The Fayum Mummy Portraits
Hamid Mohommad & Karthik Babu
These brilliant panel painted icons still remain today. Re-discovered in the 18th century, these portraits have held the attention of art buffs since. The paintings are found across Egypt but are present in the highest concentration in and around the Fayum Basin, hence gaining their name. They are believed to have been painted during the 1st century BC to 1st century AD. These portraits were often attached to mummies and most are recovered untouched in Coptic necropolises.
Today, if you would like to view these paintings, you can find them in such prestigious museums as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the British Museum and the Louvre.
The paintings present a singular subject stood in front a plain background and the source of light in front of the person being painted, adequately showcasing all their facial features.
These pieces are rich, not only in their artistic prowess but also in the history that can be derived from it. Its idealised yet unique image frozen in time allows us, as viewers, to visualise the life of Roman and Hellenic aristocracy in Egypt.
They offer an insight into the jewellery used, clothing worn and burial traditions of the time that shaped the way for later centuries. These mostly remained lost to time as the Roman Empire fell and paved the way for Coptic iconography for Egypt in the Middle Ages. While it is a stark contrast from the hieroglyphs and gods of ancient Egypt, it offers a view into the diversity of the Roman Empire that spanned all the way from Gibraltar to modern day Armenia and Crimea.
There are about 1000 of these portraits in the world that we know of today. But their past is still shrouded in mystery. A past that, if uncovered, could reveal a great deal more about Egyptian history and even, to a lesser extent, the history of Western painting tradition.
In 2013, Marie Svoboda launched an international research project with its primary goal being- uncover the past behind the Fayum Mummy Portraits. Titled APPEAR (Ancient Panel Paintings: Examination, Analysis and Research), this project has unearthed a plenitude of data surrounding these paintings.
The panels follow Greco-Roman traditions and techniques, indicating a strong relationship between the cultures. The painting methods used are advanced and prove a high value for art at the time. The typical wood used as canvases are not native to Egypt but are instead found in Northern Europe demonstrating Egypt’s vast trading system.
A popular theory regarding the reason behind these portraits is the presentation of social stature as those who commissioned these paintings were typically of upper class. It is speculated that the pieces were painted during the life of the person, showcased in their home and when the subject passed, the portrait would be buried along with them.
The production of these pieces seems to have stopped during the 3rd century. This was a time when the population underwent a major economic and religious crisis.
Regardless of their history, these paintings are undoubtedly one of the most significant elements of artistic culture, inspiring and paving the way for artistic movements centuries after their downfall. An element with so much behind it, it still holds the attention of researchers and enthusiasts in the modern world. An element with so much to behold, discoveries will appear for years, and maybe even decades. An element with so much to appreciate, it will hold relevance for centuries. An element with so much depth, it can be described as nothing short of legendary.