Al-Ahram Weekly Online   29 January - 4 February 2004
Issue No. 675
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From funerary masks to portraits


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Clockwise from left: The Ancient Egyptian funerary mask; A sculpted portrait placed on a coffin; A painted portrait like that of the boy dated back to Roman times; A woman wearing jewellery. These were removed from their mummy wrappings
The so-called Fayoum portraits, more than 1,000 of them, are the largest body of ancient portable paintings to have survived. They are portraits, painted mostly on wood, of men, women and children, young and old, believed to have been painted in their lifetime, sometimes framed and displayed in the homes, and later sawn to fit just inside the sarcophagus where they were placed on top of the face within the mummy wrappings to preserve the memory of the deceased. They have been recovered from cemeteries all over Egypt, but were not necessarily manufactured at the sites where they were found.

The painted panels started coming to light in amateurish excavations during the early to mid-19th century. The collectors extracted them from their wrapped and decorated mummies and, thus, they unfortunately removed and separated them from the context in which they were found. At first the portraits did not attract much attention; most were already damaged while others suffered from careless handling.

Two dynamic and separate cultures existed in Egypt in the early centuries of the Christian era: the Hellenic and the Egyptian, both pagan and Christian. To what ethnic and social group did the portraits belong? Some scholars called them "Roman portraits" on the basis that they could not be Egyptian because Egyptians were always depicted in profile and not three-quarter face, or because they were found on sarcophagi enclosing mummies of the Roman period.

The use of the word "Roman portrait" was rejected by British archaeologist Flinders Petrie after his discovery of 300 portraits in excellent condition from a massive cache of mummies in Fayoum in 1888. At once the term "Fayoum portrait" was coined. This was an acceptable but not accurate term, as they were not to be found in Fayoum alone. The extraordinarily beautiful 2,000-year-old portraits have been found on mummies in Egyptian burial grounds not only in Fayoum but also in "middle" and Upper Egypt and even on the Mediterranean coast, all dating to between the first and fourth centuries.

Still they did not escape controversy. Specialists in Graeco-Roman art regarded them as Egyptian, but Egyptologists considered them to be works of the early years of the Christian era when Egypt was under Roman occupation, and therefore out of their sphere. For too long art historians neglected these masterpieces. Today they are receiving their due, with one startling fact to emerge being the possibility that the portraits inserted into the wrappings of mummies may not be representative of Roman provincial art, as earlier described, but created by Egyptians for Egyptians. In other words, they may not be portraits of the Mediterranean aristocracy who controlled Egypt in Roman times, but of Egyptians themselves.

Some of the panels were painted in encaustic: natural powdered pigments mixed with melted beeswax and applied hot with a scalpel and brush for detail. Others, painted in tempera or a watercolour base, were badly affected by humidity in the soil. Some were on wooden panels, some on linen. Some depicted heads only, others were full- length portraits placed on top of the linen cloth that covered the corpses.

There is every indication that the painted portraits served the same purpose and function as the painted cartonnage masks made of layers of linen or papyrus stiffened with plaster and decorated with paint or gilding that were introduced into Egypt in the First Intermediate Period, between 2181 and 2055 BC. These became increasingly popular in the Middle Kingdom, the XVIIIth and the XXVIth dynasties, as well as in the Graeco-Roman period, to assist in the identification of the deceased. In fact, in the Graeco-Roman period hollow, painted plaster heads and painted portraits began to be used alongside cartonnage masks. Continuity can be traced provided one looks at the portraits painted in Roman times from an Egyptian perspective. Looked at from a local angle, foreign influence in these great masterpieces may extend no further than a stylish Roman hairdo or the fashionable drape adopted by aristocratic Egyptian families.

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