Wednesday 6 October 2021


Fayum portrait at the Benaki Museum, (painted on linen, with pigments mixed with wax in the encaustic technique).

Fayum, or mummy portraits, are a type of naturalistic painted portrait on wooden boards, attached to upper class mummies from Roman Egypt. They belong to the tradition of panel painting, one of the most highly regarded forms of art in the Classical world. The Fayum portraits are the only large body of art from that tradition to have survived. Due to the hot dry Egyptian climate, the paintings are frequently very well preserved, often retaining their brilliant colours seemingly unfaded by time.

The portraits covered the faces of bodies that were mummified for burial. They were mounted into the bands of cloth that were used to wrap the bodies. The majority were found in the necropolis of Faiyum.

They usually depict a single person, showing the head, facing and looking toward the viewer, from an angle that is usually slightly turned from full face.

The majority were painted on boards or panels, made from different imported hardwoods. The wood was cut into thin rectangular panels and made smooth. The finished panels were set into layers of wrapping that enclosed the body and were surrounded by bands of cloth, giving the effect of a window-like opening through which the face of the deceased could be seen. Two painting techniques were employed: encaustic (wax) painting and animal glue tempera. The encaustic images are striking because of the contrast between the vivid and rich colours, and comparatively large brush-strokes, producing an impressionistic effect. The tempera paintings on the other hand, have a finer gradation of tones and chalkier colours, giving a more restrained appearance. 

The Fayum portraits reveal a wide range of painterly expertise and skill in presenting a lifelike appearance. The naturalism of the portraits is often revealed in knowledge of anatomic structure and in skilled modelling of the form by the use of light and shade, which gives an appearance of three-dimensionality to most of the figures. The graded flesh tones are enhanced with shadows and highlights indicative of directional lighting.

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