Mummy Portrait of a Young Man with Small Busts of Isis and Serapis, 200-250
Imperial Roman
Encaustic paint on wood
18 ½ × 14 ½ × 3/8 in. (47 × 36.8 × 1 cm)
1984-45 DJ

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This portrait panel features a young man flanked by two smaller busts. His hairstyle suggests a date early in the third century CE, when short hair and beards were in fashion. He wears a traditional plain white toga and a wreath. In his hands he holds a small pink wreath, partially preserved, and a sprig that may represent rosemary. Both items, symbolizing life and rebirth, may indicate that he was a devotee of the cult of Isis. Similarly, the busts suggest a connection to the cult. They may represent Isis and Serapis, often worshipped together in the Roman period with chthonic, or underworld, associations. The woman on the viewer’s left, wearing an expensive pearl necklace and a veil, is only partially preserved. At least one additional plank would have been part of the original panel, completing the face of the female figure. The smaller bust of a man, his face heavily damaged, appears to have a long beard and curly hair and wears a headdress known as a modius (for its resemblance to Roman grain measures), associated with Serapis.  

The two additional busts are an uncommon feature of Roman funerary portraits. The size of the panel is also unusual, as it is too large to be inserted into mummy wrappings like similar portraits in the Menil Collection. The irregular size of the planks, which are closely fitted to one other, may indicate the shape and width of the original branches on the Linden tree from which the panels were created. Linden wood was a common medium for funerary portraits, commonly called Fayum portraits for the findspot of many at the Al Fayyum Oasis in Egypt. Although this panel would not fit within the wrappings of a mummified individual, it follows a similar tradition. The preserved edges on the top, bottom, and right sides show a slightly beveled edge, which may have facilitated a frame to hang in a shrine or mortuary temple.