“Ancient Faces” Roman Hellenic Greek Egypt Sarcophagus Panel Mummy Portraits Pix #8624
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When they were first discovered over a century ago, the painted panel and shroud portraits of Roman Egypt were a revelation to scholars and public alike. Even today they constitute the only corpus of colored images of individuals to survive from classical antiquity.
Ancient Faces: Mummy Portraits from Roman Egypt” by Susan Walker.
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Publisher: Metropolitan Museum of Art (2000).
Size: 11 x 8½ inches; 1¼ pounds..
Summary: When they were first discovered over a century ago, the painted panel and shroud portraits of Roman Egypt were a revelation to scholars and public alike. Even today they constitute the only corpus of colored images of individuals to survive from classical antiquity. Many of the paintings are of outstanding artistic quality; as a whole, they reflect a range of techniques and styles, often related to specific communities. Many of the best-know portraits come from the Fayum, but portraits in various media are known form sites in the Nile Valley and along the Mediterranean coast. Here a wide range is presented, showing Roman influence coexisting with traditional Egyptian ways of commemorating the dead. This revised and augmented volume is published to coincide with the first North American exhibition of these portraits at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Numerous panel paintings and painted masks from European and North American collections have been added. Essays by Susan Walker on the current discussion concerning the chronology of the panels and by Kurt Gschwantler on Greco-Roman portrait painting offer additional insights.
CONDITION: NEW. New oversized softcover. Metropolitan Museum of Art (2000) 168 pages. Unblemished, unmarked, pristine in every respect. Pages are pristine; clean, crisp, unmarked, unmutilated, tightly bound, unambiguously unread. Satisfaction unconditionally guaranteed. In stock, ready to ship. No disappointments, no excuses. PROMPT SHIPPING! HEAVILY PADDED, DAMAGE-FREE PACKAGING! Meticulous and accurate descriptions! Selling rare and out-of- print ancient history books on-line since 1997. We accept returns for any reason within 14 days! #8624a.
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REVIEW: Mummy portraits or Fayum mummy portraits (also Faiyum mummy portraits) is the modern term given to a type of naturalistic painted portrait on wooden boards attached to mummies from the late Roman early Coptic period of Ancient Egypt. They belong to the tradition of panel painting, one of the most highly regarded forms of art in the Classical world. In fact, the Fayum portraits are the only large body of art from that tradition to have survived.
Mummy portraits have been found across Egypt, but are most common in the Faiyum Basin, particularly from Hawara in the Fayum Basin (hence the common name) and the Hadrianic Roman city Antinoopolis. "Faiyum Portraits" is generally thought of as a stylistic, rather than a geographic, description. While painted cartonnage mummy cases date back to pharaonic times, the Faiyum mummy portraits were an innovation dating to the Coptic period at the time of the Roman occupation of Egypt.
They date to the Roman period, from the late 1st century BCE or the early 1st century CE onwards. It is not clear when their production ended, but recent research suggests the middle of the 3rd century. They are among the largest groups among the very few survivors of the highly prestigious panel painting tradition of the classical world, which was continued into Byzantine and Western traditions in the post-classical world, including the local tradition of Coptic iconography in Egypt.
The portraits covered the faces of bodies that were mummified for burial. Extant examples indicate that they were mounted into the bands of cloth that were used to wrap the bodies. Almost all have now been detached from the mummies. They usually depict a single person, showing the head, or head and upper chest, viewed frontally. In terms of artistic tradition, the images clearly derive more from Greco-Roman traditions than Egyptian ones.
Two groups of portraits can be distinguished by technique: one of encaustic (wax) paintings, the other in tempera. The former are usually of higher quality. About 900 mummy portraits are known at present. The majority were found in the necropolis of Faiyum. Due to the hot dry Egyptian climate, the paintings are frequently very well preserved, often retaining their brilliant colors seemingly unfaded by time.
REVIEW: While mummification and traditional Egyptian religious customs remained in fashion even after the Roman conquest of Egypt in 31 BCE, funerary art forms such as this painted mummy portrait began to display an increased interest in Graeco-Roman artistic traditions. Though such mummy portraits have been found throughout Egypt, most have come from the Fayum Basin in Lower Egypt, hence the moniker “Fayum Portraits.”
