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Mask of a Woman

© 1993 Musée du Louvre / Christian Larrieu

Egyptian Antiquities
Roman Egypt (30 BC - AD 392)

Author(s):
Cortopassi Roberta

This mask, representing the face of a Greek woman, was placed over the mummy's face. Originally polychromatic, it was cast in plaster and hollow on the inside; during the Roman period, this type of mask replaced the pharaonic mask. It served the same purpose as the portraits of mummies painted on wood.

A Greek face

The mask is broken just under the chin, but the face, with both ears and part of the head, has survived intact. The paint is completely missing from the skin, except for a few traces of red at the corner of the lips. The black of the hair, however, is well preserved. The face is typically Greek: the perfect oval, very straight nose, barely smiling lips, dimple on the round chin, and especially the curve of the eyebrow ridges - all link this mask to Hellenistic sculpture. The eyes are inlaid with black and white glass. The ears are uncovered and placed very high on the head; they are adorned with ring-shaped earrings featuring three pearls. The hair falls in parallel waves, forming a sort of skullcap that ends at the forehead with a strip of short curly locks. A single ringlet remains behind each ear, but the initial curls of three others can be seen above the left ear. Two braided loops, one shorter than the other, hang in front of the ears.

A "mass-produced" mask

This type of plaster funerary mask was produced in series. Successive layers of plaster, all more or less the same thickness, were poured into a cast. The different sections - face, hair, and ears - were made separately and assembled after the plaster was removed from the cast. The face and hair are hollow; and the marks left by the craftsmen's fingers are often still visible inside. The mask was then painted: a light or dark pink was used for the skin, red for the lips and hollows of the nostrils, and black for the hair and eyebrows. The face was sometimes covered in gold leaf. The eyes received special attention, as they had to make the mask look life-like. They may have been simply carved in the plaster and then painted; covered with a thin strip of painted glass; or inlaid with stone or glass, as in this work.

Clues to a date

As with the portraits of mummies painted on wood, the hair, beard, and jewelry customized these "mass-produced" objects. These features are also important in terms of dating, as they parallel the reigning fashions of the era. The classical features of the face, the hair, and the Hellenistic earrings on this woman's mask point to an early date.

Bibliography

Egypte romaine : art funéraire, Fiche visite, salle A

M.-F. Aubert, R. Cortopassi, catalogue de l'exposition Portraits de l'Egypte romaine, Paris, musée du Louvre, 5 octobre 1998-4 janvier 1999, Paris, 1998, n 86 ;

S. Walker (éd.), catalogue de l'exposition Ancient Faces. Mummy portraits from Roman Egypt, New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 15 février-7 mai 2000, n 86 ;

Technical description

  • Mask of a Woman

    First century AD

    Unknown

  • Painted plaster, glass

    H. 24.5 cm; W. 18 cm

  • Gift of Marquet, 1976

    E 27152, MH 16

  • Egyptian Antiquities

    Denon wing
    Lower ground floor
    Roman Egypt (room closed for renovation)
    Room A

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