Painting on wood and canvas existed in Antiquity, when Apelles and Zeuxis were the Velazquez and Rembrandt of the ancient world. But absolutely nothing of the masterpieces they created survives. Yet in Egypt, new ideas from the Greek and Roman world merged with old ones, including the promise of eternal life that mummies offered. Designed to last for eternity and preserved by the arid climate, a few ancient masterpieces survive. These are the living Fayum mummy portraits.
Before The Fayum Portraits, Millennia Of Mummification
Over six thousand years ago, the ancient Egyptians realized the hot desert sand naturally preserved corpses. They placed pots and daily life items next to the dead and buried them in a fetal position, as if they expected they would be reborn. These were the foundations of the ancient Egyptian civilization’s quest for eternal life.
Five millennia ago, the process of drying corpses became artificial. A salt-like mineral, natron, was used to dry corpses to ensure they remained intact. Why was it so important that the body’s features endured in the afterlife?
The Afterlife In Ancient Egypt
The ancient Egyptians believed the dead would resurrect and live forever. They came to this notion from observing the world around them and concluded that it was in perpetual rebirth. Watching the sun dying at night, only to be reborn each morning. Once a year, the Nile spread and transformed barren ground into fertile land. Every night, the stars moved, like the sun and Nile, in an orderly fashion.
Egypt, they thought, was blessed with a divine and harmonious mechanism of life. Burying the dead in a land that was constantly revived meant they could benefit from this everlasting rebirth cycle. To us, mummies and monumental tombs imply a morbid fascination with death. To them, it meant vanquishing death by being perpetually reborn. Therefore, they built for eternity.
Body and soul had to be preserved as a condition for eternal life. A person was made of different elements, starting with the body. Then, always attached to the body, a shadow. Next, one’s identity, the name. Then, one’s life force and spiritual twin, the ka. Lastly, the soul, which could travel, the ba.
All the spiritual elements needed the body as a haven for eternity. The ba left and returned at night, but needed to recognize its own mummy. Otherwise, it would be a “second death.” To ensure eternal life, the body had to be perfectly preserved, remain identifiable, and be given the ability to breathe.
How Life Was Given To Ancient Egyptian Mummies
Death, for the ancient Egyptians, wasn’t the end, but a transition. It was like ‘being at rest,’ likened to sleep, “the night of going forth to life.” While sleeping, one is alive. And after sleep, one awakens.
On the day of the burial, the last but most important ritual took place, the ‘opening of the mouth.’ The mummy’s mouth, eyes, ears and nose were touched by a stone blade, similar to the knife used to cut the umbilical cord of newborns. It thus regained the use of its mouth and its senses.
As a result, the mummy was alive, able to breathe and eat:
You come to life a second time,
You thrive on water, you breathe air,
You drink as your heart desires.
Your eyes are given you to see,
Your ears to hear what is spoken;
Your mouth speaks, your feet walk,
Your hands, your arms have motion.
The family put their loved one in his ‘house of eternity’, the tomb. Parting words were:
O you who love life, and hate death,
You have departed living, you have not departed dead,
Rise up to life, for you have not died.
When Greek And Egyptian Cultures Merged
We can imagine what the Greeks felt arriving in Egypt: “nowhere are there so many marvelous things, nor in the whole world beside are there to be seen so many works of unspeakable greatness.” In return, an Egyptian priest reportedly told the Greeks that “you are young in soul… you possess not a single belief that is ancient.”
Alexander the Great then invaded Egypt, a 3,000-year-old civilization aiming for eternity. The invader asked to be recognized as the son of Amun, became Pharaoh, and was mummified.
Pharaohs spoke Greek for the following three centuries. But they kept being depicted in ancestral Egyptian style and built temples to the traditional gods. This is why some of the best-preserved temples of Egypt were made by Greek Pharaohs. This is how hieroglyphs were eventually deciphered, thanks to bilingual Greek-Egyptian carved texts.
Egyptian culture also benefited from Greek influence, with the Library of Alexandria, and one of the seven wonders, the Lighthouse. The rules of proportion for images that had remained based on the same principles for three millennia evolved.
Wall painting changed from the two-dimensional tradition to the three-dimensional Greek manner. Faces, rather than being idealized, became lifelike portraits. Since these images were used for temples and tombs, what was the attitude of the Greeks of Egypt regarding death?
