Portrait of a Woman

Fayyum, Egypt, c. early 4th century 
Encaustic on wood, 33 x 21 cm

On a grayish ground, the woman's head is painted with brownish flesh, black hair, dark brown eyes. She wears a dress of dull raspberry, its folds accented in dark red. The bands over the right shoulder and across the left breast are black; the necklace is composed of white stones with brown centers, and the earrings are white, accented with brown. The woman's large almond-shaped eyes look directly out of the picture, although her right shoulder is turned slightly forward. The practice of covering the faces of mummies with images painted on wood panels began in Egypt with the Roman occupation, when the native population could no longer afford the elaborate sarcophagi of the traditional funerary cult. In the first and second centuries, such likenesses shared much of the naturalism and lifelike qualities of Hellenistic and Roman portraiture, but in the succeeding period stylization increased. In this image, produced in the early fourth century near the end of the pagan tradition of mummy portraits, the style is more abstract and decorative; it is interesting to compare the iconic style with the surviving naturalism of the art of Hellenized Alexandrian gold glasses of the same period. A number of other portraits on wood panels share characteristics so similar that they may be the work of the same artist.