Fayum Mummy Portraits

Subject: Art
Type: Expository Essay
Pages: 8
Word count: 2031
Topics: Ancient Egypt, Art History, Cultural Diversity, Painting, Tradition


The Fayum portraits are works of art that were painted on wooden boards attached to mummies in Egypt. It was a form of naturalistic painting that sought to ensure that it caught the closest representation of the mummified individuals as possible when they were alive. These paintings belong to a period where panel painting was quite common and individuals sought to make sure that their dead relatives had their mummies painted as a means of attempting to show how they had looked in life. Developed during the Coptic period of Egypt, the Fayum portraits are the only ones of their kind that have managed to survive into the modern world. Their survival owes a lot to the dry conditions that prevail in Egypt, which make it possible for such paintings to survive with little or no damage to them (Bierbrier, 1997). The Greco-Roman influences on these paintings cannot be underestimated because it was through these influences, rather than Egyptian ones, that it became possible for the portraits to be developed. In this paper, there will be a discussion of the origins, time period, and historical context of the Fayum portraits, in addition to a comparison with other portraits as well as the material used in the portraits.

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The Fayum portraits originated in Egypt and were quite popular among the Egyptians of Greek and Roman descent. Many of these individuals, while having adopted Egyptian culture, had retained significant aspects of their own cultures. A consequence was that while they adopted the Egyptian mummification rites, they also sought to include aspects of their own cultures; resulting on the Fayum portraits. While this type of portrait has been found all over Egypt, it was most concentrated in the Fayum Basin, hence the name given to it. Therefore, rather than the name Fayum being a geographic description, it is essentially a stylistic one, describing the art form that was used on the portraits rather than where it comes from. These portraits sought to bring about a representation of the dead individuals in such a way as they had been in life. Rather than having their likenesses curved on sarcophagi like the ancient Egyptians, the Greco-Romans sought to ensure that their likenesses were painted on their mummies (Bierbrier, 1997). This meant that there was an attempt to promote the establishment of art that was as realistic as possible rather than following in the Egyptian tradition where the likenesses curved on funerary masks tended not to show the real look of the individuals within. Since these portraits were developed during a time when Egypt was under the rule of the Roman Empire, they show considerable Roman influence, especially in those instances where the paintings seek to ensure that the naturalistic aspects remain prevalent. Because of the prevailing political circumstances at the time, the Greco-Roman influence became prevalent to such an extent that it brought an end to the way that ancient Egyptians had practiced their burial rights. These portraits show that there was considerable cultural exchange between the Egyptians on one hand, and the Greco-Romans on the other.

Similarities and differences with other Egyptian art

One of the most important factors that differentiate the Fayum paintings from other forms of Egyptian art is that it is naturalistic. This is an extremely pertinent feature because it shows an attempt by the artists to ensure that the individuals being painted appeared as natural as possible. It contrasts from the Egyptian style, which sought to ensure that the art developed was idealised as much as possible. Furthermore, while ancient Egyptian funerary art tended to focus more on sculpture, the Fayum portraits were paintings. There was a considerable use of colour in order to ensure that certain features were captured as correctly as possible. The realistic nature of the Fayum paintings can be considered to have been greatly enhanced because they were made use of on the mummified bodies of those that they represented (Delia, 1992). Thus, these paintings covered the faces of the bodies that were mummified in preparation for burial. While both art forms developed in Egypt, the Fayum portraits showed massive influence from the Greek and Roman art forms, which tended to seek to bring about the realistic aspects of art. A result was that the Fayum paintings diverged from the ancient Egyptian one mainly because the dominant political culture of the time was the Greco-Roman one. Despite the differences that have been stated, the Fayum portraits and the ancient Egyptian art have some considerable similarities.  This is especially considering that these paintings were similar to the ancient Egyptian funerary art because they represented either the head alone, or also included the head and upper chest. Another similarity is that they depicted a single individual, who was the person who had been mummified. Current examples show that these portraits were mounted onto the bandages that were used to wrap bodies during the mummification process; ensuring that the individuals within were represented realistically even in death.

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Time period of Fayum portraits

Despite the lack of an accurate date on when the Fayum portraits were first developed, it is estimated that they begun being used either in the later 1st century BC or the early 1st century AD, and continued well into the 3rd century. This period was one which saw Egypt heavily dominated first by the Greeks, and later by the Romans. The artistic traditions of the Greeks and the Roman Empire were thus spread into Egypt, where they were used across the country. A consequence was that while the Egyptians ended up heavily influencing the culture of the Greeks and Romans in their country, the latter also brought their own cultural influences as well. The Fayum portraits are an example of the Greco-Roman natural artistic form that ended up being adapted into the Egyptian funerary process (Kropp & Raja, 2014). The period under Roman dominance must have been when the Fayum portraits came to fruition because they essentially come to be used by the members of the dominant political culture. A result of this situation is that in the contemporary world, they are among the largest collections of the panel painting tradition that was prevalent in the classical world. This form of painting also had an influence on the art forms that developed in the post-classical world. Among those that were influenced by the panel painting that is represented by the Fayum portraits are the Byzantine and Western traditions, which would later become the dominant art forms. In addition, the Coptic iconography that was found in Egypt was also heavily influenced by the style that was used in the Fayum paintings (Fleischer, 2001). Therefore, while it is speculated that this art from came to an end in the middle of the 3rd century, its influence continued to be witnessed for many centuries after its use ended.

