Fayum Portraits: Amazing Facts About The Most Ancient Paintings

Fayum portrait. Louvre

Fayum portraits are a unique phenomenon.

After all, they were created 2000 years ago. But in terms of quality of execution, some of them are not inferior to European portraits of the 15th century!

A huge temporary chasm of 15 centuries, which we ourselves created. But which we were able to overcome.

A bit of history. The roots of the Fayum portrait

So how did this phenomenon arise?

In fact, even the ancient Greeks were engaged in painting. Only almost nothing of their creations has been preserved. You can count the remaining artworks with your fingers.

One of them has been preserved in the tomb of Kazanlak. It is obvious that the Greeks already in the 4th century BC knew how to create a three-dimensional image using chiaroscuro and subtle color transitions.

The painting of the tomb in Kazanlak
Unknown Greek master. The painting of the tomb in Kazanlak. The end of 4 – the beginning of the 3rd century BC. Bulgaria.

Please see how realistic the horses are. And how the man’s drawing was worked out, with a clear division into light and dark areas.

Of course, the Romans took over the painting from the Greeks. Just look at this mural, on which a female artist creates a picture on canvas!

Woman painting a picture. Fresco. Pompeii
Woman painting a picture (fresco found in Pompeii). 50-79 years of our era. Naples History Museum.

Rome conquered Egypt shortly before the birth of Christ. On its territory settled the Roman aristocracy. And with it, many traditions took root. Roman clothing, Roman hairstyles … and painting.

But the Romans did not hesitate to adopt Egyptian traditions. For example, funeral rites of a conquered country.

An incredible interweaving of traditions has occurred. Funeral ritual in the form of mummification. But instead of the Egyptian mask, people chose to create portraits. Thus began the history of the Fayum portrait.

Such portraits were first found in Fayyum, a province in Egypt. Hence the name came from. But they were found not only there.

The Pushkin State Museum in Moscow stores a funerary veil. It demonstrates a mixture of Egyptian and Greco-Roman traditions.

Funeral veil. Egypt
Funeral veil of a young man. II century AD. Pushkin State Museum, Moscow.

Two gods are depicted in the Egyptian style: planarly and conditionally. But a person who sets off for the kingdom of the dead is not only dressed in Roman, but also written in a completely different way: voluminously and realistically.

Why Fayum portraits so amaze us

In Fayum portraits we see not invented characters. These are real people who lived … 2000 years ago!

In total, about 900 such portraits were found in Egypt. And they are all unique, because each of them is a portrait of a specific person.

These works are attractive for several more reasons.

Increased pastiness

These portraits are very vital. Especially early portraits of 1-2 centuries of our era. At that time they were painted mainly with wax paints.

The surface was pasty, and strokes of paint were clearly distinguishable. But due to this, the variability of the image was added.

In some works, this is especially noticeable, as, for example, in the portrait “A Woman in a Blue Cape”.

Fayum portrait of a woman. Metropolitan Museum
Fayum portrait. Woman in a blue cape (fragment). 54-68 years of our era. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

This technique of hypertrophic pastiness 15-20 centuries later will be used by European artists. For example, by Rembrandt, Van Gogh.

They understood that a thick texture adds life, emotions. I wonder if they saw the Fayum portraits?

Asymmetric facial features

Another interesting detail is in many Fayum portraits. This is the asymmetry of individuals.

This feature of the structure of the face is quite common. For example, when one eye is slightly larger than the other.

Fayum portrait of a man. Brooklyn Museum
Fayum portrait of a man. 95-100 years AD. Brooklyn Museum, New York.

Please note that this Brooklyn Museum man has very different nose wings. The eyes are also slightly different.

The artist carefully transferred these features of a person to the board. He did this consciously, realizing that such asymmetry makes the face more lively and voluminous.

Portraits are NOT for the living

There is one more important feature of Fayum portraits. They were created for the burial ritual. The portrait was placed on a sarcophagus in the area of the head.

You see, from the very beginning, neither the artist nor the customer thought about what impression the portrait would make on posterity.

It should have been seen only by the gods. This is something like a certified pass for access to another world.

Fayum portrait of a young man. Pushkin Museum
Fayum portrait of a young man. 2nd century AD. Pushkin Museum, Moscow.

This young man has a golden wreath. But he is not to impress others.

And this is a very important difference from the usual European painting.

We are struck by their eyes. Because they understand that an inevitable end awaits them. But they believe in eternal life beyond.

It seems that they are not afraid of death. They are open to this world. But a little sad in advance.

In a completely different way we perceive portraits of our time. They were created not for the gods, but for living people, descendants.

It was important for the customer to show himself in all its glory. And the artist was forced to endow the portrayed person with noble features, embellishing him.

Therefore, the Fayuim portrait is closer to us than the aristocrat Agnolo Bronzino. Or the royal lady of the great Van Dyck.

