May 7, 2000
“Ancient Faces: Mummy Portraits From Roman Egypt” a special exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art concentrates on 70 portraits painted in Egypt during the first few centuries of Roman rule. Rome controlled Egypt as it controlled much else, through a policy of calculated multiculturalism. Egyptian customs were tolerated; Romans brought practices and beliefs of their own. Before long, things shaded together. The mummy paintings are traces of that process in action.
The paintings were made to be placed at the head level on the outside of cloth-wrapped mummies as part of Pharaonic mortuary rites focused on the afterlife. It was likely that the portraits were painted just before or after death.
As one walks into the gallery an eire feeling is in the air. The eyes of the portraits seem to follow you around the room. The Roman influence among the people is easily seen. A quote on the wall reads “ The arts in Roman Egypt were as complex as the society while temple building in the tradition Egyptian style continue with few interruptions until the end of the 2nd century A.D and many fine, relief’s, columns, and other architectural elements were created in the pharaonic manner, sculptures in a purely Egyptian style practically came to an end with the Roman conquest.
Portraits from the Antioopolis tend to show their subjects in distinctively restrained clothing and hairstyle presumably inspired by the city’s interest in Greek classicism. A number of Mummy portraits depict young men between the ages of 14 and 20 with their first facial hair, a feature that had particular connotations in Greek educated society of Roman Egypt. The way Emperor Hadrian had his hair combed forward and wearing a short beard that demonstrates love for ancient Greece. There are several inscriptions on panel paintings written in Greek, which was the suggested language of the educated upper class. These are just several examples of Greek and roman influence on the Egyptian society.
An exhibit I found more interesting was The Mary and Michael Jaharis Gallery of Archaic and Classical Greek Art. The Greek Art is elaborate with many of the statues being large scale. Many of the statues have a deep meaning behind them. Like the statue of Aphrodite it is a full body with animation appearing to be graceful and seductive. The statue of Maenads shows them dancing and the fabric moves with her expressions. The statue of the Amazons who were mythical race of warrior women show no expression on her face, no sign of pain or fatigue. There is such a great deal of detail in the artwork of ancient Greece it captures forever a time we will never know first hand.
The exhibits at The Metropolitan Museum of Art were an insight in to a time we will never see, but the beauty caught by classical artist shed light into a world faded in time.
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