Face to Face Exhibit Offers Face Time With Fayum Portraits

Face to Face Exhibit, Taking Place in Amsterdam’s Allard Pierson Museum, Offers Face Time With Fayum Portraits.

Apr 6, 2024By Angela Davic, News, Discoveries, In-depth Reporting, and Analysis
Face to Face Exhibit
Installation view of “Face to Face: The People Behind Mummy Portraits” at the Allard Pierson Museum. Photo courtesy of Allard Pierson Museum.


Face to Face exhibit, taking place in Amsterdam’s Allard Pierson Museum, offers face time With Fayum portraits. Overall, these portraits are an extensive collection of post-Ptolemaic Egyptian funerary paintings. Also, these pieces come from the Necropolis in Egypt’s Faiyum region, discovered layered over the faces of deceased bodies. These pieces stand out for many reasons as examples of one of the few remaining Classical art genres.


Face to Face Exhibit With “Ordinary” People

Face to Face Exhibit
Photo courtesy of Allard Pierson Museum.


Some pieces come from the Louvre and the J. Paul Getty Museum. The majority of the artwork created in classical antiquity is still in existence as temples and statues. Not because the ancient Greeks, Egyptians, and Romans only painted, although they had extensive painting customs, but rather because stone is far more resilient than paint. The paint survived only in the rarest of instances.


Similar to how volcanic eruptions preserved the murals from the ash-covered remains of Pompeii, Egypt’s dry climate allowed the Fayum portraits to endure. Also, the Fayum portraits are glimpses of common people, in contrast to a great deal of Greco-Roman artwork, which features gods, mythological heroes, and quasi-divine rulers. The exhibition’s title, “Face to Face: The People Behind Mummy Portraits”, is fitting.


Face to Face Exhibit
A Fayum portrait. Photo courtesy of Allard Pierson Museum.


The manner of the Fayum portraits is among their most distinctive characteristics. Curator Ben van den Bercken describes it as a melting pot of cultural influences. “They were made to be placed on top of mummified bodies. That’s the Egyptian component: a means of keeping the diseased recognizable for the gods as well as their loved ones”, he said. Hellenistic culture is evident in the subjects’ attire and the materials used to paint them on the painting.

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Were They True to Life Remains?

A Fayum portrait
A Fayum portrait. Photo courtesy of Musée du Louvre, Department des Antiquités égyptiennes.


Tempera, an Egyptian art form that involves blending pigment with soluble binders such as egg yolk, frequently occurs in conjunction with encaustic or heated wax painting techniques. This is Greek methodology Van den Bercken hypothesizes that the education may have been Hellenistic in Egypt. The Fayum portraits’ realism was also imported, mostly from Rome.


Their realistic detail, which reveals a thorough comprehension of human anatomy, contrasts sharply with the more symbolic and conceptual visual language, currently associated with ancient Egypt. But while the portraits are lifelike, the question of whether they were true to life remains up for debate. “It’s difficult to judge the extent to which the paintings reflect what these people looked like”, Van den Bercken noted.


A Fayum portrait
A Fayum portrait. Photo courtesy of Musée du Louvre, Department des Antiquités égyptiennes.


At the same time, funeral portraits would not have been cheap: “Look at the wood panels on which they were painted. Many of these are made of basswood, which came from outside Egypt. The same goes for some of the pigments”. This, he said, suggests the subjects were members of society’s upper class: men and women of considerable means.

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By Angela DavicNews, Discoveries, In-depth Reporting, and AnalysisAngela is a journalism student at the Faculty of Political Science in Belgrade and received a scholarship for continued education in Prague. She completed her internship at the daily newspaper DANAS and worked as an executive editor at Talas.