The woman in this portrait wears gold, ball-shaped earrings, a golden braided chain and a necklace made up of rectangular emeralds with alternating gold details. Her rich red tunic has a black gold-edged stripe at her right side: this is a clavus, a sign of status in Rome. The artist records her features with accuracy: her large, almond-shaped eyes slant upwards, she has a low forehead, a long thin nose, a plump but small mouth and a small, square chin.
The portrait dates to the first century AD when Egypt was part of the Roman Empire. It was probably commissioned at death and then placed into the case holding her mummified body. This kind of burial rite and portrait image were only possible for the wealthiest citizens. The woman came from a mixed society of Greeks, Romans and Egyptians, which explains her choice of Roman fashion and Egyptian burial custom.
The woman in this portrait is dressed in her finest jewellery: gold, ball-shaped earrings – which were clearly fashionable as they are found in other portraits of this kind – and around her neck a golden, braided chain and a necklace made up of rectangular emeralds with alternating gold details. Her rich red tunic has a black gold-edged stripe, known as a clavus, at her right side. The artist has taken care to record her features with accuracy: her large, almond-shaped eyes slant upwards, she has a low forehead, a long thin nose, a plump but small mouth and a small, square chin.
She lived in Egypt in the first century AD when it was part of the Roman Empire. Although she appears only middle-aged, the portrait was probably made after her death. Excavated from a burial chamber in Er-Rubaiyat in the Faiyum region of Egypt, south-west of Cairo, it was probably commissioned at her death and carried in a funeral procession before she was mummified. The image was then cut at the top corners and placed within the mummy wrappings. It was important for the ceremony that the woman was recognisable, which explains the detailed observation of her unique features.
Only the wealthiest citizens would have been able to afford this kind of portraiture, let alone mummification. The woman may have been of Greek origin, for before Egypt became part of the Roman Empire it was ruled by the Ptolemies, generals of the Greek conqueror, Alexander the Great (d. 323 BC). As part of a Roman society, however, her contemporaries probably held administrative roles for the Empire. She, like them, adopted Roman fashions; the clavus, for example, was a sign of social status in Rome.
This portrait is painted in encaustic and egg tempera on limewood, which is not native to Egypt but found in the Mediterranean. Egg tempera (ground pigments mixed with egg) continued to be used by early Renaissance artists but encaustic, which used wax to bind colours, fell out of favour.
A large number of portraits of this kind were excavated in the 1880s and sold in Europe to private collectors and public institutions. This portrait was purchased by one of the Gallery’s most notable benefactors, Ludwig Mond, who left a number of paintings from his collection to the National Gallery in his will. He owned four of these portraits, which he acquired in 1893 from a Viennese dealer called Thomas Graf. The National Gallery Director, Sir Frederic Burton, acquired seven portraits for the collection in 1888.
As non-Western paintings, these portraits were unusual purchases but Burton thought they showed the link in the history of painting between the ancients (the Greeks and Romans) and the painters of the Renaissance. He was particularly interested in providing models for art students and he may have put these on display as examples of the encaustic technique. They were transferred to the British Museum permanently in 1994. This image, along with A Man with a Wreath, is on loan to the British Museum; one of the conditions of the Mond bequest was that his works had to remain the property of the Gallery.
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