The protagonist in my current work-in-progress is from Warsaw, and in doing research about the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, I ran across an article of interest. Coffin portraits, seldom used outside the Commonwealth, were an important part of Polish funerals, usually lavish and ceremonial, even for the common people. However, a farmer’s portrait may have been drawn by a family member, whereas a nobleman’s image was done by a professional artist. Portraits of the deceased were attached to the coffins, then removed before burial and hung on the walls of the church.
The metal on which the portrait was painted was shaped to fit the end of the coffin where the head of the deceased would be. The opposite end of the coffin generally held the epitaph, and on the side of the coffin mourners would see the coat-of-arms of the deceased. Because most were painted in oils, on either tin or silver, the images have disappeared from churches as years passed, either taken as booty during one of several wars, or stolen by vandals.
Aside from this period in the Polish Commonwealth, the term coffin portrait was also used to describe the funerary art from Ancient Egypt, portraits common during 1 BC and until 3 AD, a relatively narrow expanse of time. The Egyptian portraits were painted on wood. The portrait covered the face of the mummy, and was attached to the cloths used to wrap the mummy. Some nine hundred of these Egyptian portraits are in the hands of collectors and museums, but because of the warm climate in Egypt, which helps to preserve the wood, the portraits are useful in determining hairstyles and clothing of the period.