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Fayum Portraits

Elvira Valentina Resta

ASAG Journal

February 11, 2023

These are a group of realistic portraits painted on wood and placed on the Egyptian mummies of the Fayum during the period of the Roman Empire from the first to the third century AD, True masterpiece’s of art, a mix of Roman-Byzantine and Egyptian Coptic Christian.

Most of the portraits were made using the encaustic technique (ie the pigments are mixed with beeswax and then fused together), characterised by bright colours, while other examples were painted using the opaque tempera technique. The supporting material generally consists of a wooden board, especially linden, oak, cedar or cypress, but some portraits, and even the entire figures of the deceased, were also painted on linen canvas, thus constituting the last layer of the shrouds. As for pigments, both natural and artificial mineral colourswere used, such as Egyptian blue or red lead. Gold powder and gold leaf were also used for some details, such as backgrounds, women's jewellery and the crowns.

On each panel is painted the front face of a single person, The background is usually of a single colour, sometimes enriched by some decorative elements. From the artistic point of view the Greco-Roman style is evident, but it is impossible to make a direct comparison because there are no European counterparts to the portraits of the Fayum. Because the particularly dry climate of Egypt has allowed the preservation of these works, it is not possible to find works of the same kind in Greece or Italy where this climate does not exist. The comparison with frescoes and mosaics of the classical era, however, allows us to affirm with certainty the strong link with the Greco-Roman art, at that time dominant throughout the Mediterranean.

The portraits depict the likeness’s of men, women and children, most often represented in a three-quarter position. Because of the naturalness of the paintings and due to the fact that most of them represent very young people (the elderly are very rare), it was assumed that the portraits were made while the individuals were still alive and that, like modern portraits, they decorated the homes of their families. This is the theory of some scholars, according to them the portraits do not have a solely funerary function because from careful analysis the wooden substrate seem to have been cut later,  in order to facilitate insertion inside the bandages that wrapped the mummy.

Other scholars propose the creation of the portraits only after death and their function is exclusively funerary and that the images were just generic portraits, not corresponding to the true physiognomy of the dead. This conclusion,  however, contrasts with some cases in which physiognomic accuracy seems to be taken to the extreme, far from any attempt at idealisation of the face, to restore instead  individuality and authenticity:  this is the uncommon case of the portrait of the "Jewess", in which the worn face is marked by dark circles, wrinkles at the corners of the mouth and a yellowish colour which indicates a condition of disease. While in the case of the portrait of the mummy of "Demetrios" preserved at the Brooklyn Museum (NY) the inscription states that the man died at the age of 89 while the portrait depicts a much younger man.

There is no evidence of when this type of image was commissioned, but it is possible that it was generally painted at the time of death to be carried in procession  through the village or city of origin of the deceased,  before the body and portrait were delivered to the embalmer for mummification and cutting of the panel for insertion between the bandages, at face level.From the study of the papyri, it seems that during the funerals of the very rich classes of Roman Egypt the portraits were carried in procession, to show everyone the face of the deceased (as is done today with photographs), this is demonstrated by the existence of three portraits of the same young man found together with one of the mummies excavated in Hawara and by the cutting of the wooden panel.

Making a comparison with the Roman funerary portraits, the imagines maiorum preserved in the atriums of the Roman domus, the portraits of the Fayum did not have the social function of handing down, privately and publicly, the memory of the deceased. The tablets found in Egypt, in fact, were not kept in the homes of descendants, but were hidden in the darkness of a burial chamber and therefore removed from the gaze of the living. 

If the role of the masks and imagines pictaeof the Romans was that of "substitute for the absent", in the sense that the image preserved in the atrium had the task of magically replacing the dead, the dead of Egypt do not live in the image; Their survival is guaranteed exclusively through the preservation of the body, a belief linked to the ancient funerary practices of the Egyptians. Paradoxically, the portraits of the Fayum will acquire value as objects of art in themselves only at the end of the nineteenth century, when they will be separated from their mummies and exhibited as individual objects.

Although the earlier portraits of the Fayum are very realistic and those of the later period are more stylised, all have common characteristics, among them the intense expressiveness of the faces concentrated in the gaze of the big eyes with a "modern" expressive force. In Greek vase painting all the characters are represented in profile, in relation to each other, they do not look at the viewer because they are immersed in a narrative accomplished in time and space, the one that revolves around the community life of the polis. The Fayum portraits look at us from the afterlife, breaking the visual relationships with its space of representation and it is to us that it is addressed. The frontal representation determines a reciprocal visual contact with the viewer, which can have ritual value involving him in the time and place of the depicted character. 

Their sincere, sweet gaze, sealed in the darkness of the tomb away from human eyes was destined for the gods who would welcome them, and their big eyes would be able to "observe" the afterlife. If in Christian iconography it is God who looks at man and his world, in the portraits of the Fayum it is man who looks at the afterlife, demonstrating the essence of his being in his face.


Fayum Portraits

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