9. Coffin Portraits
The term “coffin portrait” refers to a trend that was popular in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the 17th and 18th centuries, whereby an extremely realistic portrait of the deceased was placed on the coffin for the funeral but was removed before the burial. It was important that these coffin portraits were realistic, as their intention was to create the impression that the deceased was attending his or her funeral. Thus, the deceased was often portrayed standing immobile along the central axis of the portrait, with the face turned slightly sideways and the eyes looking directly at those present. Coffin portraits also represented the timelessness of the spiritual body, which was going to rise in the general resurrection at the Last Judgement, as opposed to the natural body, which was about to be buried.
The quality of coffin paintings varied depending on the wealth of the deceased since they could be drawn on a large range of metals, such as tin, copper, or lead. As such, their price ranged from the affordable to the luxurious.
However, these rather bizarre portraits were not purely a 17th-century invention. Coffin portraits go back as far as ancient Egypt, where they were known as mummy portraits or more commonly, Fayum portraits (due to their popularity in the Fayum Basin). Fayum portraits date back to the Greek and Roman occupation of Egypt, a time when the burial habits of the Egyptians underwent minor changes in order to incorporate these rather strange funerary portraits. The exact purpose of Fayum portraits is unknown, but it’s possible that they were used in a similar way to the carved wooden masks which were placed over the deceased person’s head—to identify the owner of the mask or the portrait in the afterlife.