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Fayum mummy portraits
July 18, 2010 11:58 AM   Subscribe

"They are the earliest painted portraits that have survived; they were painted whilst the Gospels of the New Testament were being written. Why then do they strike us today as being so immediate? Why does their individuality feel like our own? Why is their look more contemporary than any look to be found in the rest of the two millennia of traditional European art which followed them? The Fayum portraits touch us as if they had been painted last month." The Fayum mummy portraits were painted between the first and third centuries AD, in Roman Egypt, and preserved by the dry Egyptian climate. Wikimedia Commons. According to Wikipedia, 900 portraits are known to have survived. John Bavaro has been creating modern versions using the Brushes app on the iPhone. Via the Brushes Gallery on Flickr.
posted by russilwvong (39 comments total) 41 users marked this as a favorite

 
The Met in NYC has a bunch of these and they are transfixing. The impregnated wax method of painting them prefigures oil-based painting technique Any kind of humanistic realism outside portrait busts in the B.C.E area is rare, so these are invaluable anthropological as well as artistic artifacts.
posted by The Whelk at 12:03 PM on July 18, 2010


My Mom, viewing the Met's Fayum Mummy Portraits.

"Wow, that's a lot of kids."

Very brief but immediate connection to a lost world there.
posted by The Whelk at 12:04 PM on July 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm struck by how handsome the young men were, and find myself filled with odd feelings of sadness and anger towards the universe -- wishing that they weren't dead; that I could get to know them somehow. To make them alive again.
posted by Avenger at 12:12 PM on July 18, 2010 [4 favorites]


I understand we're not about to make any intensive restoration of the original Fayum portraits, but why make the modern versions damaged like they were 2000 years old?
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 12:15 PM on July 18, 2010


The key to the success of these portraits is the big, anime eyes, the subtle use of line, and the warm skin tones achieved through that painting technique. But mainly it's the big eyes.
posted by Faze at 12:17 PM on July 18, 2010 [2 favorites]


the mix of the Grecian Heroic Idealism and the Egyptian straight out abstraction creates this frisson. Very balanced between the two.
posted by The Whelk at 12:20 PM on July 18, 2010


I have big eyes, but they have BIG EYES!
posted by emhutchinson at 12:21 PM on July 18, 2010


It's an acute reminder of the fact that painting, more than the sculpture, architecture and pottery that has survived in the most abundant quantity, was really one of the highest arts of the ancient Mediterranean world. And most of it was lost. (As opposed to the music, which is entirely gone.) It's great to see an example of what this was like – clearly exquisite paintings.
posted by graymouser at 12:21 PM on July 18, 2010


thank you for this post. these are so beautiful to look at. and here, The Whelk's observations add great value to my experience of looking at them. grazie
posted by infini at 12:23 PM on July 18, 2010


Even sculpture was painted, the milky-white marble we see today would have been an unfinished work.

The paintings are remarkable for another reason, they are secular. The vast majority of artwork in the early and high middle ages was Christian. Since we live in a secular age it's easy to connect with these images while the religious icons seem remote. The secular portrait really didn't start again until the Renaissance. Some people see the intervening 1000 years as a "dark" time, but that's just a bias towards our own values, the religious art of the Middle Ages was not dark at all, just different.

These Russian Mafia gravestones could be the Fayum's of the future.
posted by stbalbach at 12:47 PM on July 18, 2010 [3 favorites]


It's an acute reminder of the fact that painting, more than the sculpture, architecture and pottery that has survived in the most abundant quantity, was really one of the highest arts of the ancient Mediterranean world. And most of it was lost.

Exactly. At least in addition to the Fayum Portraits we have the paintings and frescoes presevered from Pompeii and Herculaneum (79 A.D.).

