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Preserving Memories Through Time: The History of Post Mortem Portraits

People and cultures around the world have always understood death - the unavoidable part of everyone’s existence – in a multitude of ways. Some saw it

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People and cultures around the world have always understood death – the unavoidable part of everyone’s existence – in a multitude of ways. Some saw it as a gateway to a new life, while others viewed it as enigmatic and unexplainable. But more than anything, the living sought ways to preserve the memory of the deceased and capture their last moments for all time. That’s how post mortem portraits – better known as mourning portraits – came to be. What started out as exquisite paintings of the deceased later evolved into photos of the dead. Some considered it a morbid and unnatural practice, but others saw it as a fitting way to pay respect to the loved ones that were gone.

Post mortem portrait of a child of the Honigh Family in the Netherlands circa 1675 to 1700. (Public domain)

Post mortem portrait of a child of the Honigh Family in the Netherlands circa 1675 to 1700. ( Public domain )

The Modern Nature of Post Mortem Portraits

Mourning portraits have been known under a variety of names: coffin portraits,  deathbed portraits, post mortem portraits. Whatever they were called, they all show a recently deceased person, painted (and later photographed) while lying in repose on their deathbed. The deceased would usually be dressed in their finest clothing and arranged so they look peaceful and natural. In the 1700s and 1800s it was not uncommon for well-to-do families to pay for such a lavish portrait to be made. Of course, the artist had to work around the clock in order to capture the dead person while they were still unaltered by the processes of  death.

Such a  mourning portrait was then displayed for all the mourners to see, and later hung in the house as a way to preserve their memory. For the rich and influential families of Europe, this was a common practice. In modern times, portraits of the dead have served as a great insight into the funeral customs of the time, and also as a glimpse into the lavish clothing that was in use. When paintings fell out of use and photography became available to all, post mortem photographs became a continuation of the tradition.

Post mortem portrait photography became well-established throughout Europe and America. When the Daguerrotype form of photography became widely available for the general public, it became a cheaper alternative than the aged practice of painting. This meant that the photography of the dead became open to lower classes also. When this method appeared, it caused quite a boom in early photography. It was a way for the mourners to have at least some form of memory preserved of their loved ones. Most people never had photographs of themselves taken during their lifetime, so a post mortem portrait was the best memory available.

Post mortem portrait photograph of a child with its mother from 1901. (Public domain)

Post mortem portrait photograph of a child with its mother from 1901. ( Public domain )

Mourning Portraiture Trends Around the World

To that end, many of the mourning portraits were of children. Since death at a young age was not uncommon amongst the poorer classes, a deathbed photograph was the only extant picture to preserve their image for those left behind. Grieving parents were eager to preserve the likeness of a lost child who had not had a chance to sit for a photograph when they were still alive. Of course, over time it became possible to reproduce and duplicate photos, which allowed the family to send post mortem portraits to distant relatives as well.

The trend was especially popular in the early 1800s in North America, where there was an almost morbid fascination with death in certain sectors of the population. Photographing the dead became commonplace, and some even went to such lengths as to photograph themselves with the dead in their arms. What is more, some of these mourners weren’t satisfied with a mere photo of the dead. Instead, they would include actual human remains to accompany the picture, most commonly a lock of  hair contained in a special frame.

In India, for example, post mortem portraits have become a lucrative business. This was due to the practice of some religious Indians to  burn their dead  on funeral pyres , so they could escape the cycle of rebirth. Due to the fact that burning – which was primarily done in the holy city of Varanasi – would completely destroy the body, many Indians wanted to create a post mortem portrait beforehand. Photographers specializing in this sort of work are in constant demand and can earn up to 2,000 rupees (~$40) per day.

The desire to preserve the memory of loved ones has been around for a long time, and the tradition of post mortem portraits can be dated to a time before photography and before the elaborate paintings of the European high classes. If we look back to ancient Egypt, archeologists discovered some of the earliest mourning portraits in history – the so-called  Fayum mummy portraits  in the enigmatic Fayum Oasis.

Mummy portrait excavated at Hawara in 1911. (Public domain)

Mummy portrait excavated at Hawara in 1911. ( Public domain )

Mummy Portraits: A Unique Roman Tradition in Ancient Egypt

These elaborate funerary paintings were discovered as early as 1615, by the Italian explorer Pietro della Valle, who was the first to describe them in detail. However, it wasn’t until the 1800s that first considerable research and excavations took place. The famed Egyptologist, Sir Flinder Petrie, made a major breakthrough when he discovered a  necropolis with more than 150 preserved mummies with their mourning portraits intact.

This unique tradition of post mortem portraits arose in ancient Egypt’s late history, and was born from the influence of the Romans who came to rule the land. These  mummy portraits were painted on thin wooden boards and attached onto the mummies of upper class deceased citizens of Roman Egypt.

The board was inlaid into the  mummy wrappings and placed on the face providing a lively representation of the deceased. Interestingly, the portraits were done in a naturalistic manner, with incredible attention to detail and great skill. They are some of the oldest surviving art pieces from antiquity. On the whole, these mummy portraits are firmly rooted in the tradition of panel painting, which was very popular and highly regarded in the Classical world.

