Mummy masks from Roman Egypt
Highlighted Works of Art - 2005 Spring

In ancient Egypt, death was not considered as the end of life, but as part of creation, the entrance to eternal existence. The afterlife could be attained by those who lived a virtuous life on earth and for whom the proper material (i.e., a well-equipped tomb) and magical preparations (mortuary cult and offerings) were made. Life after death was envisaged as a continued spiritual and corporeal existence. The afterlife required the preservation of the wholeness of the body. From the Old Kingdom, the elite achieved this by the complex and costly procedure of mummification practiced by expert embalmers. The mummified corpse served as an anchor for the spiritual aspects of the deceased, his/her ka, "life-force" and ba, "spirit of mobility".
The "spirit of mobility" received sustenance in the form of mortuary offerings, magical spells and religious representations associated with the burial. The accidental destruction of the corpse was offset by providing a substitute body in the form of an anthropoid coffin or mummy-case. The preservation of the head was a primary concern in mummification. From the Middle Kingdom on, three-dimensional mummy masks were not only intended to protect the face but also substituted for the head in the event of loss. Anthropoid coffins and three-dimensional mummy masks presented, however, an ideal image of the deceased: his/her individuality was secured by inscriptions associated with the burial and by the mortuary cult.

In the Ptolemaic (332-30 BC) and Roman periods (30 BC-c. AD 300) mummification continued to be practiced. During the last three centuries BC the traditional forms of burial came under the influence of the Hellenistic world, but the mortuary cult and funerary architecture of Egypt's Greek population also absorbed traditional pharaonic conceptions and forms. By the first century BC, mummy-cases were decorated with the figures of Egyptian gods and Egyptian religious scenes alongside with classical mythological representations and images of the deceased wearing classical costume and jewellery.

The coexistence of Hellenistic and Egyptian traditions in the arts of late Ptolemaic Egypt and especially the incorporation of Greek ideas and forms in Ptolemaic royal images paved the way for the Romanisation of Egyptian art after 30 BC. In the early first century AD a new custom arose, replacing the face-mask of Egyptian-style coffins and mummy-cases either by a Roman-style individualising portrait of the deceased painted on a wooden panel or by a three-dimesional head-piece or mask. The masks were made from plaster, a mixture of sand, clay, lime and gypsum. The plaster masks were made separately in moulds and fastened to the mummy-case or coffin. The early pieces were hollow and fitted over the face (1). From the second century AD, the heads were modelled in the round and raised high above the coffin lid or mummy-case (3b, 3c).

In spite of their classical appearance, the three-dimensional masks were not naturalistic portraits in the Roman sense of the word. The individualising of Roman portraiture is present in these mould-made masks only insofar as the added, freely modelled and/or painted coiffures and jewellery of the female masks, or the hairstyle, beard and moustache of the male masks presented clear indications of the social status and cultural background of the deceased who belonged to the Roman or Romanised Egyptian elite of the country. The hairstyles, dress (if indicated) and jewellery of the female masks as well as the hair- and beard styles of the male masks closely followed the changes in Roman fashion, while the physiognomies of the subjects imitated the style of the contemporary imperial portraits.
It is highly characteristic for the religious and cultural syncretism of Roman Egypt that most of the classical-style masks were part of mummy-cases or coffins which were (also) painted with scenes taken from the traditional pharaonic repertory of mortuary religion. Little is known about the provenance of the plaster masks. It seems that they were particularly fashionable in Middle Egypt. Burials with masks were found in luxurious tomb edifices, where they received mortuary offerings. Mummified elite dead, with painted or three-dimensional portraits, were also kept in tomb-chapels in the cemeteries, where they were visited by the relatives as part of the ancestor cult.

Thanks to their characteristic physiognomical types, hair- and beard styles and jewellery types, the plaster masks can be fairly precisely dated. The three masks in this exhibition represent the early and the late phases of the fashion of plaster mummy masks. The gently modelled and elegantly painted female mask (1) displays a hairstyle uniting traditional Egyptian details with a Roman fashion. The (now missing) long corkscrew locks falling onto the shoulders behind the ears derive from the "Libyan locks" worn by Ptolemaic queens.
In turn, the hair parted in the center and combed back in wavy undulations and the short corkscrew locks framing the face follow the Roman hairstyle of the mid-first century AD as it occurs in portraits of the younger Agrippina (AD 49-59). The partly preserved, freely rendered floral wreath on the head (1a) reproduced probably the wreath placed on the brow of the deceased in anticipation of the "wreath of vindication" to be awarded her in the afterlife. The male mask (2) has eyes inlaid in glass. Its freely modelled hair imitates the hairstyle of heroic portraits of the Hellenistic period. The rendering of the physiognomy and the eyes indicate a dating to the third or fourth quarter of the first century AD. The other female mask (3) displays the hairstyle (3a) of the imperial ladies of the late Antonine period (AD 161-192). Bar earrings with three or four pendant pearls were fashionable all over the Roman Empire from the second half of the second century AD (3b, 3c).

László Török