As well, we are fortunate to have well-preserved Roman mosaics from much of the Roman Republic and Empire.
posted by ericb at 12:48 PM on July 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


*preserved*
posted by ericb at 12:48 PM on July 18, 2010


This portrait of a young boy comes across as even more realistic than most, probably because the neotenic effect of the large eyes 'works' for a child of that age, who would tend to have proportionately large eyes anyway. To my untrained eye the lighting also seems a bit more realistic and gives more depth to the image. Shame about the context, though.
posted by jedicus at 12:50 PM on July 18, 2010


I have big eyes, but they have BIG EYES!

MeFi FPP: Big-eyed kitsch art, paintings of waifs and sad eyes, pity kitty and pity puppy.
posted by ericb at 12:52 PM on July 18, 2010


It's an acute reminder of the fact that painting, more than the sculpture, architecture and pottery that has survived in the most abundant quantity, was really one of the highest arts of the ancient Mediterranean world. And most of it was lost.

Exactly. At least in addition to the Fayum Portraits we have the paintings and frescoes presevered from Pompeii and Herculaneum (79 A.D.).


I've remarked before how strange it feels that while we kinda know what Caesar looked like via the portrait busts, people much, much closer to us in time don't have nearly as accurate portraits - cause we lost so many paintings and the cultures that did preserve/advance/whatever portraiture favored abstract or highly stylized stuff.
posted by The Whelk at 1:04 PM on July 18, 2010


My Name Is Red is a good book about that kinda thing. It's a look inside the role of figurative art in 16th Century Turkey AND a gripping murder mystery.
posted by The Whelk at 1:08 PM on July 18, 2010


Fascinating. But why are they all so young? Did all these people really die that young? Are these idealised portraits of what they were believed to look like in their prime? Did people have their portrait made in their twenties, to be attached to their mummy later on?
posted by Termite at 1:10 PM on July 18, 2010


Wow, seriously. These would be awesomely received in a contemporary gallery, even.
posted by cmoj at 1:15 PM on July 18, 2010


Yes, they did die young in the 1-3 century AD.

What strikes me, though, is the Levantine and Arabic features of these faces. Certainly, there was intercourse between Egypt and the Eastern Mediterranean coast for over two thousand years by this time. Yet, this was before the establishment of Islam and the Arab conquest of Egypt was still some 500 years in the future when these were painted. When I visited Egypt, I took that as the explanation for the features of the people but now I see that these existed for, probably, thousands of years.
posted by sudogeek at 1:23 PM on July 18, 2010


But why are they all so young?

Life expectancy was around 35. The biggest threats were childhood diseases; if you made it past 5 you had a better-than-average chance of seeing 35. While there are certainly instances of reasonably-verifiable 80+ year-olds throughout ancient history, in all of these cases you're talking about people from very wealthy and/or noble families.

But mainly it's the big eyes.

I disagree. I think it's individual touches: the wrinkle lines around the mouth, the different ways dudes wore their beards and moustaches, her gaunt face and skin, his cool 80s hair.

It's like a cast of characters from an ancient Greek sitcom. Real personalities.
Santiago: Yo, Renni! You remember that skinny thieving bastard, Toni?

Renni: Yeah, I remember that skinny piece of shit…

Santiago: Yeah, well I heard Toni got trampled by a runaway pushcart!

Renni: Ha! Fuck 'em. He had it comin'.

Santiago: Yeah, fuck 'em. Say, I wonder if his little brother is available?
And scene.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 2:11 PM on July 18, 2010 [6 favorites]


There is, I believe, a circular Graeco-Egyptian portrait of a young woman thoughtfully touching her pen to her mouth. I believed her name was Hermione Grammatike, but it seems that was actually another woman that I had confused with her, so I can't show you an image from Google of this portrait, although I remember it in detail.

