“Paint the Eyes Softer: Mummy Portraits from Roman Egypt” Preview – A Remarkable Opportunity

“Paint the Eyes Softer” at Northwestern University's Block Gallery
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I can’t wait to visit “Paint the Eyes Softer: Mummy Portraits from Roman Egypt” which will be on view from January 13 to April 22, 2018 in the Alsdorf Gallery at Northwestern University’s Block Gallery. “Paint the Eyes Softer” ​brings to Northwestern a series of mummy portraits produced in Egypt during the Roman period, a complete intact portrait mummy and other archeological finds from the Fayum region.

The majority of the objects on view at the Block, excavated from the site of Tebtunis (now Umm-el-Breigat, Egypt), are loans from the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley. One of the largest collections of Roman portraits to have remained intact since excavation, they present a rare opportunity to study the material microhistory of painting tradition in a known context and to explore how ancient paintings were created.


Mummy girl “She”

According to Essi Rönkkö, Curatorial Associate for Special Projects, Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, highlights of the exhibit are the mummy that is one of only approximately 100 portrait mummies in the world, noteworthy because of the extremely lifelike painting of the deceased individual incorporated into the mummy wrappings and placed directly over the person’s face. The Romans introduced to Egypt these 2-D portraits of the dead after almost 3,000 years of idealized 3-D images. (Think King Tut) Another rare item is a kind of instruction sheet that is the only one known to exist. The words on it offer personal instructions to an artist of an earlier millennium, which says in Greek to “(paint the) eyes softer.”


We would not be asking, “Who is this mummy girl?” if Rönkkö, had not gone to the Styberg Library at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary to do research for the upcoming exhibition of Roman-Egyptian mummy portraits and related artifacts from the site of ancient Tebtunis in Egypt. While there, she noticed the Hibbard mummy or Hawara Portrait Mummy No. 4, and knew immediately that this mummy girl belonged in the exhibition.

This mummy of a five – year old girl has a unique story and has been making history. Rönkkö has named the mummy “She” because she needs a name. She was a person. Her portrait embedded in its wrappings provides crucial contextual insight into the use of mummy portraits.


How did “She” come to her current home? Mrs. Lydia Beekman Hibbard received the Hibbard mummy in gratitude for her financial support of Sir Flinders Petrie’s excavations in a Roman cemetery in Hawara, Egypt in 1911. She donated the mummy to Western Theological Seminary of Chicago in 1912 to be included in the Hibbard Egyptian Library. Western Theological Seminary then merged with Seabury Divinity School to become Seabury-Western Theological Seminary. In 2009, when Seabury-Western sold their buildings and property to Northwestern University, Garrett-Evangelical purchased Seabury-Western’s library collection, including the Hibbard mummy, meaning a move across Sheridan Road for the mummy.

Mummy skull

Just over three feet long, the little girl’s body is swaddled in a copious amount of linen, which indicates she was from a family with some wealth. The outermost wrappings have been arranged in an ornate geometric pattern of overlapping rhomboids and also serve to frame the portrait. The face, painted with beeswax and pigment, gazes serenely outward, her dark hair gathered at the back. She is wearing a crimson tunic and gold jewelry. She was found in a grave along with four adult males. One is in Edinburgh, Scotland and another is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. In 2000, the Hibbard mummy was displayed in the Ancient Faces: Mummy Portraits from Ancient Egypt exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, joining the adult mummy found in her grave.

Art from the Hearst Museum

When these works were excavated at the beginning of the 20th century, they transformed the world with their immediacy, thought to reveal naturalistic, individual likenesses of people who lived 2,000 years ago.

Classics and Humanities

The study of this rare archeological object, owned by Garrett-Evangelical, was part of an interdisciplinary class at Northwestern focused, in part, on filling out the contextual story of where this mummy came from and who she was. They tried to unravel some of her mysteries, including how her body was prepared 1,900 years ago in Egypt, what items she may have been buried with, the quality of her bones and what material is present in her brain cavity. Prior to its trip to Argonne, the mummy had a CT scan at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in August. The scan gave the researchers a 3-D map of the structure of the mummy and enabled them to confirm the girl is 5 years old (give or take nine months). As part of a comprehensive scientific investigation, the mummy traveled from Evanston to Argonne National Laboratory on Nov. 27 for an all-day X-ray scattering experiment. It was the first study of its kind performed on a human mummy.

Argonne visit

Students enrolled in the Fall 2017 advanced undergraduate seminar worked with exhibition curators to continue the research of the NU-ACCESS project, combining materials science, archaeology and museum studies. Students conducted hands-on work in a laboratory environment to assess how ancient materials were made, used and buried and what this data means in a wider archaeological context.  Concurrently, a class was offered in museum sound design and music for the exhibition was selected from the work submitted by students in this class.

Labratory class

Combining expertise from across the University — including contributions from classics, art history, sound design, materials science, medicine, archeology, art history and molecular biology — this groundbreaking installation explores how interdisciplinary partnerships can deliver new insights into ancient mysteries.

“We’re basically able to go back to an excavation that happened more than 100 years ago and reconstruct it with our contemporary analysis techniques,” Walton said. “All the information we find will help us enrich the entire historic context of this young girl mummy and the Roman period in Egypt.”


“This unique exhibition is quintessentially Northwestern, arising from the DNA of the institution that values partnership and interdisciplinary inquiry,” said Lisa Corrin, the Block Museum Ellen Philips Katz Director. “Our students and faculty are able to come to significant, field-advancing findings by collaborating across multiple fields of expertise.


“This exhibition not only brings to Northwestern some of the most significant early portraits in existence, but demonstrates the way that art and engineering can come together in extraordinary ways,” Corrin said.


“This exhibit is just one of the many ways we are continuing to expand the intersection between art and engineering,” said Julio M. Ottino, dean of the McCormick School. “In addition to providing the tools of engineering to study the history of art, our partnership provides opportunities for engineers and artists to learn how each other works and thinks, expanding their own abilities in the process.”


The “Paint the Eyes Softer” exhibition will reunite ancient neighbors: the girl portrait mummy is from the site of Hawara, a site close to Tebtunis, where the Hearst Museum’s mummy portraits are originally from. For more information go to:

Paint the Eyes Softer: Mummy Portraits from Roman Egypt.”


Photos: Courtesy of the Northwestern University Block Gallery



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