Sometimes a single work of art is interesting or important enough to get you to a museum. The Bowdoin College Museum of Art’s new mummy painting is one of these. It is a second-century encaustic portrait from Roman Egypt of a young man in a golden wreath.

The portrait is small and painted on thin linden wood, which was brought all the way from northern Europe – no mean feat 2,000 years ago. The wood needed to be thin so that it could be attached to a mummy case in which the body would be interred.

The portrait is startling. It doesn’t match our expectations for pre-Renaissance realism. The youth’s eyes are large, liquid and dark. His gaze is warm and comfortable. His lips, at the base of his triangular face, are soft and friendly. He appears engaged with the viewer, as though he is listening to what you have to say.

The human textures of the paint seem to be buoyed by the wizened wood, but the face is thrown into classical relief by the gold leaf surrounding it – a gesture unquestionably connecting it to a bygone age.

Encaustic is a hot wax medium that has become popular in recent years, but few contemporary encaustic painters use it in such a straightforwardly realistic way. It is a fragile medium for the most obvious of reasons: Wax is pliable and melty. Fewer than 1,000 ancient mummy portraits exist in the world, and they comprise the oldest extant examples of encaustic painting, which was invented and popularized centuries before by the Greeks. This number hardly conveys the rarity of works like Bowdoin’s. The museum respect UNESCO’s 1972 standards for the market of such works, and this piece had to have a confirmed provenance in order to be displayed. Such pieces are now quite rare.

Portrait of a youth wearing a gilded wreath, Roman Egypt, ca. 2nd century A.D., wood, wax-based paint, gold leaf. Photo courtesy of Bowdoin College Museum of Art

One of the mind-boggling aspects of the portrait is that we can see what all those white Greek statues must have looked like in their day. We think of classical Greek and Roman statuary, such as the marble bust of Roman Emperor Antoninus Pius placed in a niche next to the portrait, as pristine, marbly white. In fact, the statuary was intended to be painted with the same encaustic paints used in the portrait. Roman realism, as we can see in these examples and another nearby second-century sculpted death portrait (which, ironically, feels affably alive) from Roman Syria, on loan to the museum, surpassed all rendering until the High Renaissance. Combining the extraordinary encaustic and sculptural subtleties learned from the Greeks, it’s easy to imagine how the finished figures were uncannily life-like. And it’s not simply a case of photo-quality rendering in an artificial medium like photography. Encaustic then, as now, was about 85 percent beeswax. Wax looks like skin because it is essentially the same organic material as skin. In other words, Madame Tussaud’s famous London wax museum, however kitschy, has classical ancestry.

Portrait of Emperor Antoninus Pius, Roman, ca. 138-150 A.D., marble with paint. Photo courtesy of Bowdoin College Museum of Art

You might head to Bowdoin, like I did, to see a single work of art, but in the spirit of the liberal arts, it’s impossible not to make myriad connections. Some of these connections, such as the bust of Antoninus, just feet away, are curatorially intentional. And while the Colby College Museum of Art gets major press and props for being the largest college art museum in America, Bowdoin’s museum has some world-renowned holdings that rate beyond anything else in the state – such as the suite of Assyrian relief sculptures from the palace at Kalhu (Nimrud). The room around the portrait is filled with extraordinary objects, including a mummified falcon and other Egyptian mummy sculptures and relics. (A Bowdoin alum was charged with gathering Greek vases for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, for example, and he made sure Bowdoin’s collection was similarly top-tier.)

The questions that arise from the portrait are everywhere around the museum. Through one door from the portrait’s gallery is a show titled “Modern Medieval: Materiality and Spirituality in German Expressionism,” which takes on the task of cultural conversations and reconsiderations even centuries down the line. Through the other door, in the Markell Gallery, is “The Temptation of Saint Anthony” (which closes March 19). Saint Anthony, a hermit who lived in the Egyptian desert, was born around 250 A.D. and is generally regarded as the founder of Christian monasticism. The saint has long been a favorite subject of artists who could let loose with their images of his torment by demons and various apparitions.

Mummy mask, Egyptian, ca. 4th-2nd centuries B.C., cartonnage with gold leaf, paint. Photo courtesy of Bowdoin College Museum of Art

A far more local and physical connection to the fragile portrait is the new and freshly conserved Civil War battle scene by Isaac White Fisher Eaton. The painting was a gift from the Merrymeeting Grange, where it remained uncleaned and without climate-control for many years. It hangs high in the Boyd Gallery, and the year-long conversation efforts are largely visible. While there was little overpainting, the paint was flaking – an issue not visually dissimilar to the flaking of the veneer-thin panel of the portrait. Eaton was not an important painter, but the lively Gettysburg battle scene is strong and interesting on its own as a painting. In fact, it is possible (and appears likely) that the wide composition and narrative flow of Eaton’s horse-dominated scene were inspired by Rosa Bonheur’s famous and giant (17 feet) “Horse Fair” painting, a hit at the 1853 Paris Salon. Bonheur’s scene was given to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1887, right about when Eaton painted his canvas.

I made the Bonheur connection immediately, but it’s not by chance that Bowdoin hung a small Bonheur canvas of lion cubs nearby. Bonheur was a superstar not simply because she was a rare woman in a man’s world; her paintings are strong and memorable.

While the portrait and battle scene share newness and fresh conservation, another connection is less obvious: Paintings of Civil War battles are surprisingly rare. This may be the result of the extraordinary amount of photography that took place after the battles, but also because the subject was so controversial and painful. Eaton was a veteran of Civil War battles, so while he looked to painterly inspiration for his structures and figures (I haven’t got it yet, but I know I recognize the forward figure on horseback) his understanding of the scenes was first-hand, so it’s no less a document than an imaginative work of art. A Gettysburg scene, of course, is particularly apt for the museum: Joshua Chamberlain, the hero of Gettysburg, taught at and ultimately became the president of Bowdoin College.

Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]

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