The ancient Egyptian worldview was characterized by an abiding sense of liminality. A philosophical and physical engagement with permeable boundaries—with respect to finite and infinite time or space, life and death, or the human and divine spheres—is discernible in their religious texts and rituals. Living persons in ancient Egypt might have employed transformational (so-called mortuary) spells to assume nonhuman forms on earth. Masked priests, priestesses, or magicians, in the physical (dis)guise of divine beings, such as Anubis or Beset, assumed such identities to exert the powers associated with those deities and thereby to ensure the success of dramatic cultic (re-)enactments. The construction and use of masks and other facial coverings for mummies emphasized the ancient Egyptian belief in the fragile state of transition that the dead would successfully transcend in their physical and spiritual transfer from this world to their divine transformation in the next. In their use by both the living and the dead, therefore, masks would have played a similar role in ancient Egypt, by effecting the magical transformation of an individual from the mortal to the divine state.

Although there are numerous examples in art, dating from the Predynastic palettes (such as the Two-Dog Palette in the collection of the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford) and onward, of depictions of anthropomorphic beings with the heads of animals, birds, or fantastic creatures, which might represent humans dressed as deities, such figures were more probably understood as images of the gods themselves. This interpretation is especially true for any three-dimensional figure or statue (such as the Middle Kingdom female figure from Western Thebes, now in the collection of the Manchester Museum, sometimes referred to in earlier literature as a leonine-masked human but which must certainly have been regarded as an image of the demoness Beset). Two-dimensional representations are more difficult to interpret with such certainty, however, because they may have been designed as intentionally ambiguous. For example, one of the most commonly rendered mortuary scenes depicts the mummification of a body by a jackal-headed being. The scene may document the actual mummification rites performed upon the individual for whom the funerary scene was commissioned, or it could be interpreted as commemorating that episode of the embalmment by the jackal god Anubis in the mythic account of the death and resurrection of the god of the dead, Osiris, whom the deceased wished to emulate. That such two-dimensional scenes were encoded with dual meaning (because they could refer to specific or mythic events) also accounts for ambivalence in the interpretation of the depictions of ceremonies that were presumably carried out by priests on behalf of the king as part of royal or temple rituals. An example of one such ritual is the procession of composite animal/human figures, identified in the accompanying texts as the souls of Nekhen and Pe, who carry the sacred bark in a procession detailed on the southwestern interior wall of the Hypostyle Hall at Karnak Temple. Such scenes can be interpreted either as literal records of the historic celebrations performed by masked or costumed priests or as a visual actualization of faith in the royal dogma, which claimed categorically that the mythic ancestors of the god-king legitimized and supported his reign.

Examples of ritual masks from the archaeological record are rare, perhaps owing to the fragile and perishable materials of which they may have been constructed. Although a fragmentary Aha or Bes-like face of cartonnage was recovered by W. M. Flinders Petrie at the Middle Kingdom town site of Kahun, incontrovertible evidence for use by the Egyptians of masks in rituals conducted by the living has been preserved only from the Late period. A unique, ceramic mask of the head of the jackal-headed god, Anubis, dated to after 600 BCE (now in the collection of the Roemer Pelizaeus-Museum, Hildesheim), was evidently manufactured to serve as a head covering. There are indentations at each of the sides of the object, which would have allowed for it to be supported atop the shoulders, lifting the snout and upraised ears of the jackal head above the actual head of the wearer. Whereas two holes cut out at the jackal's neckline would have allowed the wearer to view straight ahead, peripheral vision would have been limited, necessitating assistance, as explicitly depicted in a temple relief at Dendera. This scene from the Ptolemaic temple of Hathor presents an “X-ray” view of the head of a processing priest, who wears just such a jackal mask, that covers his head and projects above his shoulders and who is accompanied and assisted by a companion priest. A description of a festival procession of Isis, which was led by the god Anubis (presumably a similarly masked priest), that took place not in Egypt but rather in Kenchreai, is provided by the second-century CE author Apuleius in The Golden Ass although no textual evidence is preserved from any period in Egypt that explicitly corroborates this custom.

Among the elaborate precautions taken by the ancient Egyptians for the preservation of the body after death, the protection of the head was of primary concern. The equipment of the deceased with a face-covering fabricated of sturdy material not only provided a permanent substitute for the head in case of physical damage but preserved that countenance in an idealized form, which presented the deceased in the likeness of an immortal being. Gilt flesh tones and blue wigs associated the dead with the glittering flesh and the (semiprecious gemstone) lapis lazuli hair of the sun god; specific features of a mask—eyes, eyebrows, forehead, and the like—were directly identified with individual divinities as is explained in the Book of Going Forth by Day (Book of the Dead), Spell 151B, so that the deceased would arrive safely in the beyond and gain acceptance among the other divine immortals in the council of the great god of the dead, Osiris. Initially, the prerogative of royalty, masks used to cover the dead were manufactured henceforth throughout Egyptian history for the elite class without respect to sex.

