ART FROM ANCIENT LANDS
Funerary Shroud of an Elite, but Enigmatic Matron - PF.5829
The ancient Egyptians pioneered the practice of painting on linen because flax, from which linen is woven, lacks mordents to which dyes can adhere. It is for that reason that most of the clothing depicted in ancient Egyptian art is white, the color of un-dyed linen. In order to compensate for this lack of mordents, the Egyptians as early as the Pre-dynastic Period (about 3200 BC) began the practice of painting on linen, paint taking the place of dye. By the time of the Roman Imperial Period this long-established practice was employed for the decoration of funerary shrouds, of which ours is an outstanding example.
Our subject is an elite woman depicted wearing two garments. The first is a lavender colored tunic, over both shoulders of which is draped a darker, purple- colored shawl. The colors chosen are intentional marks of her status within society because during the Roman Imperial Period, purple was generally reserved for the clothing of the reigning emperor and members of his immediate family. Living in Egypt, this anonymous matron could wear the imperial purple with impunity. Her accessories include a pearl-like necklace which slips beneath the neckline of her tunic and elaborate earrings which are accurate depictions of actual earrings known to have been worn during this period. Her hair is deceptively arranged. It is not cut short, but is rather looped loosely around her ears and drawn up and tied at the back of her neck.
She is shown standing against a background, but the damaged state of the shroud, due to its age, precludes a precise identification of the environment in which she is posed. In parallel examples, one often encounters a depiction of a rectangular panel, which in one instance was inscribed in Greek, the official language of Roman Egypt.
There are numerous parallels for this shroud, including a virtually identical example in Paris, Le Musée du Louvre. This group of shrouds has been assigned to the site of Antinopolis, which was founded by the Roman Emperor Hadrian in AD 130 in honor of his favorite, the beautiful youth, Antinoos, who committed suicide by drowning in the River Nile in order to fulfill an ominous oracular prediction suggesting that the Emperor would suffer a heavy loss. The site continued to prospered, particularly in the third century AD under the Severan emperors, namely Septimius Severus, the founder, Caracalla, his son, and their successors. It is to this period that this group of shrouds is dated.
The shrouds in this group are all representations of women. They are all identically posed with one arm bent at the elbow and extended forward with its open palm raised with fingers spread in an unmistakable gesture. That gesture is accompanied by that of the other hand which is invariably bent at the elbow and positioned over the abdomen with the fingers of it hands spread around the bottom of an ankh, or sign of life.
The interpretation of the this small and select group of shrouds of elite, aristocratic matrons from Antinopolis in Middle Egypt of the third century AD remains enigmatic. If they are to be understood as expression of prevailing Egypto-Roman funerary praxis, then the raised hand represents an apotropaic gesture intended to ward off evil so that the matron may enjoy eternal life, symbolized by the ankh-sign. Alternatively, one has suggested that the population of Antinopolis may have contained a number of prominent individuals who were Christians. That suggestion has led other commentators to interpret the gesture of the open palm as that of a blessing. In this context, the ankh sign recalls the Greek letters Chi-Rho, which form the Christian monogram for Christ. In this case, the women are depicted in roles of priests, reaffirming the status of women in the Early Christian Church.
The evidence at present is equivocal so that one cannot decide with assurance about whether our shroud covered the mortal remains of either a pagan or a Christian. Nevertheless, the treatment of the body which appears flat and non-sculptural, the attention focused on the hands, and the emphasis placed on the eyes as windows of the soul clearly point toward stylistic conventions which later Christian monks would employ to advantage in their creation of the first Christian icons. It is for this reason that the parallel to our shroud in Paris has been called, La Dame à croix ansée, The Lady of the Ankh-Cross.
Euphrosyne Doxiadis, The Mysterious Fayum Portraits. Faces from Ancient Egypt (New York 1995), pages 118-119 for the parallels, particularly that in Paris and page 215, catalogue numbers 91 and 94, for the example in Paris, inventory number AF 6440, excavated at Antinopolis by the Guimet excavations in the 1900-1901 season.