Many examples of this type of mummy portrait use the Greek encaustic technique, in which pigment is dissolved in hot or cold wax and then used to paint. The naturalism of these works and the interest in realistically depicting a specific individual also stem from Greek conceptions of painting. The subjects of the majority of the Fayum Portraits are styled and clothed according to contemporary Roman fashions, most likely those made popular by the current ruling imperial family.
The portrait of the bearded man, for example, is reminiscent of images of the emperor Hadrian (r. 117–138 CE), who popularized the fashion of wearing a thick beard as symbol of his philhellenism. In their function, these mummy portraits are entirely Egyptian and reflect religious traditions surrounding the preservation of the body of the deceased that span back thousands of years. In form, these works are uniquely multicultural and display the intersection of Roman and provincial customs.
REVIEW: From the first major discoveries a century ago, the painted portraits of Roman Egypt were a revelation to scholars and the public alike, and the recent finding of a new cache of these gilded images, which made national headlines, have only heightened their mystery and appeal. Published to coincide with a new major exhibition of these portraits, “Ancient Faces” is the most comprehensive, up-to-date survey of these astonishing works of art.
Dating from the later period of Roman rule in Egypt, shortly before the birth of Christ, the painted mummy portraits are among the most remarkable products of the ancient world, a fusion of the traditions of Pharaonic Egypt and the Classical world. They are historical and cultural objects of outstanding importance and beauty, superb works of art that represent some of the earliest known examples of life-like portraiture.
Though the subjects of the portraits believed in the traditional Egyptian cults, which offered them a firm prospect of life after death, they also wished to be commemorated in the Roman manner, with their fashion of dress and adornment signaling their status in life. Despite their ancient history, these portraits speak to the modern eye with a beauty and intensity that would be lost to portraiture until the Renaissance.
REVIEW: The painted panel and shroud portraits of Roman Egypt constitute the only corpus of colored images of individuals to survive from classical antiquity. Many are of outstanding artistic quality, and as a whole they reflect a range of techniques and styles. The images combine both the subject''''s belief in the traditional Egyptian cults, which offered them a firm prospect of life after death, and the Roman manner, of reflecting the subject''''s status in life.
The portraits reveal the adoption of Roman fashions in dress and personal adornment by persons remote from the centre of the empire, but likely to have been actively engaged in its local administration. Many of the best known portraits come from the Fayum, but others in various media are known from sites in the Nile Valley and along the Mediterranean coast. This catalogue, published to coincide with an exhibition at the British Museum, presents a wide range of these portraits, showing the Roman influence coexisting with traditional Egyptian ways of commemorating the dead.
REVIEW: The term “painted funerary portraits” used here encompasses a group of portraits painted on either wooden panels or on linen shrouds that were used to decorate portrait mummies from Roman Egypt (conventionally called “mummy portraits”). They have been found in cemeteries in almost all parts of Egypt, from the coastal city of Marina el-Alamein to Aswan in Upper Egypt, and originate from the early first century AD to the mid third century with the possible exception of a small number of later shrouds. Their patrons were a wealthy local elite influenced by Hellenistic and Roman culture but deeply rooted in Egyptian religious belief. To date, over 1000 portraits, but only a few complete mummies, are known and are dispersed among museums and collections on every continent.
REVIEW: Published to coincide with a new major exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, this book is a comprehensive, up-to-date survey of newly discovered painted portraits of mummies dating from the later period of Roman rule in Egypt, shortly before the birth of Christ. With 122 color and 23 black and white illustrations.
REVIEW: In the present exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art ... to a core group of portraits from the exhibition in the British Museum more than forty paintings and related objects from German, French, Canadian, and American collections.P>
REVIEW: A portrait shows what an individual would have looked like. Ancient Egyptian art did not make much use of portraits, relying on an inscription containing the name and titles of an individual for identification. It was, however, important in Roman art. Portraits were placed in tombs as a memorial of family members.