While undoubtedly Roman in origins, post mortem portraiture was adopted by the Romanized Egyptians. Such art pieces were discovered across Egypt, but most of them were discovered in  Hawara, in the Fayum Basin, and the adjacent Roman city of Antinoöpolis.

The majority of the portraits are dated to the times of the Roman Empire, from the late 1st century BC to the early 1st century AD and later, though it is likely that the tradition died out by the late 3rd century AD. The paintings were either done with use of  tempera colors, or as encaustic wax paintings. Roughly 900 such portraits were discovered to date, most of them incredibly well preserved due to the hot and dry Egyptian climate.

Still, these unique artworks give us a major glimpse into the history of post mortem portraits. For Egypt, they are quite a unique element, since they show a lot of Greco-Roman artistic influences. Nevertheless, the striking portraits show us the appearances of regular Egyptian citizens of the time, with their portraits presenting them alive, often smiling, and clothed in the dress of the time. It is a unique way of immortalizing the deceased person, preserving their memory in a life-celebrating manner.

Coffin portrait of Barbara Domicela Lubomirska. (Public domain)

Coffin portrait of Barbara Domicela Lubomirska . ( Public domain )

Noble Coffin Portraits – Preserving Memories or Displaying Wealth?

This tradition didn’t fade out with time. Another form of post mortem portraiture can be found in Poland. There, a tradition known as  Portret Trumienny  (Coffin Portrait) existed for a long time, and was particularly popular amongst the nobility during the 17th and 18th centuries.

This was the time of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the nobles of the  szlachta placed great importance on funerals and their lavish ceremonies. These post mortem portraits were highly realistic, portraying the deceased as though they were still alive. The supposed intention was to have the illusion of the deceased being present at his or her own funeral.

These coffin portraits were just one of the many traditions during lavish noble funerals. The portrait was a part of  castrum doloris , the elaborate funerary accessories, and was removed from the coffin before actual burial. That’s why a huge number of these portraits survive today.

The custom arose during the baroque era in Poland and was most common amongst the nobles ( szlachta) and the lesser nobility ( szlachtici). Still, even the common folk could create their own coffin portraits, although of a lesser quality, since those were painted by amateur local artists, and were often crude and poorly made.

The coffin portraits of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth are a unique form of post mortem portraiture. They were most often painted directly onto sheet metal, usually copper or tin, and fixed directly onto the coffin above where the head of the deceased lay. As the portrait was shaped to match the coffin (giving the impression of realism) they are usually hexagonal or octagonal. Before the coffin was actually buried, the portrait of the deceased person would be removed, and most often displayed on the walls of the local church, which the nobles contributed to during their lives.

Coffin portrait of a woman from the 1670s, currently at the National Museum in Warsaw. (Public domain)

Coffin portrait of a woman from the 1670s, currently at the National Museum in Warsaw. ( Public domain )

A Loved One’s Image Preserved for Generations

Some of the portraits were painted while the deceased was still alive. Thus, they present a very realistic image of the person, and some are considered quite marvelous pieces of art. There was a great emphasis placed on realism. The portrait shows the person gazing at the viewers, an aspect which increased the impression that the dead noble was actually present at his own burial.

In 1696, the English historian, Bernard O’Connor, actually visited one such Polish funeral, and wrote that  there is so much pomp and ceremony in Polish funerals that you would sooner take them to be a triumphant event than the burial of the dead.”

This gives a unique glimpse into the customs of the nobility of the time. Death and burial were not so much about grieving and despondence, but had more to do with wealth and lavishness, where the power and grandeur of the noble family could be displayed.

To that end, the coffin portraits of the Polish nobles are not so much about preserving their memory for their loved ones, but were more a symbol of power and wealth – and its preservation across generations. This is in stark contrast to the mourning portraits of later ages where family members photographed their deceased loved ones in order to keep their memory alive.

Still, the unique portraits of the Polish nobility are an invaluable source of cultural knowledge for the Polish people. They show a glimpse into the clothing styles, hair styles, jewelry, and customs of the era, and also make for a unique historic database of nobles and noble families. The oldest of these portraits is the one belonging to the famous King Stefan Batory, who died in 1586. The youngest of the portraits is dated to 1809.

Snatching Memories from the Ruthless Passing of Time

The death of a loved one has never been an easy obstacle for people to handle. Across time and generations, families came up with unique funerary traditions in order to cope with loss and to preserve the memory of those that were gone. From the memorial  runestones of the Viking era,  face-adorned urns  of the European Bronze Age, and all the way down to the unique tradition of  post mortem portraits , these traditions existed in many different forms and cultures.

Top image: Mummy portrait, an ancient Egyptian style of post mortem portrait, of a woman from Egypt now housed in the Landesmuseum Württemberg Stuttgard. Source:  CC BY-SA 4.0

By Aleksa Vučković

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