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Mummy Mask

The most distinctive aspect of ancient Egyptian funerary practice was the ritual preservation of the body through mummification. For most of their history, the Egyptians also made likenesses of the deceased individual as a cover for the face, so that if the mummy should deteriorate or become damaged, the spirit—after its nightly wanderings—would recognize it and return. In the Middle Kingdom, shaped masks of plaster and linen were gessoed and painted with relatively realistic portraits. These were called in ancient Egyptian swht, meaning “eggshell.” The most famous mummy mask of all is the elaborate, gold-and-inlay mask of Tutankhamun.

During the Roman occupation of Egypt, this ancient practice continued but with a distinctly Italic accent. The Kimbell mask shows the melding of the two cultures. The materials are traditionally Egyptian: gesso, paint, gold leaf, and glass. Patches of gilding are still visible on the beard and hair, and there is reddish paint on the lips. The eyes are inlaid in green, black, and cream glass. The facial structure and fashion of the face, however, are not at all Egyptian or North African, but Roman. The hair and beard styles are typical of second-century Rome, where they were made fashionable by the emperor Hadrian.


(Ben Heller, Inc. New York);

purchased by Kimbell Art Foundation, Fort Worth, 1970.