Every time I catch myself doing that with a pen, or see someone else doing it, I think of her, and of how ancient our gestures are.
posted by Countess Elena at 4:12 PM on July 18, 2010 [2 favorites]


i wish some of these links showed the context of these (i.e. strapped to the head of a dead body)...the wrappings on these mummies is particularly exquisite...you can see a bit of it here.
posted by sexyrobot at 4:21 PM on July 18, 2010


Countess Elena: She's from Pompeii. I love that image, too.
posted by agatha_magatha at 4:32 PM on July 18, 2010 [4 favorites]


Sudogeek wrote: What strikes me, though, is the Levantine and Arabic features of these faces.

They were likely descended from Greek colonists. Don't forget that Alexander (the Great, the Macedonian, the Greek, the Whatever) conquered Egypt and that it was ruled by Greeks until the Romans conquered it. But even before then there was a lot of intercourse (heh heh): Egypt once ruled halfway up the Mediterranean coast, although I don't think they got further than Lebanon, and the so-called Sea People were everywhere, presumably with a girl in every port.
posted by Joe in Australia at 4:39 PM on July 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


agatha, thank you for that; you are right!
posted by Countess Elena at 4:59 PM on July 18, 2010


I went to the Met in New York once with a bunch of my friends my first year in college. We saw these while we were there -- and one of the guys who came with us was stunned to see that he bore an eerily uncanny resemblance to one of them. He really did look a HELL of a lot like the portrait we were all staring at.

It underscored for all of us that the people depicted in all of the ancient Egyptian drawings and Roman paintings and such were people, as well as portrait subjects.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:35 PM on July 18, 2010


and one of the guys who came with us was stunned to see that he bore an eerily uncanny resemblance to one of them. He really did look a HELL of a lot like the portrait we were all staring at.

And you didn't do an extended "Ohoooh! You are the reborn lover of a mighty mummy! now dead for eons who will rise and come to claim you as his own! ooo! Lets go look at the caskets, see if anyone rings a bell! oooo!" ?

Man, people are different, you know?
posted by The Whelk at 7:20 PM on July 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


the earliest painted portraits that have survived

This one may be more smudged than painted, but it's from 25,000 BC. And yes, I expect that the gentleman who commissioned it was pleased with the accuracy and specificity of his portrayal.
posted by StickyCarpet at 8:04 PM on July 18, 2010


Some people see the intervening 1000 years as a "dark" time, but that's just a bias towards our own values,

Yeah, well, I value things like literacy, indoor plumbing, bathing, and working toilet systems over throwing buckets of crap into the street, washing every few months, and the idea that a ruler working on learning much beyond swordplay makes him a big poof.

I'm comfortable with those biases.
posted by rodgerd at 1:03 AM on July 19, 2010 [2 favorites]


... and I'm comfortable with my bias towards the idea of secular art.
posted by Termite at 2:53 AM on July 19, 2010


It wasn't an issue of people dying young so much as that people had their portraits done when they were in the prime of life in anticipation of dying.

As a modern encaustic painter I've been impressed by the Fayum portraits for years - this kind of paint is applied molten - think about doing that in an era with no electricity. Modern encaustic painters use propane torches, heat guns and heated palettes to work in this medium. The Fayum painters had heated braziers and bronze tools. They used just 4 pigments - white, black, yellow ochre and red oxide to create their remarkable works. It's a testament to the durability of wax based paint that these paintings still look fabulous 2,000 years later.

The Oriental Institute in Chicago has a fine collection of Fayum Portraits. The Detroit Institute of Art has a few also.
posted by leslies at 6:00 AM on July 19, 2010


I'm comfortable with those biases.

Then I guess your also comfortable with slavery and pedophilia, can't cherry pick the good and leave out the bad of the ancient world, while comparing it to the worst of and leaving out the good of the medieval.. unless your biased :)
posted by stbalbach at 10:11 AM on July 19, 2010


Some people see the intervening 1000 years as a "dark" time, but that's just a bias towards our own values, the religious art of the Middle Ages was not dark at all, just different.

