This wide-eyed young man seems alert to the world around him and his dark, neatly combed hair and trimmed moustache and beard suggest fastidious social interaction. The panel, however, was created to be buried on a mummy and to represent the man throughout his eternal life in the realm of the dead.
From the first century through the early fourth, many Greek and Roman inhabitants of Egypt adopted the age-old custom of embalming the body to preserve it for an afterlife. This period coincided with portrait realism in Roman art, which was incorporated into the practice of mummification through painted portraits. The representations created for this purpose form one of the most vivid groups of portraits that survive from the ancient world. Because of the extremely dry climate of Egypt, the wooden panels have been preserved in large numbers and in very good condition.
Many of the funerary portraits are done in encaustic, a mixture of pigment with wax. This viscous medium adds subtle contours to the representation. Like the Dumbarton Oaks painting, the support was usually a thin wooden panel that might curve naturally or in response to the paint, further producing a naturalistic dimension to the face. The gold wreath and gilded lips on this youth also occur on other mummy portraits. The wreath with its star may refer to a belief in Serapis, one of the major gods of Egypt during the Hellenistic and Roman periods. The meaning of gold applied to the lips is less certain. Suggestions are that it refers to speech or nourishment, essential concerns for the deceased in the afterworld.
Pagan and Christian Egypt; Egyptian Art from the First to the Tenth Century A. D, exhibition catalogue, Brooklyn Museum, January 23-March 9, 1941 (Brooklyn, 1941), 15, no. 4. pl. 4.
The Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection of Harvard University, Handbook of the Collection (Washington, D.C., 1946), 107, no. 190.
The Dumbarton Oaks Collection, Harvard University (Washington, D.C., 1955), 152, no. 293, fig. p. 153.
G. M. A. Richter, Catalogue of Greek and Roman Antiquities in the Dumbarton Oaks Collection, Dumbarton Oaks Catalogues (Cambridge, 1956), 54, no. 37, pl. 22.
K. Parlasca, Mumienporträts und verwandte Denkmäler (Wiesbaden, 1966), 47, 135-136, pl. 41.4.
Handbook of the Byzantine Collection (Washington, D.C., 1967), 105, no. 355.
K. Parlasca, "Ritratti tardoantichi e copti in Egitto," Corsi di cultura sull'arte ravennate e bizantina 28 (1981), esp. 231-237, fig. 2.
H. Belting, Likeness and Presence: A History of the Image before the Era of Art (Chicago, 1994), 99-101, fig. 50.
G. Bühl, ed., Dumbarton Oaks: The Collections (Washington, D.C., 2008), 32, pl. p. 33.
Brooklyn, Brooklyn Museum, "Pagan and Christian Egypt," Jan. 23 - Mar. 9, 1941.
Purchased from a Syrian Dealer by Joseph Brummer (dealer), Paris, Dec. 1, 1937.
Purchased from Joseph Brummer, by Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss, 1937.
Collection of Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss, Washington, DC, 1937-November 1940.
Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Byzantine Collection, Washington, DC.