This type of portrait appeared in Egypt in the first century C.E., and remained popular for around 200 years. Egyptian mummy portraits were placed on the outside of the cartonnage coffin over the head of the individual or were carefully wrapped into the mummy bandages. They were painted on a wooden board at a roughly lifelike scale. It is possible to date some mummies on the basis of the hairstyles, jewelry and clothes worn in the portrait, and to identify members of a family by their physical similarities.
The accuracy of these portraits has often been questioned. Techniques employed by doctors to plan delicate facial surgery have been used to compare the actual appearance of several mummies with their portraits. This has proved that the portrait did indeed show the person as they appeared during life. However, there was some element of artistic license: for example, the mummy of Artimedorus appeared to be much more heavily built than he seemed in his portrait.
Most mummy portraits that have survived have unfortunately become separated from the mummies to which they were attached. Because of this we rarely know the identities of the subjects. The subject of the "Portrait of a Man", painted in encaustic on limewood, appears to be a man in his fifties or sixties of strikingly Roman appearance. He is dressed in a tunic with a violet stripe, or clavus, and a thick folded mantle.
The hair is brushed forward and cropped in the style of court portraits of the Trajanic period (98-117 C.E.). Pink has been used to highlight his nose and lips, and dark brown to indicate shading and the contours of the face. The portrait gives the impression of age, authority and austerity. These characteristics were very important in Rome, and are here represented in a very Roman manner.
The "mummy portrait of a woman" is painted in encaustic on limewood. The woman is dressed in a mauve tunic, and a mantle of a darker shade. She wears gold ball earrings and a gold necklace with a pendant crescent and circular terminals. The hair is plaited into a bun at the back of the crown, with snail curls around the brow and at the sides of the head. Her hairstyle, costume and jewelry indicate that she died some time during the reign of the Roman emperor Nero (54-68 C.E.). It has been said that the athletic quality of this portrait is more appropriate to that of a man.
REVIEW: Susan Walker is Deputy Keeper of the Department of Greek and Roman Antiquities, British Museum. Her other publications include “Greek and Roman Portraits” and “Roman Art”.
TABLE OF CONTENTS:
Before the Portraits: Burial Practices in Pharaonic Egypt byJohn Taylor.
Graeco-Roman Portraiture by Kurt Gschwantler.
Mummy Portraits and Roman Portraiture by Susan Walker.
The Fayum and its People by R. S. Bagnall.
Technique by Euphrosyne C. Doxiadis.
The Discovery of the Mummy Portraits by Morris Bierbrier.
A Note on the Dating of Mummy Portraits by Susan Walker.
Portraits and Mummies from Hawara.
Gilded Masks from Hawara.
Portraits from er-Rubayat (Philadelphia).
Portraits from Antinoopolis and other Sites.
Portraits of Technical Interest.
Portraits on Painted Plaster Masks.
Stone Funerary Stelae.
Portraits of the Later Third Century A.D. from Dier el-Bahri and Antinoopolis.
The Cultural and Archaeological Context.
Egyptian Deities and Chronology.
Lenders to the Exhibition and Photographic Acknowledgements.
Concordance of Catalogue and Museum Numbers.
REVIEW: During the first through the third century A.D., a unique art form — the mummy portrait — flourished in Roman Egypt. Stylistically related to the tradition of Greco-Roman painting, but created for a typically Egyptian purpose — inclusion in the funerary trappings of mummies — these are startlingly realistic portraits of men and women of all ages.
More than 70 of the finest mummy portraits from European and North American collections were displayed at The Metropolitan Museum of Art and ultimately included withi the exhibition catalogue "Ancient Faces: Mummy Portraits from Roman Egypt". These rare and fragile works, including the Metropolitan''''s entire collection of mummy portraits, will not travel as a group to any other venue.
Also displayed and included were a range of objects — including jewelry, papyri, sculpture, and wrapped mummies — illustrating the culture and funerary customs of the time. The exhibition and accompanying publication were organized by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, in collaboration with The British Museum.
