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Royal Ontario Museum reunites two Romano-Egyptian mummy portraits after more than 100 years
Two Fayum mummy portraits were acquired by the ROM’s Charles T. Currelly in 1912. © Royal Ontario Museum.

TORONTO.- After more than 100 years of separation, the Royal Ontario Museum is reuniting two extraordinarily well-preserved Fayum mummy portraits. These two paintings were origionally acquired by the ROM in 1912 from Sotheby’s by Charles T. Currelly, one of the ROM’s founders. Currelly retained one of the paintings for the ROM, while the other went on to the National Gallery of Canada.

The paintings finally are on long-term display at the ROM starting Saturday, May 18, 2019, in the Museum’s Eaton Gallery of Rome, in celebration of International Museum Day.

This type of portraiture has a facinating history. They were unknown until 1887, when farmers discovered many of them at er-Rubayat, in the Fayum region. Theodor von Graf, a Viennese antiquarian, bought the paintings and exhibited them to the public through a series of exhibitions in Berlin, Munich, Paris, Brussels, London, and New York. In 1888, Sir Flinders Petrie, a British archaeologist and Egyptologist, discovered a further 81 mummy portraits at Hawara, an ancient Roman cemetery, also located in the Fayum area. The pair of Fayum portraits that would later be destined for the ROM, were both found by Petrie but at different sites, one from Hawara and the other from a burial site in the Fayum.

Romano-Egyptian Fayum mummy portraits, which originally covered the face of mummies, hold great significance since they represent some of the finest and earliest-known and painted portraits in the history of art. Some are wonderfully preserved, and they are an unmatched source of information on Egyptian, Greek and Roman cultural traditions. These striking portraits bring to life the men, women and children who once lived in Roman Egypt over 1,700 years ago.

After Charles T. Currelly, the Royal Ontario Museum of Archaeology’s first Director, acquired the two portraits at auction in London, he sold one of them to the National Gallery of Canada later that year. And now, a century later, thanks to the generosity of the Mona Campbell Endowment Fund and the Louise Hawley Stone Charitable Trust, the two portraits are back together again.

Egypt became a Roman province in 30 BC after Mark Antony and Cleopatra, the Queen of Egypt, were defeated at the Battle of Actium by the future first Roman Emperor, Augustus. Many Romans began to settle in Egypt and adopted local funeral rites, such as embalming. They also introduced a new custom of attaching painted portraits to mummified remains.

Mummy portraits replaced the traditional Egyptian three-dimensional masks and also enabled identification of the deceased. These paintings, created with wax or tempera on wood panels or canvas shrouds, were made during the Roman era, from about AD 20 to AD 300.

The name “Fayum mummy portraits” originates from the region they were first discovered, though other portraits have been found elsewhere in Egypt, especially at Saqqara, Thebes, Antinopolis and Akhmim. No other region of the Roman Empire has preserved such a large number of portrait paintings.

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