Historical context

During Greek rule over Egypt, most Egyptians continued to practice their ancient burial traditions. These traditions included the mummification of the bodies of members of the upper class, which were placed in decorated coffins and had funerary masks placed over their heads. However, the Greeks who settled in Egypt at the time rarely let go of their own traditions and tended to live apart from the Egyptians. These Greeks did not often bury their dead and instead cremated them as per their tradition. Thus, while the Greek rulers of Egypt proclaimed themselves the pharaohs, they tended to live a life apart from their subjects to such an extent that they only superficially absorbed some of the traditions that were practiced by the Egyptians. At the same time, the Egyptians also took their time to adopt some elements of Greek culture; holding on to their own for a long time after the Greek conquest of their country under Alexander the Great. However, with the arrival of the Romans and their conquest of Egypt under Augustus Caesar, most of the Egyptian elements started disappearing from the country. Within a few generations, the ancient traditions of the Egyptians had all but disappeared; a testament to the considerable cultural influence that the Romans had on them (Schneider, 2014). Roman Egypt saw a considerable mixing of the ruling classes within them to such an extent that there was a melding of the Greek, Roman, and ancient Egyptian ways of life among the elite. The Fayum portraits found on the mummies of the dead show the way that the melding of these cultures was manifested in everyday life, especially when it came to funeral rites.

Materials Used

A diverse number of materials were used in the development of the Fayum mummy portraits. The majority were painted using the panel painting method, which made use of boards or panels. These panels were made from imported wood such as oak, cypress, and citrus, and were cut into thin panels, which were smoothed and shaped rectangular. These panels were then fitted onto the layers of bandages that had been used to wrap the bodies (Archuleta et al., 2015). However, there were times when the portraits were painted directly onto the canvas that was used to wrap the mummy. There were instances where plaster was used on the wooden surface that had been prepared to ensure that it was primed for painting. As seen in the image below, the use of vivid and rich colours was also prominent and was meant to ensure that an impressionistic effect was achieved. Gold leaf was also extensively used in order to depict jewellery and wreaths, and this, in combination with a diverse number of colour tones, ensured that there was the achievement of a lifelike appearance to the paintings. The modelling of the forms through the use of light and shade ensured that they had a three-dimensional appearance; evidence that the painters involved had knowledge concerning the different anatomical structures of the areas that they painted. The lifelike appearance of the subjects ensured that there was a sense of how they had been in life, while the materials that were used for their portraits, such as gold leaf, represented their class and the status of their wealth.

Fayum portrait use

The people who commissioned the Fayum portraits seem to have come from the upper classes in society. These included military personnel, religious leaders, and civil servants; all individuals who had considerable wealth an influence in their society. However, because of these portraits were quite expensive, a considerable number of the mummies from the period do not seem to have had a portrait. For such a considerable number of people not to have a portrait on their mummies, it means that the material, rather than the labour provided by the painters, was more expensive (Walker, 2000). Therefore, only the very affluent could afford to have a portrait painted on their mummies, and since the ruling class of Egypt at the time was essentially Greco-Roman, it is possible that it was only these individuals and a few native Egyptians who were able to commission the process to be done for members of their families. Thus, while some Egyptian funerary rites still remained during the period when the Fayum portraits were most prominent, the Roman influence seems to have become more prominent to such an extent that ancient Egyptian funerary art virtually disappeared from the lives of members of the upper class.

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The Fayum mummy portraits show that they were an important part of Greco-Roman life in Egypt. The high regard for these types of painting and its replacement of ancient Egyptian funerary art shows the rapid change that took place in Egypt following the Roman conquest. In addition the Fayum portrait shows considerable Greco-Roman influence in style, especially in the material used as well as the naturalism that is included within the portraits. The use of this style for over three centuries shows that despite the scarcity of some of the materials in Egypt, some wealthy individuals were willing to spend their money to ensure that their family members’ likenesses were painted on their mummies. The influences of this form of painting cannot be underestimated because it was later transmitted to the Western and Byzantine traditions, as well as to the Coptic iconography.

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  1. Archuleta, B., Laurino, A. B., Quade, C. E., Stroud, J.-P. D., Talley, J. L., Cannon, B. L., . . . Neri, J. (2015). Resurrecting “Poor Man’s Purple”: A Transdisciplinary Study of Color-Shifted Pigments Used in an Encaustic Fayum Mummy Portrait of Ancient Egypt.
  2. Bierbrier, M. (1997). The discovery of the mummy portraits. Ancient faces: mummy portraits from Roman Egypt, 4, 23.
  3. Delia, D. (1992). The refreshing water of Osiris. Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt, 29, 181-190.
  4. Fleischer, J. (2001). Style as Bearer of Meaning: The Transition from Late Antique Mummy Portraits to Early Icons. Late Antiquity: Art in Context, 8, 53.
  5. Kropp, A. J., & Raja, R. (2014). The Palmyra Portrait Project. Syria. Archéologie, art et histoire(91), 393-408.
  7. Walker, S. (2000). A Note on the Dating of Mummy Portraits’. Ancient Faces: Mummy Portraits from Roman Egypt (New York, 2000), 36.
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