Giving the Dead Their Due: An Exhibition Re-Examines Funerary Portraits from Roman Egypt

By Graham Weber
December 21, 2022
Index Magazine

Giving the Dead Their Due: An Exhibition Re-Examines Funerary Portraits from Roman Egypt

On a vertical wood panel composed of several irregularly shaped strips is a painted portrait of a young, bearded man. He is dressed in a white tunic with red and black details and wears a golden reef in his dark hair. The surface of the painting appears patchy.
Composite portrait of a man, Egypt, early 2nd century CE. Pigments in beeswax on European lime wood. Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Gift of Dr. Denman W. Ross, 1924.80.

Visitors to the exhibition Funerary Portraits from Roman Egypt: Facing Forward will learn that the so-called “Composite portrait of a man” is no portrait of a man at all.

Painted delicately across a fractured wooden board, the man’s features—rough, dark hair, a wrinkled forehead, wide brown eyes, and a five o’clock shadow—seem to form a face. But the apparent assurance of its details and the presumed objectivity of the museum setting deceive the uninformed viewer.

The “man” is in fact a composite of an estimated six different portraits, each intimately connected to a person who lived and died in Roman Egypt. From the first to the third century CE, when Egypt was a province of the Roman Empire, Greek, Roman, and Egyptian cultures cross-pollinated with one another, and funerary portraits illustrate this exchange of ideas and artistic practices. Originally attached to a mummified body and buried underground, these panel paintings helped facilitate the afterlife and care for the person’s immortal soul. 

As fate would have it, in the 1800s, the burials were unearthed and ransacked. Lauded for their Greco-Roman style, the paintings were torn away from mummified bodies, which were often discarded, and sold into the European art market. Stripped of their historical context, the paintings were then reconstructed in the image of idealized ancient Greek painting, reflecting burgeoning 19th-century ideas about portraiture and art. 

Harvard received its composite portrait of a man in 1924 and acquired four other painted panel portraits and one sculptural mask between 1923 and 1965. Each of the works arrived in this reimagined form. Presented in the museums’ galleries, they appeared to visitors then (and to this day) as if direct ancestors of the European painting tradition. 

“They are almost always displayed vertically against a wall, and that says a lot to a viewer,” said Jen Thum, an Egyptologist and assistant research curator in the museums, speaking of the hundreds of such funerary portraits that hang on museum walls worldwide. “It looks like it’s supposed to be on the wall. It looks like it’s supposed to be seen by people and consumed. It looks like they’re supposed to be European, and that’s not what they are at all.” 

A New View of Funerary Portraits 

Over the last few years, Thum and three other curators at the museums have collaborated on a thoughtful reexamination of these objects. A goal of presenting the true nature of the portraits dovetailed with a desire to honor the individuals once intimately connected with them. The culmination of the curators’ work is the powerful exhibition Funerary Portraits from Roman Egypt: Facing Forward, in which quietly daring scholarship builds on these objects’ millennia-old stories. 

In the exhibition, open through December 30, 2022, ancient artifacts borrowed from other museums, such as burial shrouds, immerse viewers in the social and corporeal contexts of the funerary portraits. Diagrams, videos, and interactive re-creations bring cutting-edge material analysis and technical imaging into the galleries, foregrounding the ways artists created the objects as well as the fraught modern reception of the paintings. 

Accompanying the display of the composite portrait of a man, for example, a video explains the processes and implications of such research techniques as X-radiography and ultraviolet-induced fluorescence imaging. These tools demonstrated that the object is a collage of at least six different Roman Egyptian funerary portraits. While some questions are answered, new questions are posed. 

“Does it make sense to display the portrait as a modern assembly that tells the story of its life after burial?” the video asks viewers. “Or should we consider separating and displaying only those fragments that belong to the individual depicted in the central portrait? And if so, what should be done with the additional fragments?” 

As visitors enter the exhibition, they are greeted by a commanding photomural of the present-day Fayum, a region of ancient Egypt where many of the portraits were found. A deep blue Nile River winds through golden-brown desert toward the sea, as verdant expanses and mountains unfurl alongside it. 

Thum explains that the central motivation for using the contemporary image was to deflate the “weird, kind of mysterious rap” that popular media often assigns death in ancient Egypt—especially the notion that people of ancient Egypt were “obsessed with death.” 

“We could have put an image there of a tomb or an excavation,” said Thum. “Instead of that, we chose this contemporary view in full color of a place where some of these people would have lived and also a place where people live today.” 

The exhibition’s first room contains only one funerary portrait, a portrait of a man, which is positioned flat as it would have in a tomb. The subject’s short hair and beard suggest he died in the mid-third century CE, and the shape of the panel indicates that he lived in the ancient city of Philadelphia and was buried in the Fayum. 

Susanne Ebbinghaus, the George M.A. Hanfmann Curator of Ancient Art and a co-curator of the exhibition, explains her hope that the portrait’s horizontal orientation will “startle visitors and really make them think about context. In other words, how do we bring in the body?” 

So-called mummy tags—labels bearing the mummified person’s name—sit across from the portrait of a man and are among the ancient artifacts that curators hope draw out this context. The only surviving pieces of burial, these tags once identified the person in the embalming workshop and were critical to the subject’s identity in the afterlife. 