Philippe de Montebello, Director of the Metropolitan Museum, commented: "Created nearly 2,000 years ago and, until recently, all but overlooked by scholars and the public alike, these ancient faces still engage the modern viewer by the directness of their gaze and their evocation of a long-gone society. The athletes, learned men and women, soldiers, and priests, children, adolescents, and old people are rendered in rich colors with the freshness of yesterday."
The Metropolitan''''s presentation of "Ancient Faces: Mummy Portraits from Roman Egypt" is the result of a collaboration with the British Museum, which organized a similar exhibition in 1977. With that groundwork, a new selection of objects was chosen for the New York presentation. The full range of mummy portrait techniques — encaustic and tempera on wood panels, tempera paintings on linen, and painted masks and coffins of plaster and cartonnage — were represented in the exhibition (and within the catalogue), which is organized thematically and chronologically. The exhibition and catalog begin with an introduction to Roman Egypt, from everyday life to religious beliefs and funerary customs.
REVIEW: When Rome conquered Egypt, two great cultures combined, taking some of the best qualities of each to form an amalgam. The Egyptian belief in the afterlife held strong appeal, but so did the Roman practice of portraiture. As a result, portrait painting was added to traditional Egyptian funerary practices to produce the unique and haunting "mummy portraits," some of the earliest portraits still in existence. The first "ancient faces" exhibit appeared at the British Museum in 1997. When the Metropolitan Museum of Art decided to do its own version, it expanded on the original core group of portraits by adding material from European and North American collections. Walker, deputy keeper of Greek and Roman Antiquities at the British Museum, edited the catalog for both shows. Consequently, they are very similar in most respects; five of the seven essays in this volume appeared first in the British catalog. Highly recommended. [Library Journal].
REVIEW: Atists in Roman Egypt from around 30 B.C. to A.D. 305 plied their trade on wooden panels making mummy portraits. Stylistically derived from the Greco-Roman tradition of painting, these works depicted their subject in three-quarter view, with a single light source casting realistic shadows and highlights on the face. But the portraits were rendered for a typically Egyptian purpose: they were placed over faces and fastened onto the linen wrapping of mummies. More than 70 of the finest mummy portraits from European and North American collections were exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and published within “Ancient Face”. Though the exhibition has ended, the accompanying catalogue is enthusiastically recommended!
REVIEW: Just a casual little party for friends you haven''''t met. Or maybe you have met them. The faces certainly seem familiar. The prettiest girl from high school is here, and that smug 10-to-6''''er she married. So is a distant, distant cousin, and a barely remembered college chum, and even an old flame you''''d prefer to forget.
And there are strangers who aren''''t really strangers. Didn''''t you see that elderly gent in the subway and brush past that unisex youth in the street? And who is that woman across the room with the emerald necklace and stricken face? An Anne or an Alice, she looks overwhelmed. By what? You should go over and talk to her, but she''''s off in a world of her own.
In fact, they are all from another world, one that came and went 2,000 years ago. Gathered together in a time-traveling exhibition and an accompanying publication entitled "Ancient Faces: Mummy Portraits From Roman Egypt", they make a haunting ensemble.
The show and accompanying catalogue, both collaborations with the British Museum, where it first appeared in a different version in 1997, concentrates on 70 portraits painted in Egypt during the first few centuries of Roman rule, which began with the death of Cleopatra in 30 B.C.
Rome controlled Egypt as it controlled much else, through a policy of calculated multiculturalism. Egyptian customs were tolerated; Romans brought practices and beliefs of their own. Before long, things shaded together. The mummy paintings are traces of that process in action.
Most of the pictures are done on wood panels in encaustic, a glossy, durable wax-based medium, or in lighter, fleeter tempera. In style, they adhere to a classical Greek tradition of realistic portraiture, often depicting their subjects -- in this case a colonial elite that took its fashion cues from Rome -- nearly life-size and in three-quarter view.
At the same time, these paintings had a distinctly un-classical function. They were made to be placed at head level on the outside of cloth-wrapped mummies as part of Pharaonic mortuary rites focused on the afterlife.
The paintings have long captured the European imagination, particularly since the late 19th century, when scores of them came to light in an oasis area known as the Fayum. Until recently, they have been generically referred to as ''''''''Fayum portraits,'''''''' although they have also been found at other sites.
