Roman Era Funerary Portrait Painting
by Jimmy Dunn
The "Fayoum Portraits", life like paintings once bandaged in place over the face of mummies dating usually between the first and third centuries AD, are now well established in the popular perception of ancient Egyptian art, thanks to a number of fairly recent exhibits. These portraits were, in many cases, finely executed in encaustic paint on wood or, less frequently, on stuccoed linen.
With their direct full gaze and strong presence, these portraits, at once Greco-Roman in their painting style and intrinsically Egyptian in their purpose, bring the inhabitants of ancient Egypt before us with compelling immediacy.
Many of these marvelous works of art were actually taken from Egypt as early as 1615 (by the Italian traveler Pietro della Valle) and later, from Thebes, by Henry Salt. However, it was not until the paintings literally flooded the art market in the 1880s that they caused much interest. It was all skillfully stage managed by an Austrian antiquity dealer by the name of Theodor Graf, who had the foresight to buy up and exhibit around the world all the portraits dug up by locals in the vicinity of the Fayoum town of el-Rubaiyat, perhaps from the ancient cemetery of Mansura.
Those who purchased Graf's portraits included many well known figures, including the Viennese founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, who owned two of these paintings.
However, while the earlier paintings discovered by della Valle and Salt were painted in the encaustic (wax) technique, Graf's paintings were almost entirely in tempera and were artistically stiff. But a further batch of aesthetically more pleasing encaustic portraits were soon discovered by Flinders Petrie who had just began work at Hawara in 1888. He states that:
"So soon as I went there I observed a cemetery on the north of the pyramid [of Ammenemes III]; on digging in it I soon saw that it was all Roman...and I was going to give it up as not worth working, when once day a mummy was found, with a painted portrait on a wooden panel placed over its face. This was a beautifully drawn head of a girl, in soft gray tints, entirely classical in its style and mode, without any Egyptian influence. More men were put on to this region, and in two days another portrait-mummy was found; in two day more, a third, and then for nine days not one; an anxious waiting, suddenly rewarded by finding three... Altogether, sixty were found in clearing this cemetery, some much decayed and worthless, others as fresh as they day they were painted."
Petrie would later return to this cemetery and excavate another rich harvest of these portraits.
It should be noted that despite the large number of recovered portraits, only one or two percent of the burials were provided with these paintings.
Petrie believed that these paintings had sometimes been commissioned during life and framed for display, though this conclusion is now questioned. Also questioned is his theory that, for a few years, these mummies were kept above ground.
Most of the portraits depict the deceased at a relatively young age, and many show children. However, scans of many mummies reveal a correspondence of age and, in suitable cases, sex between mummy and image.
Most of these portraits have now been detached from their mummies. Yet, they provide a wealth of information about the clothing, adornment and physical characteristics of Egypt's wealthier inhabitants during Roman times.
The unique art form of mummy portraiture flourished in Roman Egypt. Stylistically related to Greco-Roman painting, it was created for a typically Egyptian purpose: inclusion in the funerary trappings of mummies.
The paintings, many on lime wood or on linen shrouds, use both Egyptian and Greco-Roman techniques, and often a combination of the two. And the strongly naturalistic images show complexions ranging from dark with African features to the palest of white, reflecting the melting pot that was the Egypt of that period.
While the clothing, hair and jewelry imitate the fashions of imperial Rome, the mummification and accompanying views of the afterlife are Egyptian, and there are repeated references to Egyptian gods.
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