“The idea of realistic, veristic portraiture was not important to the Egyptians,” Thum said, explaining that the portraits may be a stylized or idealized portrayal of a person. The most important individual identifier was one’s name. 

“Your name is what lives on,” she said. “That’s why it’s so important that we have names in the gallery.” 

Inscribed with ink or incised in Greek and Egyptian scripts, the wooden labels, which include names alongside other information, attest to the multicultural nature of the era and to the deeply personal character of the paintings. An exhibition label suggests: “Before you move on, consider speaking their names.”

Translations of four of the tags on view are:

Anoubion, son of Artemidoros, be of good cheer.
Plenis, the younger son of Marinas. He lived 35 years. 
The Osiris Hor, son of Psenmonth, the stonecutter and priest of Imhotep.
Tasheret-kelendj, daughter of Kelendj, whose mother was Ta-akhemet. She died at age 13.

For Thum, Roman Egyptian funerary portraits have been a lifelong fascination. She first encountered the objects as a teenager in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York before rediscovering them during a study abroad program in Egypt, which inspired her undergraduate thesis on funerary portraits. Her interest in them developed even further in the halls of Oxford and Brown Universities, where she received a master’s degree in Egyptology and a doctorate in archaeology and the ancient world, respectively. 

The process of creating the exhibition, though, was still a new experience for Thum because she was able to experience the objects without a barrier and also because of the collaborative nature of the project: she co-curated the exhibition with curator Susanne Ebbinghaus and conservators Kate Smith and Georgina Rayner. 

“This was actually the first time that I saw any of the portraits out of the case and face to face with no barrier, with no Plexi between me and the portrait,” said Thum. “You notice things that you didn’t notice before.”  

The exhibition’s first room also includes a burial shroud, borrowed from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, that once wrapped the mummified body of a woman named Tasheret-Horudja. Her Greco-Roman style portrait contrasts with the traditional, two-dimensional Egyptian iconography elsewhere, and inscriptions on the shroud give information about her and her family. 

“It’s mentioned that her father and her husband are the people who buried her,” said Smith. “There was so much care, cost, community, and family put into this woman’s burial treatment. You can imagine the shroud lovingly wrapped around her and her life story is kind of on there. It’s like a send-off.”

The exhibition’s showcase of a person’s life and the love of their family is limited to the first room. In the second and third rooms, the prevailing focus comes into view: scientific and technical analysis that teases out the methods and techniques of the artists who created the portraits and that highlights ways in which the portraits have been manipulated. 

“To us, it was a very respectful angle to come at these objects from,” said Thum of the exhibition’s emphasis on the artists who created the portraits. 

“It doesn’t assume this kind of privilege of knowing the person on an intimate level. Who knows if they would want us to know them?” she said. “Are we really privy to that? Is it right for us to demand that of the past?” 

A Material Investigation 

The second room features the bulk of the exhibition’s funerary portraits, some of them on loan from other museums. Rather than being displayed horizontally, these portraits are displayed vertically, inviting the viewer to scrutinize and observe them with the tools that scientific and technical research have provided. 

Portrait of a woman, included in the second room, is shown in the round. On one side, a lifelike female portrait is rendered in overlapping blocks and dashes of color. On the other side, a collection of stamps sits alongside the residue of resin that once bound the panel to the mummified body. One of two large, round stamps designates that the painting was once part of the antiquities collection of Austrian art dealer Theodor Graf; the other stamp is from the Federal Monuments Office in Vienna. 

In the late 19th century, Graf marketed and sold the portrait as an “Ancient Greek Portrait.” It went on to be traded among art dealers, galleries, and auction houses before arriving at Harvard in 1939, by a donation from Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, the wife of John D. Rockefeller, Jr. 

In the lead-up to the exhibition, a re-examination of the portrait provided new insights. Co-curator Kate Smith, conservator of paintings and head of the paintings lab in the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies, led a technical imaging effort to learn more about the painting. An X-radiograph revealed metal brads (fasteners) nailed into the sides of the once-rounded wooden board, showing that pieces of wood were added to the portrait to make it rectangular. In an ultraviolet-induced fluorescence image of the panel, a neon yellow-green band wraps the edges of the woman’s face, showing that modern zinc pigments were painted over the wood and confirming the extent of the modern alteration of the object.

Surprisingly, though, the pigment of the lips remained in the X-radiograph image even as other low-density pigments disappeared. Using an X-ray fluorescent (XRF) spectrometer, in which a highly focused X-ray beam can parse out elemental information about a point on an object, Smith came to believe that the paint in the lips was lead. 

“We thought that was interesting,” Smith explained. “We didn’t know if it meant anything—maybe it was just the choice of color that they used. But it’s more expensive, toxic, and synthetic. And there are other reds lying around the ground that could have been used to the same effect.” 

Smith brought her discovery to Ebbinghaus and Thum. 

“Jen got excited right away because, she said, ‘The mouth is really important. The mouth is always treated in the funerary rites as the site of breath and speech entering and exiting the body,’” Smith recalled. 