Left: Agnolo Bronzino. Portrait of Eleanor of Toledo. Right: Anthony Van Dyck. Portrait of Charles I

Left: Agnolo Bronzino. Portrait of Eleanor of Toledo (fragment). 1545. Uffizi Gallery, Florence. Right: Anthony Van Dyck. Portrait of Charles I (fragment). 1638. Royal Palace in Warsaw.

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Youth of Fayum portraits’ heroes

It may seem strange that the vast majority of portraits depict young men and women.

The fact is that at that time people were dying early. Only 25% of men survived to 40 years. And only 2% of women (due to high mortality during childbirth) are up to the same age!

Therefore, portraits were made at the age of 15-25 years, realizing that the end is near.

There are also portraits of children. Most likely, they were created after the death of the child.

Fayum portrait of a boy Eutyches
Fayum portrait of Eutyches. 100-150 years AD. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

There are few portraits of people over 40. Perhaps these are people who could only afford a portrait in adulthood. Maybe, for material reasons.

Fayum portrait of an elderly man. Pushkin Museum
Fayum portrait of an elderly man. 2nd half of the 2nd century AD. Pushkin Museum, Moscow.

Portraits could be ordered only by aristocrats and wealthy representatives of the middle class. Therefore, we often see expensive jewelry on them.

But what about everyone else?

95-98% of the population had only wooden masks after death. The same type and sold for a small fee in a nearby shop.

Huge eyes

Fayum portrait of a young woman. Louvre
Fayum portrait of a young woman. 3rd century AD. Louvre Museum, Paris.

Many heroes have clearly enlarged eyes. This trend begins in the 2nd century AD. Prior to this, as a rule, people were portrayed with eyes of adequate size. Obviously, this is the influence of Egyptian culture.

The Egyptians believed that the soul comes out of the mouth. But she comes back through her eyes. And she can return to the mummy at any time.

Therefore, even before the arrival of the Romans, a mask with large eyes was part of the sarcophagi.

Are all Fayum portraits masterpieces?

The most important masterpieces of Roman Egypt belong to the I-II centuries of our era. One of the most significant is the portrait of Alina.

Her portrait on a sarcophagus with a mummy was found in a common burial. At the time of her death, she was 35 years old. Two of her daughters were buried with her. Apparently some one common disease brought them to the grave.

Fayum portrait of Alina
Fayum portrait of Alina. 24 A.D. Egyptian Museum in Berlin.

We know such details only because the mummies of Alina and her daughters were found by scientists.

Most of the Fayum portraits were purchased by archaeologists from the tomb raiders. Those without regret threw out tablets from the sarcophagus with the names, occupation and age of the dead people.

But besides her story, Alina’s portrait itself is especially interesting. If you don’t know anything about it, you might think that it was written in the 19th century. It is so realistic.

But this portrait of a noble woman is striking in its expressiveness. Impressionists could envy such a combination of colors.

Fayum portrait of a woman in a red tunic
Fayum portrait of a woman in a red tunic. 2nd century AD Royal. Scottish Gallery, Edinburgh.

Fayum portrait of a woman in a red tunic. 2nd century AD Royal. Scottish Gallery, Edinburgh.

The color of her eyes and lips echoes the color of her tunic. Jewelry is tastefully selected, despite their quantity.

There are also mediocre works among Fayum portraits. It is clear that the level of artists was different.

Here are two portraits painted in the same technique and at about the same time. The one on the left was created by a less talented and less professional artist than the one on the right.

Left: A woman with a red necklace. Right: Woman with earrings

Left: A woman with a red necklace. 100-150 years of our era. Milwaukee Art Museum, USA. Right: Woman with earrings. 120-140 years of our era. Harvard Museum of Art, USA.

Over time, the technique of creating portraits changes. Wax paints are gradually replaced by tempera (a mixture of pigments with egg yolk or water).

With the help of such paints, the image is created quickly and you cannot make changes to it. Therefore, the portrait comes out more flat and sketchy.

Fayum portrait of a woman. British Museum
Fayum portrait of a woman. 300-325 years AD. British Museum, London.

In general, by the 4th century AD there is a decline in painting. With the spread of Christianity in Egypt, ritual traditions die off. And with them is the Fayum portrait.

Did the Fayum portrait disappear without a trace?

Fayum portrait lasted only 300 years: from the 1st to 4th centuries AD.

But he did not disappear without a trace. At the end of the 4th century AD Egypt became Byzantine. Byzantine masters saw the Fayum portraits.

That is why in icons we see familiar features from the distant past. Big eyes. A look through the viewer into eternity. The image of the soul, not the body.

Left: Fayum portrait of a young woman. Right: Archangel Gabriel (Angel of Golden Hair)

Left: Fayum portrait of a young woman. 2 century AD Louvre Museum, Paris. Right: Archangel Gabriel (Angel of Golden Hair). 12th century. Icon of the Novgorod school. Russian Museum, St. Petersburg.

Without knowing it, these people saved themselves for posterity for as many as 20 centuries. And continue to live on. They turned the moment into eternal.

But will our photos on electronic and paper media last for so long? What will our descendants see in 2000 years?

I’m afraid nothing. An instant will remain an instant.


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