Were they painted from life? Many seem too vivaciously singular not to have been. Yet the flimsiness of the panels and signs of haste in execution suggest that they were not studio portraits later adapted for burials. More likely, they were done just before or after a death. Some faces -- like that of the woman with the emerald beads -- convey physical and psychological signs of mortal illness.
The Met''''s theatrical installation begins slowly with a few sculptures demonstrating the Egyptian-Classical blend. Next comes a quick, sunny peek at everyday life in Roman Egypt, with a selection of cosmetics jars, combs and whatnots, and a clay model of what could be a three-story town house in Murray Hill.
Then the lights go down and the walls turn dark to suggest the twilight zone of the hereafter. And personalities start to appear, at first in the form of funerary masks made of plaster or cartonnage (plaster and linen mixed), some mass-produced and, others customized and elaborate.
One torso-length mask, rectangular and hollow like the hood of a car, has a painted doll-like female face with feathery eyebrows and Maria Callas eyes. Nearby, a similar mask is fitted over the mummy of a woman named Artemidora, whose face is pleasantly goofy. She wears an Egyptian wig pulled down over tight Italian curls. Egyptian deities in gold applique march around her pillow.
This bulky visage is exchanged on a mummy in the next gallery for a gently flexed limewood panel inserted into the linen wrappings. It depicts a young man or boy with short hair and the ghost of a mustache. His lips and brown eyes have a sulky spoiled-child look, but there''''s something complicated going on. He''''s tired and dulled, reproachful but resigned.
His is the first of dozens of portraits that line the walls of the rooms from this point on. Many come, as his does, from a Roman cemetery at Hawara near the Fayum. And each, like his, hints at lives we can only guess at now.
One woman, with a sturdy neck, a cap of frizzed hair and a candid, unfazable gaze, could be a suburban mom. A brunette with the coiffure of a Victorian belle smiles a faint, secretive smile; she''''s a Michelle Pfeiffer look-alike. A third woman, her tiny face shaped like a peach, lifts her chin as if overhearing a conversation. Her thick earrings of gilded stucco catch the light.
Hairstyles and jewelry have been studied to establish a chronology for the portraits, although dating, especially of the tempera paintings, is hotly debated. Everyone agrees, though, that the art reached a high point during the reigns of the Roman emperors Hadrian (A.D. 117-38) and Antoninus Pius (A.D. 138-61). Examples from these periods at the Met bear this out.
The variety of male portraits alone is astonishing. Most of the sitters are young: a perky corporate type; a pumped-up Adonis, his shoulders bare; a masher with sideburns and bottle-green bedroom eyes. Whether the prevalence of youthful faces points to a high rate of early deaths in the population or reflects a preference for idealized likenesses is unknown. But when an older face appears, it delivers a shock of surprise.
This is the effect of a portrait of one middle-aged man, full-bearded and deeply tanned, with a star-shaped ornament in his hair. Part of his magnetism lies in the way he is painted, with the thick, jittery, hatched strokes of a van Gogh. But his insistent stare -- unwavering, unregretful -- is what clears a space around him. The show''''s label says he might be an Egyptian priest, which feels right, although the hypnotic icons of the later Byzantine Christian church are surely here in the bud.
The cemetery at Hawara didn''''t have a monopoly on portraits. And one of the show''''s most entrancing images, on loan from the Louvre, was found at Antinoopolos, a settlement on the Nile some distance from the Fayum and named by the Emperor Hadrian for his lover, who had drowned in the river.
It is a portrait of a young woman on a cedarwood panel from around A.D. 130. Her face, rendered with a fine brush, is a perfect oval. Her black hair is pulled back behind her large ears and secured with a gold pin. Her mouth is petite; her eyes, their lashes individually incised, are enormous. She wears pearl-drop earrings and her neck appears to be swathed, as if against a chill, in a filmy cloth-of-gold scarf.
