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Fayum mummy portraits

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Fayum mummy portraits

Fayum mummy portraits were realistic portraits made on wood, which were folded at the Egyptian mummies of the reign of the Romans. It was a so-called array painting, which was extremely popular in ancient times. About 900 such paintings have survived to our times.

The first discovery was made in 16151, when the Italian explorer Pietro Della Valle transported some of the mummies and portraits to Europe. The mummies’ masks were taken from the graves and mass-exported as souvenirs, while the corpses were often destroyed.

Portraits were found mainly in cemeteries in the Fayum oasis (most found in the Hawara necropolis) and the Roman cemetery in Antinoopolis. It is worth mentioning that after the death of Alexander the Great (323 BCE) and his conquest, Egypt was flooded with many Greeks and the Hellenic people who settled in Alexandria and Fayum. With time, the population came to adopt the Egyptian customs of mummifying the dead.

With the subordination of Egypt by the Romans in 30 BCE the custom of placing dead wooden signs with painted portraits in the graves of the deceased appeared. They were painted using an encaustic technique (using paint dissolved in hot wax) or tempera, and both techniques were often mixed together. The paintings were painted on various types of wood: oak, sycamore, cedar, cypress, fig or citrus.

A painted portrait was put on the body of the deceased in such a way that the body of the deceased and partly the plaque were wrapped with strips of fabric, leaving a hole where one could see the image of the deceased. Sometimes, the bandage plate was simply glued.

Portraits usually had dimensions – from 30 x 15 cm, up to 50 x 35 cm and mainly show young people. Mostly the figures are in a relaxed position, face slightly tilted to the side. They are characterized by realism in rendering the smallest beauty defects, but the whole is relaxed thanks to the soft modelling. Some of the portraits have captured the personality of the model.

Portraits of Fayum were made in various periods of the Roman Empire: from the times of Augustus (27 BCE – 14 CE), up to the reign period Constantine I (306-337 CE).

Sample preserved portraits of Fayum

  1. Although, apparently during the Crusades, portraits were found.
  • Nowicka Maria, Z dziejów malarstwa greckiego i rzymskiego, Warszawa 1988
  • Sadurska Anna, Archeologia starożytnego Rzymu, T. 2, Okres cesarstwa, Warszawa 1980

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