An image shows part of one of the Egyptian mummy portraits on display at Northwestern University. (Courtesy of Northwestern/Courtesy of Northwestern)

Paint the Eyes Softer: Mummy Portraits from Roman Egypt

Block Museum, Northwestern University. Through April 12.

Mummies were once people — but what did those people look like? Don’t count on their preserved bodies for answers. Sure, these ancient figures endure, but what’s within the wrappings is a poor substitute for the faces that once graced the departed.

Enter portrait mummies, an art form introduced to Egypt by Romans during the 3rd and 4th centuries B.C. Instead of being entombed in sarcophagi decorated with symbolic images, the dead had realistic paintings, created on wooden panels, placed over their faces and within their wrappings. As some of the earliest portraits ever painted, they’re a window into long-gone lives.

They’re also an opportunity for scientists, archaeologists and art historians. “Paint the Eyes Softer: Mummy Portraits From Roman Egypt,” an exhibition at Northwestern University’s Block Museum of Art, combines all three disciplines with a look at the science behind the preserved bodies and portraits.

The free exhibition has plenty of portraits to explore but also delves into the scientific mysteries of the mummies. Intact mummy portraits are very rare, and in November the university took one of its specimens to the nearby Argonne National Laboratory for an X-ray experiment that revealed information about the workshop that probably did the painting and about the materials inside the mummy.

That mummy — the body of a 5-year-old girl who died approximately 1,900 years ago — is on display at the Block, as is new information about the circumstances under which she was mummified and painted. Student-created soundscapes cap off the exhibition along with augmented-reality tours during which visitors can explore a complex visualization of the mummy.

Want to learn more about that mummy? Check out expert interviews, videos and more information on Northwestern’s website.

Erin Blakemore