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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