Unraveling the mysteries of ancient Egypt's spellbinding mummy portraits

This article was published in partnership with Artsy, the global platform for discovering and collecting art. The original article can be seen here.

While ancient Egyptian mummy portraits have long been objects of curiosity, only a minimal amount of scholarship exists about them. Many questions have lingered since they were uncovered by archeologists around the Egyptian city of Fayum in the late 1800s.

Who painted them? What pigments and substrates did the artists use, and where were these materials procured? Were the paintings made during the subject's life or after death?

In 2003, the conservator Marie Svoboda made it her mission to unravel these mysteries. She'd recently joined the ranks of the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, and while the institution's collection was rich and sprawling, a small group of 16 works caught her attention.


The detailed, wide-eyed faces in these paintings, known as mummy portraits, date back to 100 to 250 C.E. Each of them had originally been affixed to a mummy, shrouding the face of the dead.

Svoboda knew that an examination of these portraits would reveal important information about a group of artworks considered precursors to the Western painting tradition. As far as scholars can tell, the mummy portraits are the first paintings that depict lifelike, highly individualized subjects and demonstrate a fusion of funerary and artistic traditions between the Greco-Roman and Classical worlds.

Svoboda also hoped that the answers to the many open questions surrounding the works would uncover facets of early Egyptian culture, especially in relation to the empire's trade, economy, and social structure, whose details are still hazy.

But there are approximately 1,000 extant mummy portraits scattered across the globe, and for accurate answers, Svoboda needed information beyond what Getty's 16 works could provide. So Svoboda conceived of an international, multi-institution research project to cull data from a wider corpus of portraits and begin to untangle these questions.


She named it APPEAR, or Ancient Panel Paintings: Examination, Analysis, and Research. Since its official inception in 2013, 41 institutions have come on board to bring together information on around 285 paintings, almost a third of all known mummy portraits. Mysteries have begun to be solved, too, though many more have also been unearthed.

Before Svoboda founded APPEAR, mummy portraits had faced myriad scholarship hurdles. When excavations of Egyptian burial grounds and the subsequent trade of artifacts reached full throttle, In the late 1800s, the portraits were often ripped from the mummies they decorated.

"You don't get the full context," Marsha Hill, curator of Egyptian art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, explained. "You're playing with a very small deck when it comes to actual portraits paired with actual mummies."

What's more, the mummy paintings existed in scholarship limbo, falling somewhere between classifications of Roman and Egyptian art. They'd been made in a time of great cultural melding in Egypt, during the Roman occupation, and represent both Egyptian funerary traditions (mummification) and the Romans' burgeoning experimentation with portraiture and painting techniques like encaustic -- a painting method that entails melting beeswax and then adding colored pigments to it.


"When they entered collections in the 19th century, mummy portraits were viewed more as curiosities because no one really knew what to make of them," Svoboda said. "They weren't completely Egyptian and they weren't completely Classical -- they were both."

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