Egyptian Mummies in 16th Century Paints

In the realm of historical artifacts, Egyptian mummies are often associated with museums. This connection is not surprising, considering that most encounters with mummies occur within the walls of museums, particularly in Europe. However, it might sound peculiar to suggest that authentic mummies can be found not just in museums but also within the strokes of paint on canvases.

The Mummy Brown Chronicles in 19th. Century Art

Inside a Kitchen by Martin Drölling, 1815. ( Source )

Until relatively recently, the rather astonishing truth reveals itself—Egyptian mummies were employed in the creation of a distinct paint known as Mummy Brown, alternatively called Mommia or Momie. The key component of this paint, as one might have already deduced, was the finely ground remains of Egyptian mummies. This unique powder was blended with white pitch and myrrh to yield a luscious brown pigment. Originating in the 16th century, Mummy Brown gained popularity among the Pre-Raphaelite painters in the mid-19th century.

To illustrate, records indicate that Sir William Beechey, a British portraitist, maintained supplies of Mummy Brown. Likewise, the French artist Martin Drölling is said to have utilized Mummy Brown derived from the remains of French kings exhumed from the royal abbey of St. Denis in Paris. It is even suggested that Drölling’s L’interieur d’une cuisine showcases extensive use of this distinctive pigment. Additionally, the captivating painting by Edward Burne-Jones, titled The Last Sleep of Arthur in Avalon, is believed to have been created using Mummy Brown.

The Decline of Mummy Brown: A 20th. Century Transition

In 1870, an Egyptian mummy merchant sells his goods. How much valuable knowledge have we forfeited due to the widespread use of mummy brown pigment?. ( Source )

Despite its popularity, the use of Mummy Brown experienced a decline in the early 20th century. This downturn was partly influenced by the “realization” that the paint was crafted from authentic Egyptian mummies. The growing awareness of the scientific, archaeological, anthropological, and cultural significance of mummies further contributed to the diminishing appeal of Mummy Brown. The reduced availability of mummies also played a role in its decline.

An illustrative incident involves the artist Edward Burne-Jones, who, upon discovering the true composition of Mummy Brown, ceremoniously buried his tube of the paint in his studio. In a symbolic act, he bid farewell to the controversial pigment. The official end came in 1964 when C. Roberson & Co., a London firm specializing in fine art materials, announced the depletion of their mummy stock, declaring the extinction of Mummy Brown paint.

Mummies Beyond Art: Medicinal Ventures

A container of mummy brown stored in a “coffin,” likely initially designed for an eel or a snake. Currently part of the collection at the Bolton Library in England. ( Source )

The use of ground mummies extended beyond the realm of art supplies to the surprising domain of medicine. This practice was rooted in the belief that mummies contained bitumen, a substance used by ancient Greeks for curing various ailments. In the absence of genuine bitumen, the bitumen from a mummy was considered a viable substitute. It’s noteworthy that the term “mummy” itself is derived from the Persian word for bitumen, “mum” or “mumiya.”

Driven by the belief in the medicinal properties of Mummy powder, Egyptian mummies were exported to Europe, ground into powder, and sold in apothecaries across the continent. The craze stemmed from the claim that mummies harbored a mysterious life force transferrable to those who consumed it. Consequently, ground mummies found their way into the European market well into the 18th century.

The Lucrative Trade: High Demand for Egyptian Mummies

A pharmacy vessel holding mumiae (mumia or mummy powder), sourced from the pharmacist collection at the Museums für Hamburgische Geschichte. ( Source )

The heightened demand for Egyptian mummies created a lucrative trade. Predictably, forgeries emerged to capitalize on this profitable business or to meet the soaring demands. In times of shortage of actual Egyptian mummies, the bodies of executed criminals or slaves were ingeniously treated with bitumen and exposed to the sun. The goal was to produce mummies that looked authentic and could be sold to traders. Once ground into powder, distinguishing between a genuine Egyptian mummy and a recently treated corpse became nearly impossible.

Presently, the pigment known as Caput Mortuum, translating to “dead head” or “worthless remains,” serves as an alternative name for Mummy Brown. Brands like Faber Castell produce this pigment, assuring consumers that no actual dead bodies are involved in its production. {finish}

Concluding the Tapestry

In unraveling the complex history of Mummy Brown, we’ve journeyed through its prominence in art, ethical concerns leading to its decline, and the intriguing intersection of mummies with medicine and commerce. This tale provides a unique glimpse into historical practices that intertwine artistry with the enigmatic world of ancient remains.

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