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  • Writer's pictureAndrew Sobhy

Fayum Mummy Portraits (c.50 BCE - 250 CE)


What are Fayum Mummy Portraits?

In Egyptian art, the term "Fayum (or Fayum) Mummy Portraits" refers to a number of panel paintings excavated from sites across Egypt, dating back to Hellenistic Greek painting of the first century BCE. The finds have been concentrated around the Fayum Basin, to the west of the Nile south of Cairo, notably in the vicinity of Hawara, Achmim and Antinoopolis. The paintings are highly realistic head-and-shoulder portraits, painted by anonymous artists in the style of Greek art from the Hellenistic period, and also the later period of Hellenistic-Roman art. The portrait paintings were attached to mummies of the Coptic period, being bound into the burial cloth that was used to wrap the bodies, so that they covered the face of the deceased person. To date, about 900 portraits have been found, and the extremely dry conditions have kept them in good condition: even their color has lost little of its original brilliance. The pictures represent the only significant body of original Greek or Roman art to have survived from Classical Antiquity, and rank alongside other rare painted works, such as Greek vases, the Etruscan tomb paintings, the Tomb of the Diver in Paestum, and the murals unearthed at Pompeii and Herculaneum. Mummy portraits can be seen in some of the world's best art museums, notably the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York), the Getty Museum (Los Angeles), the British Museum (London), the Louvre (Paris), the Antikensammlung and Egyptian Museum (Berlin), and the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen (Dresden).



Background and Characteristics

Since panel-painting (usually portrait art) was the most revered form of art in the Classical world, the Fayum Mummy portraits would have been seen as highly valuable works. Indeed, research indicates that only about 1-2 percent of people could afford to have their portrait painted, and that sitters typically belonged to the affluent upper social strata of government officials, religious dignitaries, military officers and other well-connected families.

It is worth remembering that while the rulers of Hellenistic Egypt (c.323-27), may have proclaimed themselves to be Pharaohs, they lived in an entirely Greek-style world, which incorporated only a few local elements. Certainly, from the turn of the Millennium, all purely Egyptian features had disappeared from everyday life, and cities such as Oxyrhynchus or Karanis were essentially Greco-Roman places.

Archeologists have uncovered two types of portrait, differentiated by technique:

(1) Encaustic painting, in which hot wax is used as a binding medium to bind color pigments;

(2) Tempera painting, which use an emulsion of water and egg yolks. The tempera works are generally of a lesser quality.



Materials and Painting Techniques

Most of the Fayum Mummy portraits were executed on thin rectangular wooden panels or boards, cut from cedar, cypress, oak, lime, sycamore and citrus. The painted boards were then attached to the layers of funereal cloth with which the body was bandaged. Very occasionally, portraits were painted directly onto canvas or the mummy cloth itself, a technique known as cartoonnage painting.


History

The Fayum Mummy portraits were painted between roughly 50 BCE and 250 CE. However, no archaeological finds are recorded until 1615, when the Italian explorer Pietro della Valle became the first European to see a Fayum Mummy portrait during a visit to Saqqara-Memphis. The portraits he found are now in the State Art Collection of Dresden. Interest in Egyptian antiquities continued to grow during the 18th century, but it wasn't until the early 19th century that more discoveries occurred at Saqqara and Thebes. Other finds followed by such explorers as Leon de Laborde (1827), Ippolito Rosellini (1829), Henry Salt, Daniel Marie Fouquet (1887), Flinders Petrie (1887), Theodor Graf (1890), and Albert Gayet (1906). Supportive analysis by Egyptologists and classical scholars like GeorgE Ebers and Rudolf Virchow, simply added authenticity and gravitas to the finds, as a result of which the Fayum portraits became a magnet for art collectors around the world.

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