17.04.2023 News

Allard Pierson starts international research on twelve mummy portraits

The Allard Pierson is launching an international study of twelve mummy portraits, two from its own collection and ten from partner museums in Europe, with the help of advanced analysis techniques. The aim of the study is to learn more about how and where the portraits were made.

Initiated by the Allard Pierson, the study is being undertaken in collaboration with the NICAS (Netherlands Institute for Conservation+Art+Science+) and the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. The twelve mummy portraits will be displayed along with twenty other specimens in the exhibition Face to Face: The People Behind the Mummy Portraits at the Allard Pierson, starting on 6 October 2023. This is the first exhibition of Ancient Egyptian mummy portraits in the Netherlands.

Mummy portraits (head and shoulders) are painted on wooden panels that are placed over the faces of mummified persons after the body has been treated and wrapped. They were made during Roman times in Egypt and date from the first to the fourth centuries AD. These are the earliest known painted works of realistic portraiture that we know of. Around 1,100 are in existence around the world, five of them at the Allard Pierson.

The main goal of the study is to find out more about how the portraits were made and what materials were used. For a long time, such portraits were mostly viewed from an art-historical and culture-historical perspective, but research into how they were made has gained in importance in recent decades. That can tell us something about where the maker got the wood and pigments, about alterations to the portrait, but above all about the individual depicted, the deceased. 

Because the researchers use various non-invasive analysis techniques, the mummy portraits do not need to be touched during the research and no sampling is necessary. This research starts in April in collaboration with the NICAS, whose partners include the Rijksmuseum, and the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. The study includes analyses of paint layers, pigments and other materials both on and beneath the surface of the mummy portraits.

The exhibition draws on current knowledge of mummy portraiture and the provisional results of the above-mentioned material and technical research, which runs until June 2024. The Allard Pierson is working on this project with research partners in Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands and the United States, and relies on the expertise of around fifty international museum partners who together make up the APPEAR network (Ancient Panel Paintings: Examination, Analysis and Research project), which includes the Allard Pierson and which is coordinated by the J. Paul Getty Museum.

Partners in the research project are Museum August Kestner (Hannover), Musée Royal de Mariemont (Morlanwelz), Reiss-Engelhorn-Museen (Mannheim), Ägyptische Sammlung HCCH der Universität Heidelberg.