As early as the fourth dynasty, attempts were made to stiffen and mold the outer layer of linen bandages that covered the faces of mummies and to emphasize prominent facial features in paint. The earliest masks, which were manufactured experimentally as independent sculptural works, have been dated to the Herakleopolitan period (late First Intermediate Period). Those early, hollow masks were of wood, fashioned in two pieces held together with pegs, or of cartonnage (layers of linen or papyrus stiffened with plaster) that had been molded over a wooden model or core. The faces of both men and women, with their overexaggerated eyes and enigmatic half-smiles, were framed by long, narrow, tripartite wigs, kept secure by a decorated headband. The masks' “bibs” extended to cover the chest, as well, and both male and female examples were supplied in paint with elaborate, beaded and floral-motif necklaces or broad collars that served not only an aesthetic function but also satisfied an apotropaic requirement as elucidated in funerary spells. The elongated masks evolved into anthropoid inner coffins, first appearing in the twelfth dynasty. Hollow or solid masks (sometimes diminutive in size) were also created by pouring clay or plaster into a generic, often unisex, mold to which ears and gender-specific details were added. Masks became increasingly more sophisticated during the New Kingdom and Third Intermediate Period, when royalty were equipped with masks of beaten precious metal (like the solid gold mask of Tutankhamun or the series of gold and silver masks excavated at the necropolis of Tanis). Masks of all types were embellished with paint (generally, red flesh tones for males and yellow, pale tones for females) or gilt, as well as by the addition of composite, inlaid eyes or eyebrows, details that elevated the cost of the finished product. Indicators of social status—hairstyles, jewelry and costume (depicted on body-length head covers)—are often helpful in dating masks but the idealized image of transfigured divinity, which was the objective of the mask-covering, precluded the individualization of masks to the point of portraiture, which resulted in a formal sameness or hieroglyphic quality in the anonymous facial features of mummy masks from all periods of Egyptian history.

The use of permanent face coverings for the dead continued as long as mummification rites were practiced in Egypt. With regional preferences, cartonnage and plaster masks were equally popular in the Ptolemaic period; the cartonnage masks became only one element of a complete suit of separate cartonnage pieces that covered the wrapped body, a set that included a separate cartonnage breastplate and separate cartonnage footcase. Roman-period plaster masks exhibit Greco-Roman influence only in their coiffures, patterned on styles current at the imperial court. Both beards and mustaches on the males and elaborate coiffures on the women were highly modeled in relief.

An alternative to the cartonnage or plaster mask, introduced in the Roman era, was the so-called Faiyum portrait. Such portraits were initially chiefly recovered from cemeteries in the Faiyum and first archaeologically excavated in 1888 and 1910–1911 by Flinders Petrie at Hawara but have since been found at sites throughout Egypt, from Marina el-Alemain in the North to Aswan in the South. These paintings in encaustic (colored beeswax) or tempera (watercolor) on wooden panels or linen shrouds were executed in a painterly technique adopted from the Hellenistic artistic milieu, with results stylistically comparable to contemporary frescoes at Pompeii and Herculaneum in Italy. Nevertheless, such two-dimensional paintings occupied the same position on a decorated mummy and served the same ideological function as traditional three-dimensional masks.

The immediate appeal of the portraits to late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century collectors, however, encouraged a tendency to isolate the paintings from their funerary contexts. The paintings were initially studied by classicists and art historians who, basing their conclusions on details in the paintings alone (hairstyles, jewelry, and costume), identified the portraits as being those of Greek or Roman settlers who had adopted Egyptian burial customs. Although the portraits appear, at first, to capture the unique features of specific individuals, perhaps only the earliest examples of the genre (dating from the first half of the first century CE) were painted from live models, whereas the same generic quality that permeates the visages of the cartonnage and plaster masks persists, upon closer study, within the corpus of Faiyum portraits that have been preserved. Successful attempts have been made, however, based on the analysis of brush strokes and tool marks and the distinctive rendering of anatomical features, to group the portraits according to schools and to identify some individual artistic hands.

A link might nevertheless be traceable between the ultimate funerary function of the Faiyum portraits and a cultic use for the paintings while their owners were yet alive. Evidence from the portraits themselves—that the upper corners of panels were lopped at an angle to secure a better fit before being positioned over the mummy, that there are signs of wear on paintings in areas that would have been covered by the mummy wrappings, and that at least one portrait (now in the British Museum) was discovered by Flinders Petrie at Hawara still within a wooden Oxford-type frame—indicates that the paintings had a domestic use prior to inclusion within the mummy wrappings, that they were probably hung within the home.

The cultic and funerary functions of the Faiyum portraits and the inclusion of iconographic elements (such as the gilding of lips, in accordance with funerary Spells 21 to 23 of the Book of Going Forth by Day, to ensure the power of speech in the afterlife), as well as the iconographic allusions to traditional deities (such as the sidelock of Horus worn by adolescents, the pointed-star diadem of Serapis worn by men, and the horned solar crown of Isis worn by adult females), in addition to the fact that these portraits, like all masks, were but one component of the overall design of the complete mummy decoration, emphasize a continuity of native Egyptian tradition. Although these two-dimensional painted faces were the products of the Hellenized cultural world of Roman Egypt, they fall toward the end of a continuum of a desire to permanently preserve the faces of the dead in an idealized and transfigured form that began in the Old Kingdom and continued to the end of paganism in Egypt.

The very latest examples of funerary masks are actually painted linen shrouds, the tops of which were pressed into a mold to produce the effect of a three-dimensional plaster mask. Examples of that type, which may date as late as the third or fourth centuries CE, were first excavated in 1894–1895 by Edouard Naville, within the sacred precinct of the mortuary chapel of Queen Hatshepsut, and were initially incorrectly identified by him as the mummies of Christians, probably of the Coptic (Christian) monastery for which the modern site, Deir el-Bahri, is named. Eventually, H. E. Winlock correctly identified the iconography—particularly the ubiquitous representation of the bark of the Egyptian funerary god Sokar—on further examples of that type to be consistent with pagan Egyptian funerary traditions, although certain motifs, such as the cup held in one hand, seem to presage the final transition from pagan mask to Coptic icon painting and the portraits of Byzantine saints.


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Lorelei H. Corcoran