Discovered more than 400 years ago

“Fayum portraits”.. 900 Portraits revive Egyptians lived 2000 years ago

Faiyum mummy portraits are described as the oldest portrayal of the human face. For the first time in history, and instead of depicting the person laterally, even if the body was drawn from the front or the back, as shown in Pharaonic temples’ paintings, Faiyum portraits depict the person frontally. They were a breakthrough from the conventional Egyptian painting, and by which Egypt had opened up to the outside world after keeping to itself.


“Faiyum portraits”.. These paintings, which were found attached to mummies dating back to the Roman era in  Faiyum, are unique, and by which Egypt had opened up to the outside world after it had been kept to itself. They depict the entire faces of persons lived more than 2000 years ago frontally, while some of them turned to the left slightly. Despite disagreement upon the nature of those faces; Egyptian, Greek, Roman, or even Byzantine, the names written on them are Greek, while clothes, hairstyles and ornaments are Roman.

More than four centuries ago, specifically in 1615 AD, the Italian explorer Pietro Della Valle discovered the first of the mummy portraits. Archaeological finds followed, and some mummies with portraits were transported to Europe, which are now in the Albertinum in Dresden, Germany. Over four centuries, 900 mummy portraits were discovered in the necropolis of Faiyum. Due to the hot dry climate, the paintings are very well preserved.


“Fayum portraits”..are unique.  They are not just traditional funerary paintings, but portraits of the persons inside the coffin. They have a Greco-Roman style of art. The images are unique with their calm and timeless looks. French philosopher and novelist André Malraux described them as faces looking forward to eternal life. However, he believed them to be real faces that correspond to reality, or represent a midway between life and death. Thus, these portraits are a mixture of the three civilizations; Pharaonic, Greek, and Roman.

Historians had unanimously agreed that panel painting in Egypt had started at early 1st century BC, when the ancient Egyptian had been painting pictures of his dead on wooden boards attached to mummies. With the abolishment of mummification in the 3rd century AD, that art had gone, especially with the emergence of Coptic iconography, which is a natural extension of the Egyptian art in the 3rd and 4th centuries AD, and thus, considering those faces a part of the Coptic art.


Although some of those portraits had been found in areas far from Faiyum, such as Saqqara, El Alamein, and Sheikh Abadah, they were named after Faiyum because most of them had been found in the Faiyoum basin, particularly from Hawara to central Egypt. The lack of literature on those Faiyum Portraits owes to many reasons, most importantly is that they were painted by unknown artists, and were scattered across the world, sometimes in the same museum, among the Egyptian, Greek, and Coptic halls.

In 1887, the British Egyptologist Flinders Petrie started excavations at Hawara. He found 81 portraits in a Roman necropolis, and showcased them at an exhibition in London. In 1910, he found further 70 portraits. Most of these portraits are on display in Cairo and London museums. Although his published studies are not entirely up to modern standards, they remain the most important source for systematic excavation.


When the French Daniel Marie Fouquet heard of the discovery in 1887, he went to re-inspect the necropolis discovered, but found only two portraits. While, the Austrian archaeologist Theodore Graf, who went to the necropolis  shortly after Daniel's visit, discovered 300 portraits in er-Rubayat, northeast of Faiyum. The first portrait sent to Europe was discovered in Saqqara Pyramid in 1615 by Pietro Della, one of the first European travelers to that region. Due to the dry hot Faiyum climate, the portraits were perfectly preserved that the colors of many of them did not seem to dry.

Some believe that Fayum portraits were painted during the lives of their owners and displayed in their homes till death, just to cover the face of the mummy later. Some believe that some of the portraits were painted after the death of their owners. Sometimes, the portraits had been found without mummies, same with the British archaeologist "Flinders Petrie" during his excavations in Hawara, north of the Pyramid of Amenemhat III and the Palace of the "Labyrinth" in 1887. 146 mummies with portraits had been discovered during the excavations, including images of the finest art and that were perfectly preserved.


Fayum portraits had been drawn on no-more-than-one-centimeter-thick wood, such as sycamore, cypress, and citrus. In later ages, they had become half a centimeter- 2.5 centimeters thick, and up to 42 centimeters long and about 22 centimeters wide. The painter drew on the wood directly, sometimes after placing a layer of plaster, on the canvas directly, or after covering the cloth with a layer of plaster, then fine-tuning the picture. The layout was in black, and rarely, in red. Background was painted using a thick brush, or a painting knife instead, using encaustic (wax) painting technique.

Four basic colors were used in Fayum portraits: white, yellow, red, and black, in order to draw hair and face. Additional colors, such as blue, green, and purple, were used in coloring clothes, jewelry, and crowns in a harmonious way. Gold was used to depict jewelry and wreaths, using real gold leaves, or a golden color. Egg tempera was used for gilding the image drawn using wax, which was later inherited by Byzantines.


The question now is, who are the owners of these portraits? Are they Egyptians? Or do they belong to another nationality? The fact is that today we know only some of the owners, especially if the portraits are still attached to the mummy, and the name is written on the mummy coffin, on bands of cloth, or on the artifacts attached to the dead. The names were written in Greek or Demotic. Sometimes, names were written in Greek or Demotic in white color on the person's neck. Most of those names were of Greek origin, such as Artemidus, Demos, and Hermione.

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