Mummy Portrait of a Woman, mid 2nd or mid 4th century
Egypt, possibly Sheikh-‘Ibada region
Tempera on cloth
22 ¼ × 15 in. (56.5 × 38.1 cm)
Painted in tempera on linen, this mummy portrait depicts a young woman accompanied by two birds on a light background. She wears a pink long-sleeved dress with black vertical shoulder bands (called clavi). Her white under tunic is visible at the neckline and the sleeves. A mantel the same color as her dress is draped over each arm and across her waist. It features a decorative black design with notched ends, shaped like the Greek letter gamma (Γ). (This gamma-shaped design is sometimes called a gammadia and is seen in other contemporary representations, possibly having a religious significance.) Her hair, parted and pulled to the back, has escaping tendrils and small ringlets across her forehead. Bedecked with rich jewelry, she wears a pair of bar earrings with three pendant pearls each; a gold choker with a larger circular medallion; two spiral and/or woven bracelets; and three or four rings, including a snake ring and at least one signet ring.
Snakes have strong chthonic, or underworld, associations in the ancient world because of their ability to shed their skin and traverse below ground. Other symbols in the portrait have similar implications. For instance, the two birds may be a dove and sparrow hawk, both of which are associated with the soul of the deceased and their travel. The cup in her right hand probably contained wine, which was typically offered to the deceased in funerary rites. In her other hand, a bundled garland, most likely comprised of flower petals, could symbolize rebirth. Understood together, these symbols may indicate that the deceased was? initiated into the cult of Isis, the Egyptian goddess who resurrected Osiris and was the mother of Horus, the falcon-headed god of kingship.
The portrait is difficult to date, and there is not a consensus among scholars. Some date it between 150–200 CE by the style of the jewelry, particularly the bar earrings with pearl pendants; however, there is a possibility that it could date to the 4th century CE. During this later period, there was a revival in 2nd century CE styles. Possibly, future testing of the linen shroud would clarify the date of the object. This portrait was part of the collection of Sayed Khashaba Pasha from Asyut, Egypt at least by 1931, when it appears in a selective catalog of his collection. The de Menils purchased the work in 1958 from Khashaba through Alexander Iolas, and it joined the Menil Collection in 1997.