Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Mummy masks - an Egyptian (and Roman!) tradition

  In 2016, I had the opportunity to photograph some of the collections of the Neues Museum in Berlin, Germany. Their collection of Egyptian mummy masks included some of the most meticulously conserved examples I have encountered in my travels.  TourEgypt's comprehensive article on mummy masks does an excellent job of explaining the evolution of this form of funerary art.  An excerpt:

Funerary masks had more than one purpose. They were a part of the elaborate precautions taken by the ancient Egyptians to preserve the body after death. The protection of the head was of primary concern during this process. Thus, a face covering helped preserve the head, as well as providing a permanent substitute, in an idealized form which presented the deceased in the likeness of an immortal being, in case of physical damage. Those of means were provided with both a mask with gilt flesh tones and blue wigs, both associated with the glittering flesh and the lapis lazuli hair of the sun god. Specific features of a mask, including the eyes, eyebrows, forehead and other features, were directly identified with individual divinities, as explained in the Book of the Dead, Spell 151b. This allowed the deceased to arrive safely in the hereafter, and gain acceptance among the other divine immortals in the council of the great god of the dead, Osiris. Though such masks were initially made for only the royalty, later such masks were manufactured for the elite class for both males and females.

Beginning in the 4th Dynasty, attempts were made to stiffen and mold the outer layer of linen bandages used in mummification to cover the faces of the deceased and to emphasize prominent facial features in paint. The forerunners of mummy masks date to this period through the 6th Dynasty, taking the form of thin coatings of plaster molded either directly over the face or on top of the linen wrappings, perhaps fulfilling a similar purpose to the 4th Dynasty reserve heads.A plaster mold, apparently taken directly from the face of a corpse, was excavated from the 6th Dynasty mortuary temple of Teti, though unfortunately, this is thought to date to the Greco-Roman period.

The very earliest masks were experimentally crafted as independent sculptural work, and have been dated to the Herakleopolitan period (late First Intermediate Period). These early masks were made of wood, fashioned in two pieces and held together with pegs, or cartonnage (layers of linen or papyrus stiffened with plaster. They were molded over a wooden model or core. The masks of both men and women had over-exaggerated eyes and often enigmatic half smiles. These objects were then framed by long, narrow, tripartite wigs held securely by a decorated headband. The "bib" of the mask extended to cover the chest, and were painted for both males and females with elaborate beading and floral motif necklaces or broad collars that served not only an aesthetic function but also an apotropaic requirement as set out in the funerary spells. Hollow and solid masks (sometimes of diminutive size) were also built by pouring clay or plaster into generic, often unisex molds. To this, ears and gender specific details were than added. These elongated masks eventually evolved into anthropoid inner coffins, first appearing in the 12th Dynasty.

Masks became increasingly more sophisticated during the New Kingdom and Third Intermediate Period. These later masks made for royalty were beaten from precious metals. Of course, an obvious example of such is the solid gold mask of Tutankhamun, though we also have fine gold and silver specimens from Tanis.

However, masks of all types were embellished with paint, using red for the flesh tones of males and yellow, pale tones for females. Added to this were composite, inlaid eyes or eyebrows, as well as other details that could elevate the cost of the finished product considerably. Hence, indications of social status, including hairstyles, jewelry and costumes (depicted on body-length head covers) are often helpful in dating masks. However, the idealized image of transfigured divinity, which was the objective of the funerary masks, precluded the individualization of masks to the point of portraiture. The results are that we have a relative sameness in these objects with anonymous facial features from all periods of Egyptian history.

The use of face coverings for the dead continued in Egypt for as long as mummification was practiced in Egypt. Regional preferences included cartonnage and plaster masks, both of equal popularity during the Ptolemaic (Greek) period. The cartonnage masks became actually only one part of a complete set of separate cartonnage pieces that covered the wrapped body. This set included a separate cartonnage breastplate and foot case. During the Roman period, plaster masks exhibit Greco-Roman influence only in their coiffures, which were patterned from styles current at the imperial court. This included both beards and mustaches for males, and elaborate coiffures on women, all highly molded in relief. However, during the Roman period alternatives to the cartonnage or plaster mask, were introduced, the so-called Fayoum portraits, which were initially unearthed from cemeteries in the Fayoum and first archaeologically excavated in 1888 and between 1910 and 1911 by Flinders Petrie at Hawara. Since then, they have been discovered at sites throughout Egypt from the northern coast to Aswan in the south. Although though the portraits do appear at first to capture the unique features of specific individuals, it appears likely that only the earliest examples were painted from live models. Studies have indicated that the same generic quality that permeates the visages of the cartonnage and plaster masks persists within the group of Fayoum portraits that have been preserved and therefore we believe that they served in a similar fashion as the earlier masks.

I recognized Fayoun portraits were stylistic but did not realize they included more generic formulaic elements as is mentioned above.

Mummy mask of Pasyg. Early Roman. 1 century C.E. cartonnage, painted and gilded with glass inlays photographed at the Neues Museum in Berlin

Very formulaic Mummy mask of a woman. Egypt, Roman period, early 1st century CE. photographed at the Neues Museum, Berlin

Another very formulaic mummy mask of a woman. Egypt, Roman period, early 1st century CE. photographed at the Neues Museum, Berlin

Partially gilded mummy mask of the Ta-Scherit-en Hor, Ptolemaic Period, 4th - 1st century BCE, photographed at the Neues Museum, Berlin

Closeup of a Roman period full body cartonnage mummy case found in the Fayoum region 50 CE, photographed at the Neues Museum, Berlin

Mummy of a girl ("daughter of Aline") with a gilded cartonnage mummy mask from the Fayoum region 1st - 2nd century CE courtesy of the Neues Museum in Berlin

Mummy of a girl ("daughter of Aline") with a gilded cartonnage mummy mask from the Fayoum region 1st - 2nd century CE courtesy of the Neues Museum in Berlin

Gilded textile mummy mask of Mysthas from the Fayoum region, Roman period, 1st century BCE - 1st century CE courtesy of the Neues Museum, Berlin
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