Adopting Ancient Egyptian Beliefs Of the Afterlife
One word suffices to illustrate the difference between the Greek and Egyptian beliefs in the afterlife: sarcophagus. In Greek, it means ‘flesh eater.’ The equivalent Egyptian word, neb ankh, means ‘lord of life.’ One version implies the end of life and the other implies the beginning of a new life.
For the Greeks, most souls experienced a gloomy eternal journey. Even the glorious hero Achilles said he “would rather be a paid servant in a poor man’s house and be above ground than king of kings among the dead.”
In the Egyptian afterlife, those who had overcome the obstacles in the hereafter had it better than kings. They were like gods, with the power to awake on the other side, to be reborn for eternity.
Mummy masks and coffins were covered in gold, to indicate that their flesh was, like gods, eternal. There was no need for them to be actual portraits, as writing a name on an image transformed it into an individual person.
Egyptian customs might have seemed strange to the Greeks and Romans, but who could pass a chance at eternal life? As it meant embracing Egyptian beliefs, what was the attitude of the Greeks of Egypt towards the traditional religion?
The ancient Egyptians already had no difficulty with adopting foreign gods. Alexander the Great and his successors strived to be seen as following the ancient Egyptian religion. However, the Greeks still felt that having animal-headed divinities was too strange.
A pragmatic solution was found in combining equivalent gods, almost like translating their names from one culture to another. Since Zeus was the major Greek god, equivalent to Amun for the Egyptians, there was Zeus-Amun. A new god, depicted in Greek style, Serapis, was adopted by the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans.
This divine melting pot meant that Egyptian gods were worshipped in Rome, Paris, London and all over the Roman Empire. Roman Emperors were still depicted on Egyptian temple walls as Pharaohs, centuries after Cleopatra.
Egyptian society became multi-cultural, as its inhabitants were Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Jewish, and Christian. Greek-style painting started then to be employed to paint portraits.
Fayum Portraits: The Only Preserved Panel Paintings From Antiquity
We have an existing vision of white Greek statues, but ancient Greece was portrayed in Technicolor. Had panel paintings survived, they would stand in comparison with masterpieces from Botticelli to Rembrandt.
Everything we understand to have been invented during the Renaissance was already there: the ability to create three dimensions in painting using perspective, foreshortening, shading, and color. Realism and optical illusion was so developed to the point that birds mistook painted fruits for real ones.
To imagine what ancient Greek painting might have looked like, we have to turn to mosaics, the tombs of the Etruscans and Macedonians, the walls of Pompeii. But not all is lost. Egypt was, for seven centuries, part of the Greek and Roman world. Eventually, rather than using conventional coffins or mummy masks, the wish for eternal life was expressed with realistic portraits.
Painters used encaustic paint–a translucent wax-based paint–or tempera to paint lifelike portraits. Anonymous artists painted faces giving the illusion of relief with shading, variations of color, and visible brushstrokes. They gave the spark of life to these faces with the intensity of the stare and moist eyes reflecting the light.
From the 1st century AD, and for three centuries, the Fayum portraits were painted on wood, on canvas, and could even be full-length, for shrouds. They were costly, and displayed at home, exactly like we do. When the person died, the wood panel was adapted to the mummy’s bandages. The mummy could then be displayed in his or her home.
Fayum Portrait Mummies Lived At Home With Their Families
Keeping mummies in Egyptian’s homes was already noted by ancient authors. One reports that “many Egyptians keep the bodies of their ancestors in costly chambers and gaze face to face upon those who died many generations before their own birth, so that they experience a strange enjoyment, as though they had lived with those on whom they gaze.”
Often dented, the mummies show signs of having been knocked about and damaged by exposure to the elements. Scribbled caricatures left by unruly children on their grandparent’s mummified feet illustrate families lived near mummies.
If we forget the tales of mummies rising from the dead to become monsters, we appreciate that for the ancient Egyptians, they were alive. The portrait was the actual person depicted, living and breathing. We have photos of our grandparents at home, they had their actual grandparents. We bring flowers to our loved one’s tombs, they shared meals with them.
