Explorations in Latin at The Met

Last month, on a grey and rainy morning, Class 9 Latin students and their teacher, Dr. Christopher Barnes, walked from 100 East End Avenue to 1000 Fifth Avenue where they immersed themselves in a culture that existed over 2000 years ago.

After spending class time learning about the culturally diverse history of Northern Egypt – which at one point was home to a significant population of Ancient Greek and Roman people – the group studied Fayum portraits, a modern name given to the realistic portraits found painted on top of many Roman Egyptian mummies.

Luckily for these students, The Metropolitan Museum of Art happens to have an extensive collection of Fayum portraits just a short walk from the School. Their teacher was thrilled to be able to bring them to see these captivating pieces in person.

“As you study each portrait, think about the person’s appearance. What are they wearing? What is their expression? What does that tell you about them?” Dr. Barnes prompted as the students gathered in The Met’s sprawling Great Hall. “While you observe, try to decide which person speaks to you the most.”

The group filed into the dark Egyptian exhibit and then quickly dispersed, discovering the vast collection of portraits found inside. One pair of students studied a mummy featuring a portrait of a young man. Dr. Barnes noted that scientists have run CAT scans on many of the mummies and determined that the paintings truly reflect the appearance of the person when they died. “These weren’t vanity portraits,” he shared.

When the students had finished exploring the exhibit, they were each asked to select the Fayum portrait they wanted to focus their attention on. They took photos of these portraits with their phones and then moved across the Museum into a sun-filled room surrounded by ghostly marble sculptures. The students broke into small groups and gathered on benches to begin a creative brainstorming activity.

In each student’s hand was a packet of thought-provoking questions, such as:

How does this person conform to your image of a “Roman?”                                               

What is the person’s expression?

How might he or she have met his or her demise?

The students eagerly got to work, studying the photos they had taken of their portraits for inspiration.

“I read on the sign that my person had surgery on his eye, so I’m guessing that he died as a result of that,” one student hypothesized. “That is a definite possibility, “ Dr. Barnes replied. “People definitely died from botched surgeries back then.”

Another student was running through realistic name options she could give to the young man portrayed in her portrait. “Get creative!” the teacher exclaimed. “It was a very multi-cultural place. He could have a Greek, Roman, or even Egyptian name.” After a moment the student declared, “Horatio!”

After they’d answered each question and established a deeper understanding for and connection to their chosen portraits, the students moved on to the final step, imagining activities their person might have participated in or accomplishments they might have had during their life. But this time, the students had to write their answers in Latin.

One student imagined that the woman in her portrait was an advocate for women’s rights. Another, at Dr. Barnes suggestion, wandered upstairs to a gallery of Greek and Roman artifacts to search for inspiration among the items that would have been part of her person’s daily life.

“As their Latin vocabulary grows throughout the year, the students will be able to craft more and more complex stories about who their person was,” Dr. Barnes shared.

After an hour of inspired discussions and creative thought, the students grabbed their umbrellas and prepared to return to Chapin. This morning of discovery at The Met will continue to cultivate inquiry and exploration in their many Latin classes to come.

Browse photos from the field trip below: