Ancient Panel Paintings: Examination, Analysis, and Research


Since 2016, the RISD Museum Conservation Department, in conjunction with the Department of Ancient Art, has been examining and documenting four Fayum portraits  as part of a larger study directed by the J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu, California. 

At the current time, there are 33 international participants sharing their expertise to create an international database under the auspices of the Getty Museum. The purpose of this multiyear study is to further the understanding of how these ancient portraits were made, including their materials and manufacturing techniques. For more information on the APPEAR Project, click here.  

As a participant in this study, the RISD Museum is able to gain access to more in-depth analysis of the wooden substrates for each of our portraits, due to the generosity of researchers such as Caroline Cartwright, senior scientist at the British Museum. An additional benefit of participation in this large conservation study is having the opportunity to compare and contrast the relatively few mummy portraits with colleagues both remotely and in person at symposia. The next symposium will be held at the Getty Museum on May 17 and 18, 2018.

On a more local level, the RISD Museum partnered with Rhode Island Hospital in Providence in 2017 to 3-D scan and volume-render our largest portrait of the god Heron, from the 3rd century. Our portrait is only one of three surviving framed works from Greco-Roman Egypt.  As a result of the generosity of the Rhode Island Hospital, we gained highly technical and visually precise information that enabled us to more fully understand the way this complex multi-panel wood painting from nearly 2000 years ago was created and inserted into its original frame. Additionally, we collaborated with scientists from Brown University in Providence and with regional conservation colleagues from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts to learn more about the pigments used to create this portrait, utilizing both X-ray fluorescence (XRF)  and ultraviolet visible induced luminescence (UV-VIL). Both of these techniques are non-destructive and do not require sampling of the original paint layer. 

In the end, one of the most exciting finds was that the first synthesized pigment in history, Egyptian blue, was present in many locations throughout the panel of the god Heron.