The Egyptian collections remain far and away the best known of the Museum’s treasures. We did our best to skirt the children arrayed before the mummified remains and sarcophagi in the hopes of finding a somewhat calmer corner. We found such a space, at least for a short time, between narrow glass rows of mummies from the Roman period. As we learned at a glance, these stood out from the rest due to the presence of a wooden portrait panel integrated into the linen wrappings or the smaller plaster case into which the remains were set.
Although the name and provenance suggested more traditional Egyptian portraiture with the privilege of the profile, the reality proved quite other. Indeed, the anonymous artists showed a remarkable mastery of light and shadows and skin texture. Such considerable attention to minute detail would not resurface, in Europe at least, until the Renaissance.
If the Egyptian dead had previously sat for their artists, as the former had been accompanied for centuries by an image, the Roman period marked a new development. For the dead’s dress, hairstyles and accessories hailed from the Greco-Roman world. I could not help but think that the deceased’s facial structure and skin pigments had altered with subsequent migrations and conquests, the ebb and flow of nations bringing new blood.
The painter’s materials and techniques had changed as well. As it happened, the wood panels came more and more often from foreign shores and boughs, oak and linden. The paints likewise had evolved to include minerals, like lead, from elsewhere about the Mediterranean basin. The techniques themselves owed much to lands beyond: tempera, still widespread in the present and combining pigments with water soluble substances; encaustic, perhaps lost with the years, or at least to my limited knowledge, and mixing pigment with melted beeswax.
As was my wont, I asked my companions how much wax they thought had gone into such projects and how the Egyptians had procured the wax. Perhaps, like the other materials, it had arrived from distant lands or, perhaps instead, bee homes nestled amid the outcroppings and dunes and valleys laid about the Sahara. In the latter case, questions, to which I had no ready answer, made themselves felt, as to the whereabouts of the beekeepers and the frequency with which they visited the hives. I even fancied that I might find another Beehive, of the kind I had seen the other side of the ocean, a rounded seaside mount, but in the rocky innards of which those flying insects made their homes, below the solitary monks clustered in the miserable dwellings at its top.
I could not quite grasp why so few people stopped before those panes, but I might wager that it simply proved too startling, for the average person, to find themselves before a realistic depiction of the deceased. It was one thing to confront the mummy’s wizened skull and retreating skin; it was another entirely to take in the face so captured and borne through the years, rather than lost beneath the layers.