This young lady looks like a girl you might see at the mall. But she died seventeen centuries ago. The portraits in this post are from Fayum near Cairo in Egypt. There were painters in the ancient days, but virtually all of their art is long decayed. However the dry climate, and the funerary customs of a hybrid of Egyptian and Greek culture created these funerary portraits. Many of them are as fresh as when they were painted in the time from the first through the third century A.D.
Egypt was a part of the Roman empire at the time and the fayum oasis area was home to a minority population of Egytpianized Greeks. St. Mark (author of the gospel of Mark) was sent out by Paul in the year 43 to evangelize to Alexandria. The church he planted became the Coptic faith and continues to this day with the church of Alexandria as its center. These portraits are generally of early christian Copts. Theirs was not the only figurative portrait painting of the time, these just happened to survive unscathed into our own time.
These paintings done in encaustic (hot wax) or tempera on wooden panel were an improved version of the Egyptians existing tradition of painting portraits of the deceased onto sarcophagi. Even today in some European and middle eastern cemeteries it is common to see photos of the deceased preserved under glass or printed onto steel plates. I wish old New England cemeteries had done that, when I walk in the old grave yards, I always wonder what the people whose headstones I am admiring looked like, and who they were in life.
The realism of these portraits despite the conventions that the artists used such as the large Walter Keane style eyes gives a clear and personal look into the eyes of these, often young people who lived, and died so long ago. It was not until the renaissance a thousand years later that portraiture would reach this level of characterization again. The painters of these panels understood form and light. Notice the structure expressed so efficiently in the nose of the face above. This is not primitive painting but a highly developed tradition of representation that went on for centuries. The portrait above looks like someone I might know, a student in college or a young professional guy. It has sensitivity and a style that would be"professional work" in our own time
These portraits were usually wrapped into the shrouds so that they presented the effect of looking into a window and seeing the face of the deceased who had been mummified.Examination of those mummies has lead to the conclusion that they were made upon the death of the subject as the age of the cadaver and the representation on the panel correspond. Life was short then and many of the portraits are of people we would today think of as having died tragically young. There are however mummy portraits of people of all chronological ages.
I think over the next few posts I will show some ancient painting. We all know the cave paintings at Lascaux but the painting of the Greek and Roman era is mostly destroyed, but there are a few surviving clues as to what some of it may have been like.