Portrait. Encaustic and gilt on cedarwood paneling. 42 cm tall; 24 cm wide; 1.2 cm thick

Brief IdentificationEdit

This portrait is one of numerous discovered in Egypt, collectively referred to as the Fayum mummy portraits, though not all were discovered in the Fayum. This particular portrait was purchased by the Louvre in 1952, and is currently housed in the Department of Egyptian Antiquities, titled "L'Européenne."

Many of these portraits were questionably acquired through clandestine archaeological missions [Bierbrier 1997, 16], private collections even now holding a significant portion of the 1000+ works which have been discovered [Corcoran 1995]. The public was initially skeptical of their authenticity upon their unveiling in 1887, but subsequent excavations proved their validity [Thompson 1982, 4].  

Due to the lack of documentation over L'Européenne's acquisition, there is some uncertainty over the time and place of origin for this piece, but scholars typically place its creation in Antinoopolis from 120-130 AD.

Technical EvaluationEdit

Mummy portraits were typically painted in one of two styles: encaustic and tempera. L'Européenne is an example of the encaustic technique - a style of wax painting - where artists combine colored pigment with heated beeswax and brush it onto their canvas before it dries. This method of painting requires great skill with and understanding of materials, and produced very high-quality portraits. In contrast, those painted in tempera effect have a flat effect resembling watercolors, which some have described as the beginning of a decline in artistic aptitude for the North African region. [Thompson, 1982]

Panel Shapes

Panel styles and their suggested origins [Corcoran and Svoboda 2010, p.42, fig.22, adapted from Thompson (1982), p.36, fig.4].

Portraits were most commonly made from imported woods such as lime, oak, fig, and sycamore [Cartwright 1997, 109-111]. L'Européenne is made of cedarwood, likely imported from Asia Minor and Syria [West 1917, 47], though thinner, more flexible woods were typically preferred over hardwood as they would more easily conform to the rounded shape of the coffin [Cartwright and Middleton 1997]. The various styles in which the panels were cut can be used to estimate the area where the portrait originated. L'Européenne is cut in a stepped panel style [Corcoran and Svoboda 2010], suggested to be from Antinoopolis

The gold leaf gilding which makes up L'Européenne's collar and earrings would have been added after the painting process itself was completed. While Egyptian artists traditionally covered the bodies of divine figures covered in gold leaf, believing the gods were made of the imperishable substance, the liberal use of gold and the extremely high quality of mummy portraits in the Roman period suggests that they were commissioned by the local elite. [Corcoran and Svoboda 2010, 23]

Painting only a person's head and shoulders - the ‘veristic’ or 'bust' style - is a Roman import to Egyptian funerary practices, developed in the first century AD. The Roman notion of honoring the dead with a commemorative bust was translated into local Egyptian custom in the mummy portraits. Many mummy portraits, including L'Européenne, have Romanised hairstyles, jewelry, and clothing that was fashionable at the imperial court of the time. [Walker 1997, pp 1-3]

Local Historical ContextEdit

After Octavian's victory over Mark Antony and Cleopatra in 30 BCE, Egypt (Aegyptus) became a part of the Roman Empire, opening its borders to immigration. Though there were comparatively few immigrants - perhaps 300,000 Hellenes among 7 million Egyptians [Parson 2007, 36] - the Greek influx to Egypt after Cleopatra's death caused a social revolution, overlaying Egypt's previously function-based society with a new dominant elite. [Bowman 1986, 122]  Hellenism became the dominant culture of the region, not because it was the most common, but because Rome favored Hellenes above the native Egyptians (Aigyptoi), clearly distinguishing between the two and granting exemptions from poll and capitation taxes to the dominant Roman elite [Bagnall 1997, 7]. Tax breaks and access to important civic institutions (colleges, museums, bureaucracies) were reserved for citizens of Greek cities like Alexandria and Ptolemais [Parson 2007], with the right to enter the higher echelons of society often dependent on the ability to prove Greek ancestry on both sides [Bowman 1986, 123;126].

