Ancient World, Antiquities, Getty Villa, J. Paul Getty Museum

Power in a Mummy Portrait

Look closely at this beautiful mummy portrait on display at the Getty Villa and you’ll find powerful signs of wealth, status, and beauty

Mummy Portrait of Isidora / Isidora Master

Mummy Portrait of a Woman (detail), about A.D. 100–110, attributed to the Isidora Master. Linen, pigment, and gold; encaustic on wood, 18 7/8 x 14 3/16. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 81.AP.42

Artists have a impressive bag of tricks when it comes to displaying the wealth of subjects they depict. This mummy portrait of a woman, a Romano-Egyptian death portrait that once adorned the mummy of an elite woman, is a good example.

From her gold and silver hair pins, to the cascading pearl earrings as bright as the subject’s eye, to the three stacked necklaces, Isidora, as she was called, is—to use an art-historical term—blinged out.

Not all signs of Isidora’s affluence hit you over the head. The unknown artist used color, tone, and lines to get at a more subtle way of showing power.

For one thing: Her skin tone, in comparison to other mummy portraits in the same gallery, is much lighter. That may be a result of makeup, or it may be her real skin tone, says Eric Bruehl, education specialist at the Getty Villa. In either case it indicates a wealthier woman, someone who wasn’t out in the sun all the time.

She also appears to be wearing a cloak of purple, a color that has always had a strong association with royalty.

The artist also added subtle but intentional lines around her neck. These “venus rings” hint at both her age and her size. “She’s probably a well-fed, healthy woman, which certainly would have been attractive two thousand years ago,” says Eric.

Centuries after her portrait was painted, Isidora still seems self-assured. “She knows exactly who she is,” adds Eric. “And she’s very, very proud of it.”

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      GREEN EARTH

      Seasick fishermen? Ogres? 

      Getting flesh tone right is an important element to paintings. The Medieval technique was to use egg yolk as a binder and start the coloring with a wash of green. 

      Layers of browns and pinks can be added on top to give depth to the flesh tones. However, sometimes the layer of pink on top fades and what do you get?

      Seasick fishermen. Or actually in this case slightly-green Israelites drawing water. 

      More color talk in The Brilliant History of Color in Art.

      Initial H: Moses Striking Water from the Rock and Israelites Drawing Water, about 1250-1262, Italian. J. Paul Getty Museum.

      11/18/14

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