In a letter announcing to a father that his daughter “is dead and is now happy forever”, there is an invitation to “come and see her”. After some time, they buried the mummy in a necropolis.
The Roman era also was the transition from the ancient Egyptian religion to the new one, Christianity. The practice of mummification was deemed pagan and eventually abandoned. Forgotten, the Fayum portrait mummies cruised on their journey towards eternity.
Masterpieces Discovered, Burnt Or Dumped
From the end of the Roman era to the 19th century, interest in mummies turned to medicine. Mumiya, or bitumen, was mistaken with Egyptian corpses darkened by the mummification process. Ancient Egyptians were awoken from their eternal slumber to be ground into a powder and be ingested as a cure. Egyptian physicians were held in high esteem, but it is unlikely that any of them would have imagined being eaten to cure others.
In the 1880s major discoveries brought to light painted portraits of mummies. First discovered in the Fayum region, they are called ‘Fayum portraits,’ although they were found throughout Egypt. Regrettably, many digs were done carelessly. Caring for human remains was rare, even among archaeologists. One threw the arm of one of the first Pharaohs, Djer, in the trash.
A report from a 1887 discovery of a cavern full of mummies states:
“Under each mummy was a label inscribed with the name of the deceased, his profession and place of birth. The walls of the cavern were adorned with a great number of portraits painted on wood, most in a very good state of conservation.
The vandals who made this important discovery, surprised by the night and cold, were not afraid, in their ignorance, to burn for three consecutive nights the inscriptions and portraits. Only a few pieces survived this carnage.”
Around 1,000 Fayum mummy portraits were eventually found. In most cases, the panel painting was kept and the remainder of the findings were discarded. Fortunately, one of the discoveries was done by a great archaeologist, Flinders Petrie. He kept many mummies intact and recorded much valuable information.
Meet Ancient Egyptians
The Fayum mummy portraits allow us to meet generations of Egyptians who lived up to 2,000 years ago. Only around 1% of Fayum mummies had portraits because they were expensive. So we are looking at a well-off portion of the population: merchants, soldiers, and priests.
Little is known about the painters. Some paintings are genuine portraits, and others were completed after the person had died, which was more than likely for children’s burials. As artists apparently didn’t sign their paintings, all the Fayum portrait painters are anonymous. However, a few names survive in ancient texts, like Chairas, Flavius Isidoros, Eudaimon, and from his tombstone, “Sabinus, painter, 26 years of age.”
Life expectancy was low in Ancient Egypt. Most children’s mummies are nameless, with some exceptions, like Asklepiades, “eight years old, have courage,” and Eutyches, a teenage boy, perhaps a slave freed and then given a costly burial.
We know that some of them could read, like Hermione Grammatike, whose name means she was a teacher or that she was literate. She only was between 18 and 22 years old.
An anonymous woman loved Homer’s Iliad so much that she ensured she could keep on reading it forever by being buried with it.
Mummy wrappings also included inscriptions of what could have been their last words: “farewell,” “have courage,” and “be happy.”
Fayum Portraits: Looking At Us, A Gaze From The Beyond
According to ancient Egyptian beliefs, the Fayum portraits contain the person’s soul. Aware of the risk their bodies might not survive, they believed an image could act as a replacement for the soul to return to. The ba could be reunited with his own substitute body, made of stone or paint.
Portraits kept in museums secure the ancient Egyptians depicted chances at becoming eternal. Something that might have been in their mind while staring at themselves in the panel the artist had just finished.
If their ba really is inside these portraits, they became “beautiful of face among the gods.” Faces looking at us from the beyond, as the ‘opening of the mouth’ ceremony magically gave them sight.
A Renaissance art treaty makes a similar point: “painting contains a divine force which not only makes absent men present, but moreover makes the dead seem almost alive… The face of a man who is already dead certainly lives a long life through painting.”
The Fayum portraits are exceptional as the only panel paintings from Antiquity. Masterpieces by anonymous painters able, like Velazquez and Rembrandt, to turn drops of color into living eyes.
Yet, they have a deeper meaning. If the mummy is complete, the face we look at is genuinely there, behind the panel. Peering into these eyes, we may feel what the person hoped to hear two millennia ago:
You live again, you revive always,
you have become young again,
you are young again, and forever.