I’ve been reading John Berger’s book, The Shape of a Pocket. In it there’s an essay on the Fayum portraits. During the 1st to 3rd century AD in Egypt, painted panel portraits (more commonly referred to as Fayoum or Fayum portraits) were bandaged over the heads of mummies. These astonishing portraits depict the inhabitants of Greco-Roman ancient Egypt in exacting detail. They were finely executed in a beeswax-based paint on wood or stuccoed linen.
This is what John Berger has to say about the portraits:
They are the earliest painted portraits that have survived; they were painted whilst the Gospels of the New Testament were being written. Why then do they strike us today as being so immediate? Why does their individuality feel like our own? Why is their look more contemporary than any look to be found in the rest of the two millennia of traditional European art which followed them? The Fayum portraits touch us as if they had been painted last month. Why? This is the riddle…
Imagine then what happens when somebody comes upon the silence of the Fayum faces and stops short. Images of men and women making no appeal whatsoever, asking for nothing, yet declaring themselves, and anybody who is looking at them, alive! They incarnate, frail as they are, a forgotten self-respect. They confirm, despite everything, that life was and is a gift.
The portraits were attached to burial mummies at the face, from which almost all have now been detached. They usually depict a single person, showing the head, or head and upper chest, viewed frontally. The background is always monochrome, sometimes with decorative elements. In terms of artistic tradition, the images clearly derive more from Graeco-Roman traditions than Egyptian ones. The population of the Faiyum area was greatly enhanced by a wave of Greek immigrants during the Ptolemaic period, initially by veteran soldiers who settled in the area.
Two groups of portraits can be distinguished by technique: one of encaustic (wax) paintings, the other in tempera. The former are usually of higher quality.
About 900 mummy portraits are known at present. The majority were found in the necropolis of Faiyum. Due to the hot dry Egyptian climate, the paintings are frequently very well preserved, often retaining their brilliant colours seemingly unfaded by time.
- Fayum mummy portraits: Wikipedia
- The Fayum mummy portraits: blog post by Mike Dash
- The Mysterious Fayum Portraits by Michael Lahanas
- Sunday Times interview with John Berger
- John Berger: Wikipedia