Mummy portraits or Fayum mummy portraits (54-68 AD ) is the modern term given to a type of naturalistic painted portraits on wooden boards attached to mummies from where Christianity began in the large and fertile Fayoum oasis of Egypt’s Western Desert.
Christianity came to the region in the third century, so I would assume that these portraits are pre-christian.
Art historians touch on how these portraits influenced the production of Coptic icons, as well as on the medieval wall paintings at Naqlun and in textiles, metal objects, and basketry from the region.
During the Ptolemaic Period (305 BC to 30 BC.), settlers in the Fayoum were mostly Greeks and Macedonians, but there were also groups of Jews, Persians, Arabs, Syrians, Thracians and Samaritans. Here, an interesting process took place for, unlike the Greeks in Alexandria who remained mostly a homogeneous community for many years, the Greeks of the Fayoum intermarried with native Egyptians, as did the other nationalities. Hence, the Fayoum became a great melting pot in which racial purity did not long survive.
This female portrait on wood panel is from Hawara, a site near the Fayum oasis. An icon is a sign or likeness that stands for an object by signifying or representing it either concretely or by analogy. This painting offers us so much more, and in many ways is very modern in its portrayal of this beautiful woman. We now associate icons with symbols; a name, face, picture, edifice or even a person readily recognized as having some well-known significance or embodying certain qualities.
I see impressionism in the light. There is an engaging middle ground where fundamentals in realism yield to expressive abstraction of the elements. It is fuller and richer than simply an image on a flat surface. As Vincent van Gogh once said, “I want to paint men and women with that something of the external which the halo used to symbolize, and which we now seek to give by the actual radiance and vibrancy of our colorings.”
When I look at this portrait, it speaks to me, and reminds me of the words of Leon Battista Alberti: “When I investigate and when I discover that the forces of the heavens and the planets are within ourselves, then truly I seem to be living among the gods.”