To further our class’s research on the two intriguing mummy panel paintings in our possession, this week, our class delved into learning about the technical aspects of research on “Portrait of A Man” (ECM 2149) and “Portrait of A Young Man” (ECM 2150).
Our class had the opportunity to videoconference with Marie Svoboda, Associate Conservator of Antiquities Conservation at the J. Paul Getty Museum, and the guiding force behind the “Ancient Panel Paintings: Examination, Analysis and Research” (APPEAR) Project. Svoboda spoke to the class on her study of the “Herakleides” mummy, dated to the 1st century CE. The mummy’s name, which was inscribed on its feet, was identified using infrared light examination. Using CT scanning technology, it was discovered that the mummy was laid prone on a wooden board and was actually wrapped with a mummified ibis. An image of an ibis (symbolic of the Egyptian God Thoth) is found on the mummy wrappings directly above the mummified ibis, and the wrappings themselves are painted with red lead. The mummy portrait itself was executed in tempera, not encaustic. These details were initially thought to be unique, as no other mummies were known to have similar markings. However, by collaborating with other museum institutions, Svoboda and her colleagues found six mummies with similar characteristics from the 1st-2nd century CE, which show similar iconography, preparation of the mummies,with a red pigment on the wrappings. This group is now referred to as the “red shroud mummies”. The red pigment found on Herakleides was identified as lead stannate, a red lead imported from Rio Tinto, Spain, famous as a site of silver extraction. This kind of research emphasized for Svoboda the importance of inter-institutional collaboration in the technical study of mummies, which now finds its form in the APPEAR project.
It is our class’s ultimate objective to gather as much technical knowledge of our two mummy portraits (ECM 2149 and ECM 2150) and upload it to APPEAR database at the end of the semester. After the illuminating lecture by Svoboda, the class discussed the ways that paint could be applied on wooden boards, or “panels”. The thin wood had to smooth, able to bend over the face of the mummy, and capable of being painted. There are many variations in how the panels were prepared, but in each case, the wood was likely sealed with a layer of gum or glue, and perhaps followed by a “ground layer” such as calcium sulfate mixed with glue to even out the surface. Paint layers were applied in either the tempera technique (pigments mixed with gum or glues), or encaustic (pigments mixed with beeswax), or sometimes both! Our class was surprised to find out that varnishes over the finished painting were not actually traditionally used by the original artists, but were often used in treatments during the excavation of these objects, or during more modern restorations.
To finish this week’s seminar, we had the opportunity to view x-rays of the two mummy portraits, and the class attempted to derive as much information from the photographs as possible. The x-rays were incredibly useful in seeing potential underdrawings and comparing brushstroke and artistic techniques. It was noted that the “Portrait of A Man” had slightly shorter and more extensive brushstrokes in the facial features, which created a greater amount of depth. This aspect is exemplified in the eyes, which seem much more three-dimensional than those of the “Portrait of A Young Man”. It should also be noted that in “The Portrait of A Young Man” (left), there appears to be evidence of a laurel wreath painted in the hair that is not visible in the finished portrait. Is this indicative of his status as someone of elite status who trained in a Gymnasium?
Next week, we plan to take a closer look at the people of the Fayum themselves and relate this knowledge to the two men in our ever-mysterious Roman-Egyptian mummy panel paintings.