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The Block Museum of Art and the McCormick School of Engineering at Northwestern University delved into the art and science of ancient artifacts for the exhibition “Paint the Eyes Softer: Mummy Portraits from Roman Egypt,” which opened Jan. 13.

“Paint the Eyes Softer” brings a series of mummy portraits produced in Egypt during the Roman period, an intact portrait mummy and archeological finds from the Fayum region. Combining expertise from across the University, this groundbreaking installation explores how interdisciplinary partnerships can deliver new insights into ancient mysteries.

Julio M. Ottino, Dean of the McCormick School, said, “In addition to providing the tools of engineering to study the history of art, our partnership provides opportunities for engineers and artists to learn how each other works and thinks, expanding their own abilities in the process.”

On view within the exhibition will be a series of rare Roman-Egyptian funerary portraits. Painted on wooden panels between the first and third centuries in Egypt, these visages of the dead were originally secured over the face of the deceased within the mummy wrappings.

Excavated at the beginning of the 20th century, the portraits transformed the world with their immediacy, thought to reveal naturalistic, individual likenesses of people who lived 2,000 years ago. The words on one sketch board bear personal
instructions to an artist of an earlier millennium: “(paint the) eyes softer,” it indicates in Greek.

The majority of the objects on view at the Block, excavated from the site of Tebtunis (now Umm-el-Breigat, Egypt), are loans from the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley.

“Paint the Eyes Softer” will foreground innovative techniques for the scientific study of objects. Recent scientific analysis conducted by NU-ACCESS (Northwestern University/Art Institute of Chicago Center for Scientific Studies in the Arts) has determined that some of the wood used in the creation of the panels was local, while some of it was brought in from the Balkans in southeastern Europe, opening interesting questions about local economies and long-distance trade.

The Tebtunis portraits will be complemented by an intact mummy of a young girl from the collection of Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary. This complete mummy with a portrait embedded in its wrappings comes from the site of Hawara, in the Fayum region of Egypt.