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A Woman’s Mask

A Woman’s Mask
© BA Antiquities Museum/M. Aly and R. Ali

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Registration Number(s)
BAAM Serial Bibliotheca Alexandrina Antiquities Museum Number T0044

Inv.Inventory
 (Greco-Roman Museum) 21631

where to find


showcase 19

A Woman’s Mask

Category:
Masks, funerary masks
Date:
Graeco-Roman Period, Roman Period, Marcus Aurelius Era (161–180 CE)
Provenance:
Unknown
Material(s):
Man made material, plaster
Height:
24.5 cm
Hall:
Greco-Roman Antiquities, showcase 19


Description

A mask of colored gypsum for a middle aged woman. The eyes are inlaid with rocks on which the iris is painted in black. The mask carries the features of an Asian woman. The hairstyle indicates that the mask belongs to the reign of Marcus Aurelius (161 – 180 CE).

Plaster Masks

The Greek historian Polybius (208–125 BC) tackled the different Roman traditions he had seen during his visit to Rome in 166 BC. He was most interested in the aristocratic Roman funerary beliefs. As he mentioned,

When a famous Roman dies, the body is carried in a huge ceremony to the forum to be placed where everyone could see it. While the entire population surrounds the deceased, the son or a close relative mounts the forum to recite an eulogy, stating the virtues of the deceased. After the poem, the corpse is buried according to common funerary traditions. The photograph of the deceased, displayed in a wooden compartment during the funeral, is then displayed in a vantage point at the house. This photograph is in fact a mask of wax that meticulously captures the features of the deceased with inlaid eyes and wigs. On special occasions, these photographs are hanged and meticulously embellished. Upon the death of another eminent member in the family, other members with the same built as the deceased would wear the funerary masks and the special garments that represent the deceased’s job. They would all ride in cars preceded by flag bearers to the Forum. After the eulogy, the presenter mentions those who preceded the deceased, and whose photographs are displayed, in chronological order. This is how the Romans have always maintained the fame and virtues of great men in order to commemorate those who have served the nation over time.

Thus, it becomes obvious that the idea behind funerary masks does not stem from the Roman belief in the unity of the deceased with the gods after death. It has rather emerged due to the need to immortalize their virtues and greatness. 

When the Romans settled in Egypt, they did not fully understand the enigmatic Egyptian beliefs. Instead, they were only influenced by them in the sense that they started to care for the body in addition to the photograph that carries the facial features. Therefore, the photograph– whether a painting or a mask– became along with the mummy and the coffin a necessary trilogy for worshiping photographs. The mummies themselves used to be displayed for a long time in the yards of Roman houses as replacements for the photographs, but eventually, the Romans would be compelled to bury them collectively in one well as they crowd in the yard of the family house.   

The Manufacture of Roman Funerary Masks

The masks were poured into molds and pressed with fingers, evident through the traces of fingertips on the inside. The rest of the minute details were handmade and affixed to the head: first was the skull followed by the ears and the eyes if not painted. Then, the mask was coated by a thin layer of plaster that made all the details more prominent. Afterwards, the artist began to create the hairstyle separately to be placed later on the head. Crowns, if present, were also made separately to be affixed to the head later, and so was the case with beards.

Upon studying the funerary masks, it became evident that they all represented people under 40; thus, funerary masks were not made for an individual after death but rather during their life. This could be proven by the absence of any trace of  death-like static facial expressions on any of these masks; they rather represent lively faces.

Eventually, the mask was affixed to the mummy through pores that enclosed it within the wrappings. Masks differed in size; some only covered the face while others extended to the neck or part of the chest. Moreover, they came in different artistic styles according to the prevailing artistic trends of each period, especially with the development of the art of portraits that characterized the Roman art.

It is worth mentioning that in addition to the influence of Roman portrait art that could be traced in the study of funerary masks, there were clear influences of Egyptian art on those masks. And why not, the Romans, similar to the Greeks before them, were inspired by the art of making masks from Egyptian funerary art.

Scholars had long argued whether those represented by the funerary masks were Romans, Greeks, or Egyptians as the matter could not be settled based on facial features alone. However, it could safely be said that they represented members of the upper class of society since only those could afford the expenses of fulfilling the funerary rituals for their deceased. Therefore, many of these masks manifested signs of affluence such as jewelry, which is quite exaggerated in some models. Some of the masks were even coated by a layer of gold. We know that on top of the hierarchy of the Roman society in Egypt were the Roman rulers and high statesmen, followed by high ranking officials. Many Greeks and Egyptians were promoted to several state positions. On the other hand, priests had always represented the privileged class that was to be granted full funerary rituals in any case. Thus, the masks accompanying priests’ mummies could be easily distinguished through the symbols or titles they carried.  


The information given here is subject to modification/update as a result of ongoing research.

Bibliography
  • McCrimmon, Mary. “Graeco-Egyptian Masks and Portraits in the Royal Ontario Museum”. In The American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 49, no.1. Boston: Archaeological Institute of America, 1945.
  • Petrie, W. M. Flinders. Roman Portraits and Memphis (IV). London: School of Archaeology in Egypt, 1911.
  • عزيزة سعيد، الأقنعة الجصية. القاهرة: المتحف المصري، 1982.

 

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