Greek and Egyptian art: Otago Museum's mummy

Artbeat column no 434 by Peter Entwisle
Published in the Otago Daily Times, 2 February 2009

The mummy was revealed! Last Wednesday the Otago Museum displayed the cast of its Egyptian mummy constructed from CT scans of the head and using computer technology to get a 95% likeness of a woman who died (probably) between 410 and 304 BC. The next day the Otago Daily Times published photos of the cast and the face mask worn by the mummy. They are not completely dissimilar but not very alike either. Therein lies a tale.

Some thought the face was not attractive. In profile it is more so but the full face shows disfiguringly hollow cheeks doubtless caused by serious tooth decay from which the woman suffered. That is not reflected in the mask.  Nor is the very sharp, straight line of her nose, the pursed lips, or several other features. That’s because the mask isn’t attempting to portray an individual. It represents a stereotype because it’s a late example of Pharaonic funerary art.

This is not only interesting but instructive when compared with other things. The cast was in the Search Centre while the mummy and her mask are upstairs in the People of the World Gallery. That’s where some of the museum’s ancient Greek pots are too. Greek visual art included statuary, of which some originals survive; frescoes – plastered wall paintings – of which very little survives; and painted pots - of which a great deal survives. The Otago Museum has the most substantial collection in New Zealand, an excellent window on Greek art.

It helps to know this tradition is descended partly from the much earlier one of Dynastic (Pharaonic) Egypt, by way of Minoan (Cretan) art. It developed as black figure ware and then as red figure ware, from the late 6th century BC. It showed an increasing naturalism and particularly flourished from c.480 to 425BC. One of its leading exponents was Polygnotos (active 450-420 BC) who borrowed his name from a famous, slightly earlier, frieze painter. The Otago Museum has a vase whose decorations are attributed to this master. It’s in a case not far from the mummy.










It is E48.220 a wine jar or pelke. It shows Boreas the god of the north wind chasing Oreithyia, an
Athenian princess. Its naturalism is clear in the carefully delineated musculature evident in the winged figure of Boreas. His limbs are bare and although he’s wearing a tunic you can clearly see the outlines of his figure. There is a scientific observation of anatomy here, in contrast with the more generalized forms of Dynastic Egyptian funerary masks. Boreas’s face, shown in profile, is also more particular than the mummy mask, although perhaps not a personal portrait.









You can see this by looking at a nearby wine mixing bowl, or bell krater, E60.14 attributed to the Erbach painter and dated c.380 BC. This is an artist known only from his surviving works. He was prolific and fond of painting Dionysiac revels. The pot here shows Dionysos, the god of wine, and Eros, the god of love, surrounded by dancing maenads and satyrs.

Again, the seated and naked Dionysos has a magnificent musculature, clearly displayed. The dancing maenad, or female reveller, is clothed but you can also see her form beneath her swirling skirts. But Dionysos’s face, and the maenad’s are rather similar and not unlike Boreas’s in Polygnotos’s painting. One becomes aware there is a tendency to type-cast faces in this art. But look again at the bearded profile of the seated satyr at the left – the fellow with the wavy tail. This is more specific than the others. It might be the portrait of somebody’s grandfather.




Greek art did sometimes aim to capture facial likenesses as it also liked to exaggerate them, as we still do. Garrick Tremain has handy caricatures of Helen Clark and Michael Cullen, instantly recognisable, though distorted. Another pot in the museum, E48-261, also a bell krater and simply described as “Paestan” meaning it comes from Paestum in Italy where vases were painted between 360 and 300BC, shows an ancient example.

It has the figure of a man standing behind a satyr. The man is natural enough – and looks Greek – but the satyr, who has goat legs and horns, has a human torso and a head whose features are more Semitic. Was he a Phoenician? We can’t say but his nose and lips have been accentuated to point the difference and it isn’t hard to believe they are based on an individual. How different this is from the generalised mask of the mummy.

Our own art tradition starts with these ancient objects. There is more to explore in this collection. With the holdings at the public library and the art gallery you can trace it all the way to the present through original works. In New Zealand you can only do this in Dunedin.