Yet, while the Greeks discriminated against the local Egyptians, this did not prevent many from gaining access to privilege through social and political institutions and distinguishing themselves economically over time. The new social structure offered opportunities for those who were wiling to Hellenise to rise to distinction. The literacy rate (for Greek) rose significantly after Roman settlement, bilingualism in both Greek and Coptic persisting even up to 700 years afterwards [Bowman 1986, 122]

In addition to dominating the social strata, the Greeks also attempted to take charge of Egpyt's religious scene, romanising many of the local gods. Greek rulers played both sides, commissioning both Egyptian-styled temples while still imposing their own cult on society. [Parson 2007, 37] However, while it is clear that Egypt was forced to adapt to its new rulers, there is significant evidence that the Greeks were the one who borrowed culture, rather than the other way around. [Bianchi 1992, 15] Even as they introduced the bust style of painting to Egypt, they painted Greek individuals meeting Anubis, and took up mummification. [Parson 2007, 38] [Edgar 1905]

There is evidence of correspondence, beginning during Claudius' reign, between individuals living in the Fayum with significant Roman officials based in Egypt and with the emperor himself. [Bowman and Rathbone 1992] A copy of a letter from Nero to members of a group of people living in the Fayum indicates that the group had received special privileges from earlier emperors. This contact with the imperial court was likely the first means by which the idea of commemorative portraits were imported from Rome. Egyptian ambassadors were known to have traveled to Rome from the Fayum, also accounting for the appearance of hairstyles, jewelry, and clothing currently fashionable in Italy in the middle of the first century AD. [Walker 1997, 2]

The elite of Fayum to whom Nero sent his letter were addressed as members of the 6475, a name they gave themselves. This group is thought to be descendants of the original Greek military colonists of the Fayum. From their number, Emperor Hadrian supposedly selected settlers to found Antinoopolis, a city which made mummy portraits of high quality. The overall range of the 6475's existence coincides with the overall range for the mummy portraits: from the accession of Nero to 245 AD. [Walker 1997, 4] This, in addition to the fact that the founding of Antinoopolis in 130 AD coincides with the rough dating on L'Européenne, suggests that it was one of the first portraits painted by the founding elite in Antinoopolis. [Parsons 2007]

World-Historical SignificanceEdit

During the Roman period, mummification was sloppily done. The ritualized process was less important than the lavish decorations heaped upon the linen shrouds and cartonnage covers. This change may be accounted for by the fact that the Romans practicing mummification were doing so without any understanding of the cultural history behind it. Many bodies were not placed in coffins before burial, but went directly into the ground or tombs. ["Mummies" 2009] There is even physical evidence that portrait mummies were kept in the house for some time before being buried - Sir Flinders Petrie noted rain damage, scratches, missing eyes, broken casing, and a child's graffiti on several specimen. [Corcoran 1992]

The question of when during an individual's life their mummy portrait was painted is unresolved. [Parlasca 1997] They were initially thought to be painted after death [Petrie 1889], but with the discovery of a framed portrait at Hawara and evidence of cuts at the edges of the portraits, the theory arose that they were originally painted to be hung in the house and trimmed down after the subject's death, their inclusion into the mummies only a secondary function. [Corcoran 1992] However, scans of various mummies have revealed that the age of the mummy is approximately equal to the age shown in portrait, which suggests that they were painted right before or after the subject's death. [Corcoran and Svoboda 2011] Some believe that the portraits were painted as idealized images after the individual's death [Montserrat 1997], and there has been speculation that framed examples such as at Hawara were created specifically for inclusion in the burial. [Corcoran 1992]

In the later part of the Roman era, the emergence of the Church and Christianity again worked as a social force, deepening the rift between Christianity and Egyptian paganism. [Bowman 1986, 129] From Constantine's rule onward, Christian names were used more often, making it more difficult to distinguish between ethnic Greeks and Egyptians. [Bagnall 1993, 233] In the late 4th Century AD, the Christian emperor Theodosius banned all pagan rituals in the Roman Empire, effectively ending the practice of mummification in Egypt once and for all. [Corcoran and Svoboda 2011, 11] Village temples fell into disuse, and the literate priesthood class was dispensed with, marking the end of writing in the traditional Egyptian scripts. [Bagnall 1993, 315]


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Web ReferencesEdit

Athena Review Image Archive, "Map of Pyramid sites and Fayum" <>

Encyclopedia Britannica <>

Gadling, "Ancient faces: the Fayum mummy portraits of Egypt" <>

Merriam-Webster Dictionary, "cartonnage" <>

Metropolitan Museum of Art, Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, "Portrait of a Boy" <>

Musee de Louvre, "Portrait of a woman, known as L'Européenne" <>