Mary Cassatt would have adored this face, so modern, so intelligent, so self-contained. If she had painted it she would have skipped the gold leaf, which, anyway, was added after the picture was completed. In the ancient world, gold was a potent symbol. An incorruptible substance, sun-bright, it ensured immortality, even divinity, to its wearer. Gilding was sometimes added to portraits after their insertion into the mummy wrapping as a finishing farewell touch. That seems to have been the case here.
Yet divinity doesn''''t seem to be a state aspired to by most of the people in this show, which has been organized by Dorothea Arnold and Marsha Hill of the Met''''s department of Egyptian art. They are more like the cast of characters from a Trollope novel than a pantheon of gods, an assemblage of socialites and burgomasters, philosophers and jocks, folks who eat breakfast and fall in love, swing deals, have airs and relish a joke.
They probably hoped to extend their palmy existence indefinitely, and they have done so in ways they couldn''''t imagine through this show and its catalog. (The book, a version of the British Museum original, has some editorial glitches: certain numbers cited in essays don''''t correspond to entries in the new edition. But the writing is good, and there''''s a useful recap of the latest thinking on the business with dates.)
They''''ve also found a receptive audience in the present. Portraiture has come back into vogue, and interest is strong, as one sees both in the work of young artists and in recent or scheduled museum shows of Chuck Close, Alice Neel and Andy Warhol, not to mention Picasso, Renoir, Sargent, van Gogh and Ingres.
"Ancient Faces" though the exhibition is long-closed, is still "viewable" in the catalogue which commemorated the exhibition. The mummy portraits are very up and down in terms of technique and observation, some quite fine, others barely workaday. That''''s why they make us feel we''''re among equals. The reception the Met has given for them is a quiet one -- silent, actually. But it is the kind of silence, un-self-conscious but emotion-tinged, that falls among friends.
REVIEW: Hermione was a schoolteacher of Greek descent who lived and worked in Hawara, one of the Egyptian provinces of the Roman Empire, circa AD 25-50. She probably never knew that she was a close contemporary of Jesus Christ. Her views on the afterlife were certainly unaffected by him. She hoped to live eternally, in the Egyptian manner: "May her soul rise before Osiris - Sokar, the Great God, Lord of Abydos, for ever."
Now she is a parcel of bones and shriveled flesh to which is attached a redeeming bust-length portrait of her as she was in life. Painted by a gifted but anonymous artist one day nearly 2,000 years ago, then bound across the face of her mummified corpse by a meticulous Egyptian embalmer, the picture shows us that Hermione once had sad, liquid eyes and full lips. Her dark hair was centre-parted and combed back tightly behind her ears. She had high cheekbones. She wore pearl earrings and a plain pale tunic.
Listed as catalogue number 11 in the British Museum''''s/New York Metropolitan Museum''''s exhibition and accompanying catalogue, "Ancient Faces: Mummy Portraits from Roman Egypt", the Portrait of a young woman, inscribed in Greek ''''Hermione grammatike'''' in encaustic on a linen shroud within a complete mummy was donated to Girton College, Cambridge, in the early years of this century by the archaeologist Sir William Flinders Petrie.
Imagining Hermione to have been a rather prim and schoolmarmish young gel (undoubtedly Oxbridge material), he thought she would feel at home there. The bequest was his almost fatherly way of acknowledging the power of an image. Flinders Petrie had dug her from the ground but, when he looked at Hermione''''s portrait, he could not help thinking of her as alive. Looking at her now, it is hard to blame him.
The so-called Fayum portraits, named after the part of Egypt in which the first of them were originally unearthed, are among the most haunting pictures of human beings in existence. They were produced by a confluence of ancient civilizations in the Eastern part of the Roman Empire. In Fayum and other settlements along the Nile, Egyptian society absorbed several waves of Greek immigrants after the conquests of Alexander the Great.
The Greeks who eventually settled in Egypt - mercenaries, most of them, who rented out their services to the Ptolemaic kings - gave up their own gods and embraced those of Egypt. But they preserved other elements of their cultural inheritance intact. During the period of Roman rule, Pharaonic Egyptian burial practices - which Romans found odd but were prepared to tolerate - were gradually modified to accommodate Hellenistic traditions of painting.
