As you walk through the new Greek galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, you will come upon sublime works of sculpture, brilliant vases and mosaics, resplendent jewelry. But where is the painting? The ancient Greeks revered this art form; they apparently ranked painting, especially that done on wooden panels, above sculpture (or wall painting). Where, then, is the Apeles? Or the Zeuxis? Lost to dust: Greek and Roman artists worked on wood that decayed into nothingness centuries ago. Almost all that we have left – of what was surely one of the crowning achievements of human culture – is the distant but astonishing glimpse now on view at the Met in Ancient Faces: Mummy Portraits From Roman Egypt. Organized by Dorothea Arnold and Marsha Hill, working in collaboration with the British Museum, the exhibition includes more than 70 vivid portraits painted in Roman Egypt during the first through the third century A.D.
The portraits – which were buried for centuries and survive only because of the Egyptian climate – are an eccentric fusion of Greco-Roman painting and pharaonic funerary practice. When Egypt became part of the Roman empire in 30 B.C., Roman fashions and influence began filtering through the region. Wealthy groups of people, especially those with Greek connections, commissioned paintings in the fashionable Greco-Roman style. Some also added remarkably lifelike portraits to mummies. Often, they inserted the panel into the wrappings above the head of the embalmed corpse; sometimes, an artist would paint a portrait of the deceased directly onto the linen shroud. The artists used both tempera and encaustic, a wax-based medium. Most portraits were probably painted after the death of the subject, perhaps with the aid of those familiar with the person. The actual making of the painting must have seemed a kind of resurrection.
The history and religious meaning of these portraits is fascinating, but their artistry is what claims the imagination. No lover of painting – from any period – will want to miss seeing the best examples. Although the painters worked within certain conventions, such as the three-quarters view, nothing routine or stylized or ostentatiously “realistic” smothers the extraordinary sensation of life they brought to art. The people who stare out at you are as alive as the intake of a breath; their faces flicker with character. (In the brushwork of the pictures there is something quick and almost slapdash, as if that were the only way to capture the passing light of a moment.) Many are not in the least idealized. Each person, while unique, also suggests universal human qualities. You may feel that you know some as well as you know certain friends. Here is the characteristically flirtatious half-smile. There the quizzical arch of the eye. The lock of hair that cannot quite be controlled falling across a damp brow. One of the pictures in this exhibition – the very model of a “father” – hung above Freud’s couch.
The Egyptian obsession with death stemmed from an intense love of life. No culture had more trouble letting go of its robust joys. The colors in these portraits seem mixed from blood and bone. The surfaces have the ripple of flesh; encaustic is a visceral medium, one that conveys particularly well the sensation of touch. In their manner of dress and grooming, the subjects appear as fashion-conscious as New Yorkers; they will take their present into the hereafter. Most of the portraits have been removed from their mummies, so that they now hang on the wall like modern paintings, but the show does contain a few examples of an intact mummy and portrait. The power of such work, seen in its original form, is partly sculptural. In one, a lifelike depiction of a young man with doleful, melancholy eyes lies within the still, tightly bound wrappings of the mummy. The picture becomes an open window, releasing the breath of life from an airless prison.