Monday, October 25, 2010

Post #675

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.


Sidharth Chaturvedi said...

Wow, thanks for sharing these, Stape! I hadn't seen them before and I had no idea that portraiture had reached that level so long ago, aside from the eyes the characterization looks almost like Baroque art.

Gregory Becker said...

What a fascinating post. Unbelievable realism considering how long ago they were painted.

willek said...

I have seen these in museums and always wondered about who did them and how they were done. Were they done while the people were alive and well, or as part of the mummification process? said... was my understanding that these portraits were done from life , from the living . I'll have to check into that. Boston museum of fine art has some beauties. I have always felt like I knew these people too.

Really great ancient still lifes from Pompeii and Herculaneum and , I imagine, Rome. But I did see these works in person in Herculaneum. They are very sophisticated. It made me wonder why art reverted to the flat Byzantine style. Was it the dark ages and the barbarian mongol invasions that was responsible for loosing such sophisticated skills and understanding of rendering?

Philip Koch said...

Very interesting post!

billspaintingmn said...

These paintings do seem to evoke an actual person, or personality. I find them to be interesting on several levels.
Stape! How in the world did, do, are you, finding out all this stuff? You are a wizard of art! I mean that in the best of intentions!

Barbara said...

Your blog is a wonder. I never know what I will find here, but I can always count on it to be enlightening.

Mike Thompson said...

The only obituaries I regularly read are from my boyhood hometown. The newspaper there has one of those newfangled obituary services that allow such things as signing the guestbook and sending flowers or donations. I have started a new habit. Whenever a posted picture of the deceased is obviously from many years before their death, I collect then into a folder I call 'Old Pictures'. I now have around fifty of these and they always make a profound impression on me when I look through them because they are from the period of these peoples' lives when they were at their peak physical fitness and vitality. I got the same feeling looking at these old portraits from Egypt.

History usually seems old and musty until you break through the dust and find the reality of the people living it. If people of yesteryear could be brought to our times through some miraculous time machine, they would be indistinguishable from us. They would cuss out their balky software, they would bark at the jerk cutting them off in traffic, and they would be rooting for their favorite team in the World Series.

Maybe I should stop thinking that my art will last 200 years and start thinking how to make it last 2000 years. What would I like to say to someone looking at one of my paintings in 20 centuries?

Connie said...

I studied some of these in art history class years ago in college. I was quite struck by the luminosity. Do you think it was just painting skill, the wax, or both?

Belinda Del Pesco said...

Ahh, a subject near & dear to my heart. Thanks for posting this. They are a wonder and such beauty to behold. Both the subjects and the artists who painted them. There is a lovely database of images on wiki here:
Being able to see them online, from so far away, and so any years ago is an inspirational gift of the digital age we live in.

Anderhowl said...

These are awesome! I love ancient art and look at and copy a fair amount of it, but have never seen such a rich collection of these portraits (usually just the same 2 in every book and website). Thanks for sharing and diffusing!

Also, if you're interested, here is a series of blog posts I wrote at National Geographic about a recent conference on Prehistoric Rock Art:

tom martino said...

This is a good reminder that what we do and think has been thought about long, long ago and far away. remember reading that ancient writers (around 250 B.C.?) referred to a remarkable book on color authored by one of the master Greek painters of the day. Like many treasures, it was probably destroyed in the flames of the library at Alexandria.

Jim G. said...

I've heard of these ancient funeral portraits before, but this post sent me on a web search to find out more about them. I want to know who painted them, what their culture was like, what their influences were, their place in art history, and even how much butter they put in their shoes! I found some info here that seems good:

This reminded me how fascinated (maybe even obsessed) I have been about the history of portraits and portrait painters, and how that has influenced my own portrait painting. I guess kinda like what you've been saying about studying the history of landscape and landscape painters?

I also googled Walter Keane. I didn't spend much time there.

JonInFrance said...

And they are gone
Aye, ages long ago
These lovers fled away into the storm

Kyle V Thomas said...


The Byzantine art was flat, not because of a loss of skill, but a change in purpose. It was a style of choice. They were concerned with the spiritual rather than the earthly. The artists were not trying to render form, but elevate the viewer's mind and heart to the heavenly realm.

Great feeling and personality in these portraits. What a strange time these people were living in. There is so much to be learned of humanity through art.

Barbara Carr said...

I've always loved the Coptic portraits. That nose (on the Stallone look-alike) is to die for! Thanks for the great post.

Lucy said...

R&f in Kingston new York gives encaustic workshops. Some of the instructors are skilled at encaustic portraiture and teach the ancient methods. They teach all kinds of workshops with encaustic including the history and contemporary ways of using the wax.

Mary Bullock said...

If these samples are the way most of them looked - it is obvious that there were no ugly people back then.

Stapleton Kearns said...

There is nothing new under the sun.

Stapleton Kearns said...

that is their charm.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Willek; that seems to be an ongoing discussion.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I believe the artists were capable of doing these from the deceased, but it may have happened both ways.
Sometimes they were actually painted on the shrouds that had been wrapped around the mummy itself.

Stapleton Kearns said...


Stapleton Kearns said...


I know a little about the stuff and then do a little research to write the post.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Thanks, you are a wonder to.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I love history. I like living here in New England where it is so close to the surface.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I think that the use of the wax contributed a lot.

Stapleton Kearns said...

It is odd isn't it looking at digital images online of things made so long ago.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I will check that out.

Stapleton Kearns said...

That library burning might make a good blog post.

Stapleton Kearns said...

What you didn't like Walter Keane?

Stapleton Kearns said...

What is that a quote from?

Stapleton Kearns said...

I know that is the defense common;y employed for the Byzantine. I think that it represents a loss of skill. At the time civilization was at a low ebb. I have no doubt I am being politically incorrect. I am only going by what the art looks like,.

Stapleton Kearns said...

The artist had a good sense of form.

Stapleton Kearns said...

That sounds like fun!

Stapleton Kearns said...

Breeding WILL tell.