Errm, the 'Dark Ages' were referred to as such because of the massive amount of prior learning that was lost due to political and social upheaval, following the collapse of the Roman Empire, and the fact that the Church of that time (and ever since, really) actively pursued an agenda of maintaining civilian ignorance of just about everything so that they were more pliable to control - it's not just people being 'biased' at the religious aspect of the era.
posted by FatherDagon at 11:50 AM on July 19, 2010


FatherDragon, that's a technical interpretation of Petrarch's initial meaning of the term. From a populist point of view, anyone who sees secularism and pluralism as the leading force in modern society is going to see the religious dominated Middle Ages through a dark lens - the Enlightenment era injected a huge amount of prejudice about those "priest ridden times" (Voltaire) that remains with us today. When in the movie Pulp Fiction, the guy says he's going to "get Medieval on yo ass", I don't think most viewers were thinking about the loss of Roman learning. The sentiment that the Middle Ages were a violent, backwards time - a move backwards compared to the Ancient world - is extremely common - most people just assume it's true, or discount evidence to the contrary.

massive amount of prior learning that was lost due to political and social upheaval

Just to clarify, 99% or more of the learning from the Ancient world was preserved by Medieval monks. Except for a few papyrus scrolls found by recent archaeology in Egypt, everything we know about the Ancient world was intentionally preserved by monks who copied it down and saved it. Learning was not "lost" (although much was through the natural ravages of time), they were just focused on the very difficult problem of resolving faith vs reason (it was never resolved, determined unsolvable in the 17th century). But these are huge generalizations. As for your theory that religion intentionally keept people ignorant so that they were "more pliable to control", that doesn't fit the messy facts of history, sounds more like 19th C Marxist propaganda to justify the pillage and destruction of the church.
posted by stbalbach at 4:37 PM on July 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


What really gets me is the specular highlights in the eyes and on the nose. That just seems so modern, like what you'd strive for in a photo. (i know the northern masters did it in still lifes, but they always did it like it was a new trick to be shown off) Also, this might be me, but there's something in the jawline of most pre 20th c portraits that seems oldtimey-- maybe a result of bad teeth or diet among the upper class, or just different standards of beauty. That's totally missing here, except maybe in the second one.
posted by condour75 at 7:19 PM on July 19, 2010


his cool 80s hair

I bet his mom plastered it down to his head when she heard it was portrait day. And he took out his comb and poofed it right back up on the bus.

I'm just glad he didn't pick the lasers background. Or the double exposure with a profile shot.
posted by condour75 at 7:31 PM on July 19, 2010


I'm comfortable with those biases.

Then I guess your also comfortable with slavery and pedophilia, can't cherry pick the good and leave out the bad of the ancient world, while comparing it to the worst of and leaving out the good of the medieval.. unless your biased :)


Oh hey, did they abolish slavery in your parallel universe version of the Dark Ages? Because they didn't in mine. They married off child brides, too.

Just to clarify, 99% or more of the learning from the Ancient world was preserved by Medieval monks.

Uh, no. It was preserved in places like the Arab world, and came back to us via that route. The dark ages were when Augustian contempt for learning saw burning the Library of Alexander as a great idea; We had to wait for Aquinas and Bacon to undo some of the worst intellectual traditions of Western Christianity.

But thanks from taking time out from your hobby of "knowing nothing about history" to accuse me of being pro-pedophilia.
posted by rodgerd at 12:51 AM on July 20, 2010


accuse me of being pro-pedophilia

Sure, anytime. I also do pro-slavery and pro-incest accusations, special rates on Sundays.
posted by stbalbach at 11:28 PM on July 20, 2010


*rolls eyes at derail trainwreck*

They used just 4 pigments - white, black, yellow ochre and red oxide to create their remarkable works.

i dunno...looks like they also had green and blue...probably from pthalocyanin, or copper oxide. small amounts of green and blue are necessary to make skin tones this convincing. there even appears to be some sort of violet pigment here, possibly even (ew) mummia.
posted by sexyrobot at 8:01 PM on July 21, 2010


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