TAKE a good look into the eyes of this young man and you see a person who lived at or near the sacred city named for Antinous 1,900 years ago.
This remarkable portrait has rarely been seen in public, having been in a private art collection for decades.
The Bowdoin College Museum of Art in Brunswick, Maine, in the USA is celebrating the acquisition of the portrait, made all those centuries ago, at or near the city of ANTINOOPOLIS.
It shows a teenage boy with dark, liquid eyes, a long neck, and a gold laurel wreath. He has tight curls, a long nose, and a triangular jaw line, which makes him seem somewhat feminine.
The image is hauntingly lovely, and its acquisition is a coup for Bowdoin, since this ancient portrait has rarely been seen in public.
This "Mummy Portrait of a Young Man" from the heyday of Antinoopolis in the 2nd Century AD features the face of a young man with striking, realistic features painted with encaustic (wax-based paint) on thin wood panels and embellished with intricate gold-leaf details.
Portraits like these are highly treasured today. They are often known as FAYOUM PORTRAITS, after the region, near Antinoopolis, where most of them were found. There are fewer than 1,000 extant.
Bowdoin and its associated curator Jim Higginbotham have been looking for a good example for about a decade.
The museum acted decisively when this portrait, previously owned by private collectors in Europe, came up for sale at Christie's last October.
Combining stylistic traits of Egyptian, Roman, and Greek portraiture, such works were painted in a restricted palette of of colors: white, black, yellow ochre, and red earth suspended in beeswax.
They were painted on thin panels of wood, or sometimes linen.
Since they were used as face plates on mummy casings, they are mostly life-size.
According to Frank Goodyear, the museum’s co-director, a piece of this panel that had come loose was examined by scientists in the college’s biology department.
They determined that it was limewood, which was common in Northern Europe but did not grow in Egypt. The discovery, he said, emphasizes the centrality of Egypt to international trade routes at the time.
What's striking about Fayum portraits is not just the economy of means and the visible, rhythmic brushstrokes, but how plainspoken and honest they are. The best of them attain a level of immediacy and genuine realism that can force a gulp of recognition.
The persons depicted will often have dark patches under the eyes, asymmetrical features, heavy jewelry, or distinctive hairstyles, including facial hair.
The sense of realism is enhanced by highlights and shadows created by a single light source ... in this case, coming from the left and raking lightly across the youth’s face.
And then, of course, there are those signature dark, slightly enlarged eyes, often with prominent eyelashes. They can remind the modern viewer of portraits by El Greco, Modigliani, or Lucian Freud.
Bowdoin has reason to celebrate the arrival of its own Fayum portrait, after a long, arduous, 2000-year journey.