So it was that the ancient Egyptian mummy, that brittle and forbiddingly idealized monument to a civilization''''s overwhelming fear of death, became a yet frailer but more humane form of memorial. The cartonnage masks of ancient precedent were replaced by portraits, painted in hot or cold wax on to strips of linen, from which the Greco-Egyptian peoples of the first three centuries AD still stare out at us with such disquieting self-possession.
To come face to face with a whole society, as we do before the portraits of the men and women of Roman Egypt, is to be forcefully reminded of how very little people have changed during the past two millennia. We look into their eyes and we know that they walked and talked and ate and breathed and fussed and worried as we do. That large and rather daunting word, "Antiquity", is an inadequate abstraction. The past is not as foreign a country as we often imagine it to be.
The 19th-century discovery of the Fayum portraits was equivalent, in the field of art history, to the finding of a Missing Link. With the exception of a few murals, notably in Pompeii, these works are the only surviving examples of that fabled Greco-Roman tradition of painting said to have been founded by Apelles, court painter to Alexander the Great, in the fourth century BC.
In his "Natural History", Pliny the Elder maintained that Apelles had been the greatest of all painters to have lived; and the first-century comic author Petronius, who claimed to have seen some of his works in a private art gallery in Rome, declared that "the outlines of the figures gave a rendering of natural appearances with such subtlety that you might even believe their souls had been painted". But, until Flinders Petrie made his find at Hawara in 1888, it was impossible to know how much hyperbole was mixed up with Latin authors'''' proclamations of the Greek genius for painting.
Thanks to the singular burial practices of the Egyptians, the Greek settlement of the Nile and the preservative climate of the North African desert, we can form at least a tenuous notion of Apelles'''' skills from the works of the Fayum portraitists. Some are extremely crude. Later examples begin to show a stiffening of the human face once more into an inscrutable icon. But the most accomplished of them are astonishingly sophisticated in their illusionism. Petronius, it seems, did not exaggerate. The sense of human presence conjured by the portraits is indeed stunning.
The range of techniques known to the Greco-Egyptian painters hints at the tremendous complexity of the lost traditions of art which their works embody. Some of the portraits were carried out in hot wax, a medium which required great speed of the artist and which produced, in the finished works, a powerful impression of the malleability of flesh and the fleeting nature of human expression. Others were carried out, more deliberately, in cold or "punic" wax, a medium close to egg tempera which tended to produce more idealized and statuesque likenesses. Not for some 14 centuries would Western painters, in the age of Masaccio and Van Eyck, start to recover the knowledge of how effectively, and how variously, paint can be made to stand in for living, breathing individuals.
Altogether around 1,000 "Fayum" portraits have been excavated, many of them not from Fayum at all but from a range of sites stretching from the Nile Delta more than 300 miles up river to Panopolis. Some 200 have been assembled at the British Museum. Most have long been detached from the mummies to which they were once fixed, which seems a particularly brutal severance of art from its original context. Despite that, they cannot easily be mistaken for more trivial or light-hearted forms of portraiture. These faces are too severe for that - too earnest, too naked and too alone before whatever vastness it was that they believed themselves about to confront.
In the introduction to her book The Mysterious Fayum Portraits, the painter and scholar Euphrosyne Doxiadis recalls the experience of being locked into a storage room in a museum in Berlin with a couple of dozen of these intense faces for company: "I felt a very strange sensation - that I was not alone. None of these portraits was still on its mummy, and yet they transmitted the energy of human beings." Seen in daylight, in the company of others, they are no less spooky. These people did not want to die and these images are the spells which they wove against their own extinction.
They seem to watch you with an air of melancholy and not a little resentment, this misanthropic tribe of the dead trapped behind glass. The galleries of the museum are corridors filled with ghosts. You brush past them, but not easily. There''''s the handsome young man with his hair cut in the fashionable Trajanic fashion; the long-faced woman with her gold ball earrings, a single wet highlight of white paint suspended in each; the young athlete, with his head of tight black curls, down on his upper lip; the swarthy priest of Serapis with the entrancing eyes and the seven-pointed star of gold in his hair.
