Week 3–Getting Technical

Measuring "Portrait of a Young Man"

Measuring “Portrait of a Young Man”

This week, our class had the chance to take a closer look at our mummy portraits. Yet before we got down to business, we took a look at our class Tumblr page. Through a thought provoking discussion, our class was able to answer some of the questions our peers have had throughout the course of our research. Some of the most interesting questions included: What accounts for the difference in skin tone between the two men? What was the connotation of being Greek in Roman Egypt? We talked about how a darker skin tone might be thought to indicate lower status, but our readings also suggested the possible opposite of this; since portraits were made for more elite members of society, some of whom were associated with training in the elite gymnasium military, or military service, could darker skin tones suggest more time exposed to the elements? We also brought up the changing aspects of society in Egypt between the Ptolemaic and Roman periods, and the meaning of identity.  What did it mean to be Egyptian, or Greek in these different times? According to scholars, being “Greek” in Ptolemaic times was considered a different social category than the local Egyptian population, and these Hellenized peoples were considered foreigners and came from many places.  However, in Roman Egypt, being “Greek” was closely associated with being Egyptian, and the new elite identity was assigned to those coming to Egypt from the Roman Empire to govern it.   So how do we read the people we see in these portraits? Without more evidence of where these portraits came from, we’re still guessing.

We then had the wonderful opportunity to think about other imports to Egypt—the woods that were used in antiquity to make the portraits. We discussed the properties of lime wood (imported from Europe) and cedar (from Lebanon) and although we did not have these exact types, we were able to identify their main differences. We speculated that the lime wood was more easily bent, was a lighter color, and had a smoother surface. Perhaps that explains why, of the woods analyzed primarily by the British Museum, the vast majority of the portraits are painted on this type of wood.  Our sample of American basswood (for lime wood) and North Altantic Cedar (for Lebanese cedar) gave us some ideas about why certain woods might have been chosen.  Compared to the basswood, the cedar we have is less easily bent, lighter in weight, and not as smooth on the surface.  It can also only be cut in smaller sections because of the way the tree itself grows; we have to think about this in comparison to what ancient woods were selected for import and use.

Examining "Portrait of a Man" under the microscope.

Examining “Portrait of a Man” under the microscope.

We finally had the chance to put on a pair of gloves and go to work inspecting our paintings in a more in-depth fashion. We took measurements of our portraits and examined the backs to look for evidence of preparation and use.  The “Portrait Of A Man”, which has been extensively restored in the past, is only roughly 1-2mm thick, compared to the “Portrait of A Young Man”, where the wood board was about 5-8mm thick. On the back of the “Young man”, we discovered that there were tool marks lining the sides, fibers associated with the originally mummy wrappings possibly adhered to the surface with ancient resin, and a water line on the bottom edge, signifying past water damage.

With this new information in mind, we took our portraits to the microscope. Our main objective was to search for a ground layer, i.e., a preparatory layer that would have provided a smooth and even layer on which to apply the paint.  Researchers have found that these preparatory layers, when they exist, can be made of calcium sulfate (gypsum) mixed with a water-based glue, and sometimes have added pigments to make them colored.   We did not find any ground layers on either painting.  We did start to notice other things, like evidence of possible fibers embedded in the portraits. The “Young Man” did seem to have fibers glued in the portrait, which we speculate are from the portrait’s placement on the mummy. Additionally the partial laurel wreath we saw in the “Portrait Of A Young Man” last week was reflected in the gilding we found on the portrait’s hair –a bright shiny spot of gold under the microscope!  This allows us to wonder if the gilding was originally on the portrait, and if it possibly was abraded and rubbed off.

After our findings this week, our class is buzzing with excitement over our portraits. Next week, we are going to be working with encaustic and tempera paint techniques. Stay tuned!

10 Responses to Week 3–Getting Technical

  1. Well put Hannah! It’s interesting to look back at what we had thought about the gilding on the young man now that we have had some first hand experience with how hard it is to gild anything, it’s something we should investigate further for sure. I wonder if we can look closely again and try to draw/reconstruct the possible wreath on a separate paper or something!

  2. It was amazing to me that on “Portrait of a Young Man,” with the aid of a microscope, gilding was visible, but to the naked eye it was not. I look forward to seeing what the “Young Man” team discovers!

  3. Different from the Portrait of the Young Man, the Portrait of the Man is framed. Consequently it is tricky to measure the thickness of the panel board. But one can easily tell the board is super thin. Under the microscope at first we were confused by the polymer modern fibers and restoration adhesives. We should always keep in mind that the portraits are thousand years old and preservation should always be taken into consideration.

  4. This week was a turning point for me in the project. As I looked at Portrait of the Young Man under the microscope and saw the gilding in his hair and the fibers on the board, I started to become much more excited about the other things we would find. Being more hands on with the portrait allowed me to feel more of a connection to the work we are doing.

  5. Good job Hannah! This is was our first direct exposure to our group’s portrait and it was very exciting. I enjoyed being able to look into the microscope. At the time I was definitely overwhelmed with the amount of information we were trying to discover. Now after a few exposures to the portrait of a man I feel much more comfortable with him and studying him. This initial exposure in a group was very beneficial because we got to bounce ideas off of each other on what various objects and paint marks could be. I wonder what we would talk about now if we all got together around a microscope again.

  6. I wonder why the two paintings are different thicknesses? Is it just what was available on the day the portrait was commissioned, or could it be the artist’s preference?

  7. Jessica, I could not agree more. It seemed that this was the first time we stopped speculating and began investigating some of our early claims. It was undoubtedly rejuvenating to finally have the portraits under the microscope where we could freely examine the surface and any areas of interest. This is the beginning of our detailed microscope investigation that lead to many other inquiries for future class periods.

  8. Being able to see the physical aspects of our mummy portraits in even more detail under the microscopes is incredibly exciting to me. I can picture the “Portrait of A Young Man” being placed into the linen wrappings and ripped out centuries later, leaving its context behind yet still taking parts of its previous home with it, like the embedded linen fibers we found in resin on the back of the portrait. Great article Hannah!

  9. I wish I had looked at the portrait of the young man under the microscope. It surprising that the gold gilding wasn’t visible to the naked eye. It’s also interesting that you guys found fabric on the back of the portrait! Now that we’ve all tried gilding, do you think it is more likely that the gold gilding just came off by itself?

  10. Going back to the discussion on gold, I believe it is also possible that the gold was gilded atop of the mummies. Thus it is evident on “Portrait of Young Man” almost on the perimeter are gold specs. However I wonder for “Portrait of Man” why there are gold specs on his eyes – lids and pupils.

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