Cartonnage Mummy Mask

Gilded cartonnage mummy mask of Mareis, obsidian and limestone eyes cased in bronze (lost on left side). Greek text on forehead, painted funerary scenes on front and back. Mummy masks of the Ptolemaic and Roman periods often had gilded faces that reflected the association of the deceased with the gods. Mummy masks are shaped like a face wearing the tripartite long wig which extends onto the chest. They were fitted over the mummy’s head, with the shoulders remaining bare.

The gilding of the face guarantees everlastingness to the deceased. It makes the mask into one of the most valuable items of the funerary equipment. At the same time, the gold symbolizes the rays of the sun which spread life with their heat. Thus, the smile and shine of this mask express the nature of the justified deceased.

Cartonnage Mummy Mask
Cartonnage Mummy Mask

Rather than a naturalistic portrait of the deceased, the face of the mummy mask is an idealized representation, expressing the desire to be reborn into the afterlife as a divine being, complete with the gold skin of the gods. Gold leaf was used to color the skin on many mummy masks.

What is Cartonnage?

Cartonnage is the term used in Egyptology and Papyrology for plastered layers of fibre or papyrus, flexible enough for moulding while wet against the irregular surfaces of the body; the method was used in funerary workshops to produce cases, masks or panels to cover all or part of the mummified and wrapped body.

Sometimes cartonnage is compared with papier mache, but there is no pulping of the substrate, whether papyrus or linen: instead, smaller or larger sections of linen are cut to shape, and layered, and the plaster applied over the top. The method of preparation preserves the sections, and for this reason papyrus cartonnage is a prominent source of well-preserved manuscript sections.

Roman Period, ca. 20-40 AD. From Hawara, Faiyum. Now in the British Museum. EA21807