FAYUOM PORTRAITS – An Overview

A Visual Link Between the Art of Ancient Egypt and Coptic Art

Distant expressions, gazing through the dust and scratches of past eras are the vivid eyes of the Fayum Mummy portraits, a grand collection of art and painting that convey the refined skills of past civilizations.

The Fayum Portraits are artifacts of extreme proficiency which have survived from the Greco-Roman era (31 BC - 324 AD) in Egypt. Their name is based on the location at which they were found, the Fayum, to the west of Egypt past Giza. The finely painted portraits were used to adorn the mummies of the deceased, visually maintaining and preserving the essence of the person behind the mummy. For this end, the portraits were painted with an incredible resemblance to the person, displayed in their best cloths and finest jewlerly.

The portraits represent a significant era in Egypt's history, an era which is symbolized with artistic and philosophical development. Even the architecture of the Greco-Roman period reflected a firm understanding of past aesthetic techniques merged with new concepts and diverse influences. This created interesting constructions that combined the theories of the ancient Greeks and the ancient Egyptians. The Labyrinth located nearby is a stunning example of this implementation of contrasting elements from different civilizations.

Life after death has always been of profound importance throughout ancient Egyptian history. However, before the Greco-Roman era, life after death involved portraying the deceased in an ideal manner, not so much as the person really was but as they ought to have been.

Therefore preservation of the body was a supreme science, whether through mummification or aesthetic portrayal. The Greco-roman period on the other hand involved an evolution of this practice of preservation, where the portrait of the deceased was to convey exact realistic features, in the best image and adornment, but still true to life. This lead to the intricate and detailed work of fine artists who strived to create new techniques that would help produce life-like impressions.

This they did manage to achieve, after careful observation and mixing of colors and pigments, the faces were drawn either directly on wood or on linen. The portraits and vivid colors were created as a hot painting mixture of encaustic powdered pigments combined with beeswax, which was then applied with fine art tools, including brushes and scalpels. A few surviving examples were also created with more simplified tempera and water-based colors. While the methods did differ, the result of complex detail and attention to unique features was always achieved.

Of the most unique aspects of the portraits is their true depiction of the person's soul in the sense that each face has its own spirit, its own individuality, personality and of course, it's own historical background. Each painting almost conveys a full story through the vivid eyes that stare directly at through the painting.

Today the Fayum portraits are scattered in museums worldwide, many of course are found in Egypt, mainly in the Egyptian Museum, but many more exist worldwide, with a large collection in the British Museum, the Royal Museum of Scotland, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Louvre in Paris.