“It was the coolest thing that ever happened,” said Smith. “It was one of my favorite moments of my career, because it was just this integration of data and thinking and ideas. And we still don’t even know if it’s true, but it’s so beautiful.” 

The impetus for this research and exhibition came in 2013, when the J. Paul Getty Museum launched APPEAR, or Ancient Panel Paintings: Examination, Analysis, and Research. The project aimed to foster an international community for the study of Roman Egyptian funerary portraits, establishing a centralized database for storing information about them. With four such portraits in Harvard’s collection, scholars in the Straus Center began research that serves as the exhibition’s conceptual engine. 

“This kind of research is happening all the time,” said Smith. “But we rarely get to show it to our public audiences. So often after a research project like this, we’ll write our art historical papers or scientific papers and put them in specialist journals and go to conferences. But being able to turn around and then show everyone else what we do is exciting.” 

Georgina Rayner, an associate conservation scientist with a Ph.D. in chemistry, also engaged in material analysis of the portrait of a woman. To do this, Rayner took a microscopic sample from the object and looked at it under a microscope. 

“I get nervous every time because these works are priceless,” Rayner said. “We always try to sample from edges and areas of loss. We’re never creating new damage.”

In the end, Rayner took three samples from the portrait, and she remembers the process, partly, from the smell. 

“I don’t know how to explain it,” she said, “but the panel has a sort of mustiness to it. It smells old, and then the pine resin that they used is a very distinct smell, and you can still smell that a little bit.” 

Beyond the material quality of the objects, this work stuck with Rayner because of the ethical questions embedded in it.  

“This is something so personal, and for a while, it made me think about whether I was okay working on it,” she said. “Ultimately, we knew we were trying to be respectful and trying to honor the person and the artist.” 

More Pieces of the Puzzle 

Together, the technical work of Smith and Rayner not only shows how this portrait of a woman has been reshaped for modern audiences but also complicates the scholarly conversation around it. 

The portrait has been attributed to the so-called Saint Louis Painter, because it appears to share a similar style with that of a notable funerary portrait in the Saint Louis Art Museum. (Artists of ancient Egypt did not sign their paintings.) The Funerary Portraits exhibition brings the portrait of a woman together with other works thought to be created by the Saint Louis Painter and presents Smith’s and Rayner’s research alongside them. From the layering of pigment to the kinds of wood used, their research shows how the objects were created in different ways. 

“If we are supposing this was the same painter,” Ebbinghaus said, “why do we find quite a bit of variation? But then again, if it wasn’t the same painter, why do they look the same?” 

Rayner’s analysis was also crucial to teasing out the collaged nature of the composite portrait of a man, which is featured in the third room of the exhibition. This room builds on the research of Smith and Rayner to bring viewers into a kind of artist’s studio, complete with a collection of the raw materials and pigments used to make the paintings. 

These pigments and materials are neatly arranged in a tabletop display. The bright pink-red pigment Madder Lake is shown alongside the roots of its natural source, the Madder plant. The indigo pigment sits next to ground-up pieces of the plant Indigofera tinctoria, which is macerated and fermented to create the distinctive hue. All told, there are nearly 50 individual samples of pigments and materials, from yellow ochre and bone black to beeswax and animal glue, all of which were used to bind the pigments to the wood. 

The room also features touchable wooden panels, re-created with the same materials as the funerary portraits, and a step-by-step display of how the portraits were made. 

Facing Forward 

Ultimately, Ebbinghaus said the exhibition can not only enlighten viewers about a long underappreciated and misunderstood form of ancient art, but also serve as a model for future curatorial collaborations designed to reveal the nuances of historically significant works. 

“We sadly can’t undo what has happened in the past, but we can be more aware,” she said. “We can support research that’s scientific and appropriate and we can work with colleagues internationally—in Egypt and elsewhere—about developing ways of display, study, and research that are forward facing and illuminating.” 

Ebbinghaus is known for correcting the record about the nature of ancient Greece and its art. She curated the Harvard Art Museums’ groundbreaking 2007 exhibition Gods in Color: Painted Sculpture of Classical Antiquity, which showed that sculptures sometimes lauded today for their whiteness were, instead, painted brightly, even seemingly garishly, with color. 

“In Europe and North America,” said Ebbinghaus, “we think of western civilization as having continuity with ancient Greece and Rome, and I’m adamant about saying ‘No. If you had found yourself in ancient Athens, you would have thought this was a really weird place.’” 

The funerary portraits at the exhibition’s core survived for millennia only because of Egypt’s dry climate, which preserved the wooden panels buried in the sand. Ebbinghaus hopes that with the fragments of the ancient world that remain, viewers will observe and appreciate the nuance of the human experience. 

“It’s important to remember the people who have been here before us, in all their variety, with all their strengths and weaknesses and particularities,” she said. Encouraging viewers to consider scientific findings as well as new interpretive perspectives draws attention to how perceptions of the past are continuously shifting. “Generally, my experience has been that we find a world that’s so much richer.” 

Funerary Portraits from Roman Egypt: Facing Forward closes on Friday, December 30. 


Graham Weber ’25 is concentrating in social studies at Harvard.