could afford such portraits is supported by the evidence (rarely preserved) of the deceased’s status and occupation, the textual sources on the high cost of mummification, and the fact that only one or two mummies out of a hundred were outfitted with a painted portrait.
Mummy portraits are valuable evidence of Roman panel painting, which ancient authors describe with great enthusiasm but which outside of Egypt survives only in fragments. Made of cypress, sycamore, linden, cedar, or other types of wood, the straight-grain wooden panels were either brushed with a lime-plaster coating or painted on directly. Some examples preserve a preparatory drawing. Three different media could be mixed with pigment to form the painted layer: wax, wax-tempera, or tempera. For the wax medium (encaustic), purified beeswax was heated in seawater or brine and then mixed with mineral and plant pigments. The wax gives the painting a gloss like oil paint, and hardly darkens over time. Different colours of wax paint could not be mixed before being applied with a paintbrush, so they were layered in varying thicknesses beside and over each other. Thus the wax and probably the panel were warmed and the whole painting smoothed with a heated spatula at the end. The artist of the Berlin portrait was a master of this technique: he modelled the face with highlights and shadows, depicted individual locks of hair, made the pearls on the necklaces and earrings appear truly round. The robe, by contrast, was rendered in a few easy, sketchy brushstrokes. The mummy portraits of Egypt allow us to admire the high art of encaustic panel painting that the Romans adopted from the Greeks.