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Fayum Mummy Portraits

The Metropolitan Museum of Art (colloquially "the Met") was founded in 1870 for the purposes of opening a museum bringing art, and art education to the American people. The earliest origins of the museum date all the way back to 1866 in Paris. John Jay, an American lawyer who suggested the idea of educating the American people, moved forward with the project when he returned to the US from France.

On March 30, 1880, the Museum opened to the public at its current site on Fifth Avenue and 82nd Street. The original gothic structure was designed by Calvert Vaux and Jacob Wrey Mould. Expansions, and additions to the building mean that the original structure is largely enveloped, however, part of the original facade is still visible in the Robert Lehman Wing. The Met, is now the largest art museum in the US - with over 7 million visitors in 2016, it was the third most visited art museum in the world, and the fifth most visited museum of any kind! The permanent collection is comprised of works of art from ancient Egyptian antiquity, paintings, and sculptures from the European masters, and a collection of American and modern art, as well as African, Asian, Oceanian, Byzantine and Islamic art.

When I visited The Met on Day 5 of my trip to New York (a blog post from that day can be found HERE ), one of the first exhibitions I saw was that of the Egyptian artefacts and artwork. I say it was one if the first I saw... what I mean, of course, is that I had arrived at The Met with the intention of heading straight to the Egyptian section!

Comprising of approximately 26,000 historically and culturally important objects, The Metropolitan Museum of Art's collection of Egyptian artworks dates from the Palaeolithic to the Roman period. Over 50% of the Egyptian items at The Met have been sourced through the Museum's archeological work in Egypt, spanning 35 years - this comes as a response to the increasing interest in ancient Egypt from the Western world. This work includes several expeditions and excavations along the Nile River.

In the Egyptian wing, immediately my attention was focused on a series of portraits dotted around the exhibition. Nothing to me linked the portraits, besides the same strange elongated shape. There were several of these portraits, and I came to learn that they are known as "Fayum (or Faiyum) Mummy Portraits".

What are the Fayum Portraits?

Fayum portraits (though not all from the Fayum oasis in Egypt), were painted with a classical Roman aesthetic, but a uniquely Egyptian function. These portraits were created to be placed on top of the mummy of the deceased - much like having an image on a modern day gravestone. People would commission the artist, and until the person died, the work would be hung in their home. It has also been suggested that portraits were made at the time of death, and showed the person most accurately at the age of their death.

Upon their death, it would be cut and fixed to the top of the mummy - this explains why portraits like this all share the same narrow shape. The large un-painted area at the bottom of the work is a clear indication of being cut to accommodate the size and shape of the mummy. The lower section of the portrait would have been covered by the wrapping of cloth, to keep it held in place - as such, the bottom of each portrait is "unfinished" as it was to be covered by cloth, and not seen in its primary use.

When were they made?

The portraits date back all the way to the Imperial Roman era - the late 1st century BC, or early in the 1st century AD. It's unclear when the portraits stopped being made, but research has suggested it to be in the mid 3rd century. During this time, mummies may have actually been kept above ground for a few months, or even years before burial. It is most likely that they were left in chapel cemeteries for family to visit and have ritual meals.

Who made them? Who are they?

No individual artist or group can be credited with the works. The Fayum portraits reveal a wide range of painterly expertise and skill in presenting a lifelike appearance. The realism in the portraits is shown in the knowledge of anatomical structure and use of light and shade. At the time, painters were appreciated as craftsmen rather than artists, and as such it can be assumed that the materials were of more cost than the labour. Because of the portrait's greater value, the people who could afford to buy them were likely the affluent - military personnel, civil servants and religious dignitaries. The average person was unlikely to be able to afford a portrait, and as such most mummies were found without one. Only 1-2% of excavated mummies are known to have had a portrait!

Under Greco-Roman rule, Egypt had several Greek settlements, mainly in Alexandria. Greek settlers lived alongside 7-10 million native Egyptians. The portraits were believed to represent the Greek settlers in Egypt, however, they instead reflect the blending of Egyptian culture and the elite Greek minority. The subjects of the mummy portraits are clearly dressed like Romans, and many of them had Greek names (or Greek versions of Egyptian names), as this was seen as a status symbol. However, the families still found consolation in the ancient Egyptian beliefs about the afterlife... they ensured a portrait was created, and bound to the mummy. The creation, discovery, and preservation of these Faiyum Portraits has unwittingly granted the subjects immortality.

The majority of the portraits show the subject in their youth - many of them children. CAT scans have been done on the mummies connected to the portraits, showing that the body was accurately presented in the portrait in terms of age and sex. The people in the portraits are shown to be young, likely because of the low life expectancy at the time. The portraits were either created at the time of death, or relatively close to this time in order to accurately show the person at the age they died.

