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Portraits from the Dessert

A temporary exhibition organised by the Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna in conjunction with the Egyptian Museum Cairo

This is the first time that such a wide selection of mummy portraits from the collections of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo has been on show outside Egypt. In this way the exhibition in Vienna differs from the recent and very successful shows in London and Rome. In addition, recently restored mummy portraits from the Collection of Classical Antiquites, and cartonnages (mummy shrouds), face masks and stucco heads from the Egyptian and Oriental Collection of the Kunsthistorisches Museum will be on show. The mummy portraits from the Austrian National Library´s Collection of Papyri will also be exhibited to a wider public for the first time.

About 1000 so-called Egyptian-Roman mummy portraits have survived in different museums and collections all over the world. They are naturalistic and fascinatingly life-like portraits of deceased persons, painted on wood canvas is a rare exception and placed on the mummy over the head of the deceased. Only very few mummies have survived intact, carefully wrapped in linen bandages covering everything except the portrait panel, or wrapped in a painted cloth. Sometimes they were also covered with a painted cartonnage, or a sculptured bust made of stucco. The portraits are executed in wax painting its effect is similar to that of oil painting or in tempera.

Most of the extant mummy portraits were found in graves in the Fayum. As many were discovered at the end of the 19th century and are badly documented, the exact location of the finds is often unknown. Many of the exhibits shown in Vienna were excavated by the English archaeologist, W.M. Flinders Petrie, in 1888 and 1910/11 in Hawara, and by the Viennese merchant, Theodor Graf, in, for example, Er-Rubayat in 1887.
The portraits date from the 1st to the beginning of the 4th century A.D. and clearly show the influence of Roman art. They replace the older Egyptian masks with idealised faces. Ancient Egyptian traditions, such as the popularity of mummification and the continued use of Egyptian themes in the decorations of the mummies, are combined with Roman elements like the naturalistic depiction of the deceased wearing every-day clothes and jewellery.

Apparently, the dead were mainly venerated at home (this is also described by ancient authors) and not at the burial places which were usually simple and carelessly dug graves in which the mummies were only buried at a later date.
30 years was the typical life expectancy within a population with Egyptian, Greek and Roman ancestors. Therefore, most of the deceased are depicted young, only a few look older and are shown with wrinkles and grey hair.

Mummy portraits show many similarities to Roman marble portraits and may be dated especially the female portraits with the help of changing hairstyle fashions. To facilitate this comparison, Roman marble busts and jewellery from the Collection of Classical Antiquities in the Kunsthistorisches Museum will also be on show in the exhibition.
Mummy portraits are a unique testament to the quality of painting in the ancient world, very little of which has come down to us due to the transience and fragility of the medium.


20 October 1998
to 31 January 1999

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