Fayum mummy portraits  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Mummy portraits or Fayum mummy portraits (also Faiyum mummy portraits) is the modern term for a type of realistic painted portraits on wooden boards attached to mummies from Roman Egypt (funerary mask). 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.

Realism and convention

Together with the painted Etruscan tombs, the Lucanian tombs and the Tomb of the Diver in Paestum, the frescoes from Pompeii and Herculaneum and the Greek vases, they are the best preserved paintings from ancient times and are renowned for their remarkable naturalism. It is, however, debatable whether the portraits depict the subjects as they really were. Analyses have shown that the painters depicted faces according to conventions 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.

Art-historical significance

The mummy portraits have immense art-historical importance. Ancient sources indicate that panel painting (rather than wall painting), i.e. painting on wood or other mobile surfaces was held in high regard. But very few ancient panel paintings survive. One of the few examples besides the mummy portraits is the Severan Tondo, also from Egypt (around 200), which, like the mummy portraits, is believed to represent a provincial version of contemporary style.

Some aspects of the mummy portraits, especially their frontal perspective and their concentration on key facial features, strongly resemble later icon painting. A direct link has been suggested, but it should be kept in mind that the mummy portraits represent only a small part of a much wider Graeco-Roman tradition, the whole of which later bore an influence on Late Antique and Byzantine Art. A pair of panel "icons" of Serapis and Isis of comparable date (3rd century) and style are in the Getty Museum at Malibu; as with the cult of Mithras, earlier examples of cult images were sculptures or pottery figurines, but from the 3rd century reliefs and then painted images are found.

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Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Fayum mummy portraits" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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