In the fourth century BCE Alexander the Great (died 323 BCE, Macedonian/Greek) conquered Egypt. Subsequently, Greeks intermarried with Egyptians to form Greek ruling dynasties. In the first century BCE, the Romans occupied Egypt. The Greek idealized representation of the body was augmented by the Roman emphasis on extreme realism. While no Greek painting per se has survived from antiquity (outside of vase painting), the mummy portraits of Egypt may be a descendant from that tradition, enhanced by Roman obsession with realism as a way of honoring the deceased’s uniqueness.
Although under Greek and Roman domination from the fourth century BCE, the Egyptians maintained their religion and their funerary practices, including mummification and all the inherent rites. Because it was more expensive to commission elaborately carved, painted, and inlayed coffin lids, Egyptians during the Greek-Roman era opted for painted portraits of the deceased that were affixed over the head of the deceased in the coffin lid. The funerary portraits that have come down to us are mostly from wealthy families of Greek and Roman ancestry that had married into Egyptian families.
Roman artists used encaustic (wax) pigments because they were extremely durable. The man in this coffin portrait was most likely Greek in origin. The golden laurel wreath crown was a Greek symbol of victory, in this case victory over death. The large, vigilant eyes are typical of late Roman portraiture. How this is a contrast to the generalized, highly decorated head pieces of Egyptian mummies from only 800 years earlier!
Click here to view some more mummy portraits: the variation in level of skill of the painter is obvious.
Correlations to Davis programs: Explorations in Art Grade 1: 2.8; Explorations in Art Grade 2: 2.8; Explorations in Art Grade 3: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3; Explorations in Art Grade 4: 2.7; Explorations in Art Grade 5: 1.1; A Personal Journey: 3.2, 6.1; A Global Pursuit: 2.1; The Visual Experience: 15.3; Discovering Art History: 5.3