The ‘Beautiful Burial’ in Roman Egypt
Every epoch or evolutionary phase requires different criteria of value; and what
may appear to be incapacity to do a given thing is really the impulse or the will
to do something different, or to do the same thing in a different way.
This study has tried to imagine the funerary art of Roman Egypt in the eyes of the people for whom it was made, in order to understand how and why so many works of art combined Greek forms of self-presentation with Egyptian modes of representation. Impossible though it is to replicate the experience of the ancient past, it is nonetheless possible, and desirable, to approach a work of art with reference to the time, place, and manner of its creation. To do so is to recognize that forms, iconographies, and styles can signify differently in different settings, or capture varied responses to the same stimuli.
In Egyptian funerary art, an image of the deceased was integral to the design of a mummy mask, shroud, coffin, or tomb. This reflects eschatological concerns for preserving the corpse, commemorating the person who had died, and centring as much protection, power, and ritual as possible on the real or represented body. In traditional Egyptian art and thought, the transfiguration of the dead into perfected beings was conveyed by different forms of the physical self, whether an ideal youthful body or a mummy or a part-bird, part-human ba. Transfiguration also allowed the dead to be assimilated to Osiris or to Hathor, a trait epitomized by texts like the Rhind papyri and the inscriptions and art of the Kharga coffin group. Pictorial representations of the dead thus had recourse to an array of iconography which was added to over time. Contemporary hair and clothing forms supplanted or supplemented more archaic garments, like the kilt and sheath dress, so that objects like the Akhmim coffins could incorporate new forms of dress in a meaningful way. Throughout the Roman Period, such images of the deceased, along with depictions of the native gods, were communicated according to the Egyptian representational system.
1 O. Pächt, The Practice of Art History: Reflections on Method (London 1999), 128.