Portrait of a young woman, A.D. 110–20
Encaustic on wood; 43.7 x 34 cm (17 1/4 x 13 in.)
Royal Museum of Scotland, National Museums of Scotland, Edinburgh
Fayum mummy portraits is the name given to a large number of paintings from the first to third century. These are encaustic paintings, made with hot, pigmented wax on wooden panels, which were inserted into the mummies of the deceased. The surviving paintings are predominantly from the Fayum region in Roman Egypt, where the practice was common and the dry heat preserved many of the paintings until today.
Most of the portraits depict the deceased at a relatively young age, and many show children. According to Walker (2000), "CAT scans of all the complete mummies represented [in Walker (2000)] reveal a correspondence of age and, in suitable cases, sex between mummy and image." Walker concludes that the age distribution reflects the low life expectancy at the time. It has also been proposed that the mummy paintings were originally wall paintings which were copied or used in their original form as panels.
Together with the surviving frescoes and objects from Pompeii and Herculaneum, and tomb frescos in Macedonia, they are the best preserved paintings from ancient times. The portraits are remarkably naturalistic and it is believed that they were painted during the subject's lifetime. It is, however, debatable whether the portraits depict the subjects as they really were. Analyses have shown that the painters depicted faces in a repetitive and formulaic way, albeit with a variety of hairstyles and beards. They appear to have worked from a number of standard types without making detailed observations of the unique facial proportions of specific individuals which give each face its own personality.
Many musueums around the world have fine examples of Fayum mummy portraits on display, notably the British Museum, the Royal Museum of Scotland, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Louvre in Paris.
- Walker, Susan (Ed.): Ancient Faces. Mummy Portraits from Roman Egypt. New York, 2000. ISBN 0415927447.
Last updated: 08-13-2005 12:25:32