How were they created?

The portraits use a process called "encaustic painting". This way of working involves using molten beeswax and adding coloured pigments like clay. The word "encaustic" originates from the Greek word "enkaustikos", meaning "to burn in". In order for a painting to be defined as encaustic, a great deal of heat is required in the process. This versatile medium allowed artists to create images that are somewhat akin to oil paintings.

  1. A wooden panel would be prepared with a transparent glue, or wax.

  2. Much like creating artwork today, the artist sketched out the composition and basic elements of the portrait - facial features, clothing, and jewellery.

  3. Wax and pigments were mixed. This mixture could be used in hot liquid form, or as a mouldable paste. When used in a cooler, or paste form, it had to be mixed with oil, egg, or resin to bind the mixture and keep the pigment from drying for longer.

  4. The hot wax was quickly transferred to the wooden panel. Limewood is used in the Fayum Portraits. Laid on in long and even brushstrokes, thicker applications of mixture were used in the painting of the face, while thinner mixtures were used in the background and clothing.

  5. When the wax mixture had cooled and set slightly, a tool was used to blend the different tones of the face together. This smoothed the physical texture of the work, as well as made the skin more even and realistic.

Using the process of encaustic painting, the works are created to last throughout burial, the afterlife, and for eternity. Even after 2000 years, I was able to walk into The Met, and view these works with very little wear and tear! The Fayum Mummy Portraits are the only surviving examples of encaustic painting from ancient times!

My favourite examples from The Met

This piece from the Roman Period, given the title "Portrait of a young woman in red" was created around A.D. 90–120, in Egypt.

Framed by her black hair, profoundly shadowed neck, and crimson tunic, her glowing face emerges in engaging vitality - an impression that is reinforced by the gold wreath across her hair. The background was originally also gilded (covered in gold leaf, or gold paint) - this is likely to emphasise the divine status of the deceased. The large eyes give a great sense of youthfulness, but are very real and endearing - a portrait is always more real with a convincing focal point, and easier to provoke and emotional response.

The face is the area that you can most clearly see brush/tool marks, from the application of the pigmented wax. To me, this is the most interesting part of the work. Short and sharp stroked have been used to build up a thick layer of peach, tan, and brown pigmented wax, creating almost a 3D effect. This manner of painting (which is very different from the traditional Egyptian style) originated in Classical Greece in the 4th and 5th Centuries BCE.

"Portrait of the Boy Eutyches" was created between 100 and 150 AD during the Roman Period, in Egypt.

Here, the teenage boy looks to be full of life, with a calm expression on his face. He is sat comfortably, with his head tilted towards the viewer, and dressed in a white Roman tunic, and a purple stripe running vertically over the right shoulder.

In contrast to the woman in red, this work ​has a far smoother application of pigment. It is likely that "Portrait of a young woman in red" was created while the wax was molten, and needed to be worked quickly, leaving little time to work on the texture. This work, on the other hand, might have been created while the wax was cooling, or cold, and emulsified by egg or oil - giving the medium longer in a workable state before it dried. This might mean that the artist had more time to work on the portrait before final applications were set. This portrait shows brushstrokes, rather than solely tool marks. Modern artist who paint in encaustic use a heated tools to melt together pigments, giving the application a smoother appearance, rather than harsh scraping, and drag marks. Is it perhaps possible for ancient craftsmen to have employed a similar technique here?


Unlike "Portrait of a young woman in red", and many other Fayum mummy portraits, "Portrait of the Boy Eutyches" features an inscription just below the neckline of the subject's Roman style tunic. The inscription is Greek - the common language of the eastern Mediterranean at the time. There is some debate, however, as to what the inscription says. The boy's name, "Eutyches, freedman of Kasanios", is clear, though the words following are somewhat unclear. The latter part of the writing either says "son of Herakleides Evandros" or "Herakleides, son of Evandros". This could either be describing 2 generations, or 3 generations of the same family. At the end of the inscription, the words "I signed" are found. It is also unclear if this refers to an artist signing their work (something VERY rare for this time period, and highly unique), or if the creation of the portrait was witnessed by the father and grandfather (Herakleides or Evandros).

While the backgrounds of these portraits are likely to have shared a common theme and palette of light grey or perhaps gold leaf, the palette of the faces is extremely specific and based on the individual. The portraits are much like sitting for a photographed portrait in modern times, and evoke the same human reaction, due to their large childlike eyes, and realistic faces. While. it may be easy to disassociate from people in portraits from the past, it is very easy to imagine the people these portraits are based on and feel a connection.

What do you think about the Fayum Mummy Portraits? Do you have any artworks you think I should cover in a future blog post, or perhaps a question about anything covered? Get in touch, I'd love to hear from you!







#illustration #travel #newyork #arthistory

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