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Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Fayum Portraits

By Hannah Marier


A number of mummy portraits, painted on wood or linen, came to Europe in the late 19th century from a region in Egypt known as Fayum. Wood and linen have rarely survived elsewhere, but these paintings were preserved, thanks to Egypt’s dry climate.  They were painted in the encaustic or hot wax technique: the artist melted beeswax and combined it with different colored pigments to create a special paint mixture.
Fayum is a low-lying area a little over 37 miles from Cairo. On the higher ground behind the west bank of the Nile, out of reach of the floods, ancient Greek residents had buried their deceased. The wealthy citizens of the region would have portraits made for their mummies. Many of the paintings have inspired awe for their realistic details and use of color.  André Malraux, the French novelist and art theorist, described the portraits as “glowing with a flame of immortal life”. Some of the panels were even decorated with gold.
The portrait shown here is thought to belong to the middle-late Antonine period, ca. AD 161-192.  But dating the portraits is fraught with difficulties. As with most Fayum portraits, the technique used is that of encaustic (sometimes tempera was used, i.e., pigments in egg-yolk). Gold leaf was found in several of the pigments, so the lady in the portrait must have been fairly rich. The woman shown is young, and she is wearing a yellow and blue tunic edged with gold leaf, a golden wreath, a large necklace, also of gold, and emerald earrings. The artist cleverly obtained all of his hues from the colors white, red, black, white, and a minimal amount of green for the emeralds.
This particular panel is currently on display in the British Museum. Most of the portraits found in Fayum are exhibited there. Although the panel is displayed in the Egyptian Antiquities section, it could arguably be considered Greek because of its subject.

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