Each one detains you, as if willing you to imagine him or her back into life. It is a form of immortality, perhaps. But you know it is not quite what they originally had in mind. The exhibition "Ancient Faces: Mummy Portraits from Roman Egypt" was presented both at the British Museum as well as the New York Metropolitan Museum, and the exhibits were memorialized in catalogue publications of the same name.
REVIEW: I used to hate and loathe art from Classical antiquity. Marble statues of idealized gods or warty old Roman senators? I could not relate. And please don''''t even get me started on Early Christian and Byzantine art or mosaics! I discovered this book while looking into the Fayum mummy portraits at the British Museum. These paintings were second century encaustic paint on papyrus that was usually wrapped around a corpse. Due to the climate conditions at the site where these mummies were buried, the paintings are remarkably well preserved. The look of these portraits is reminiscent of 19th century portraiture, far more relatable and human than the Olympians or historical worthies in other classical art. There is something otherworldly about these paintings from the anonymity of the people represented to the realistic modeling of light and rich color of the pigments. And yet they seem immediate and contemporary, not two millennia old.
REVIEW: This is a beautiful book for anyone interested in Hellenistic Greek or Roman painting or portraits from any time. These are the first portraits in which the subjects look directly at us as we regard them. They are a haunting glimpse into the lives of people dead for 2000 years. This book is full of big color illustrations..
REVIEW: Fascinating and haunting. A collection of mummy portrait paintings from Egypt under Roman rule, first to third A.D. Some of the earliest portraits in existence, very exquisite. This was first published as a companion book to the Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibit in 2000, which was incredible. I believe they still have a few on exhibit.
REVIEW: This is a hauntingly beautiful book that invites the owner to open it again and transport themselves back several millennia. These paintings are so wonderful it is easy to understand how "the experts" thought them fakes when they first appeared! The text is almost as much a pleasure to read as the paintings are to view. Some of the paintings are surprisingly contemporary and possess much of what artists pride themselves in accomplishing during the last 125 years or so.
REVIEW: My art teacher brought this book to class and I couldn''''t put it down. It''''s a little pricey but worth every cent. I go to another place in my head while looking at the portraits imagining what their lives must have been like. I feel as if they are people I know. The text is good, too. This was obviously a labor of love for the author.
REVIEW: The color portraits that bring to life people who walked the earth a couple of thousand years ago are what this book is all about. They are amazing. I was surprised at how modern in technique some of the portraits appeared. The ones with notes written to or about the deceased person made it that much easier to believe that these images were once living, breathing people. I found the information about the portraits and the times in which they were made to be very interesting also. Probably not for recreational reading, but if you like ancient history, a very worthwhile read.
REVIEW: I checked this book out from the library so many times, that no-one else got to read it. If you are an artist or someone who wants to work with past lives, or a novelist, this is the book for you. The portraits in this book, painted in Alexandria m during the Greek/roman period of Egypt''''s history, are wonderful! The author analyzes each painting from a painter''''s perspective , breaking down the colors and pigments used in those times, for instance black is often burnt wine. The illusion of Gold was made with yellow ochre, white and a darker color. This is my absolutely favorite book – of my entire life. No book I have ever read exceeds this in sheer enjoyment and wonder.
REVIEW: A great book if you want to ''''meet'''' first and second century Romans ''''face to face''''. Curiously, viewing these portraits helps one to better relate to the history of the times. And how remarkably like us they seem! Only technology really separates us from those times.
REVIEW: The portraits shoot you right back in time as you gaze into their eyes, so realistic--unlike other ancient stylized portraiture. I have seen a few of them in other books in my classical history collection, wonderful to see so many together in one tome.
REVIEW: One of the greatest art books I''''ve ever read. The author treats the fascinating subject with an outstanding degree of sensitivity and accuracy, and the writing is always crystal clear and matter-of-fact. Highly recommended!
REVIEW: This book is an easy to follow reference book for both budding Egyptologists (Roman Period) or for students of the history of art - some of the portraits could be viewed as close to Renaissance style - wonderful!
REVIEW: Fabulous images and great photography, which is precisely what I was looking for.
REVIEW: The portraits are so amazing in reality, I had to have the book to learn more about them.
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