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Fayum- The ancient Greek art of portraits

by Michael Balaroutsos   architect
Missing link in the chain of ancient paintings, portraits of Fayum came to light late last century, putting a big problem in a small circle of scholars and collectors bent on n with interest, but manage to explain what was behind strange persons with tightly sealed lips and fiery eyes. The portraits, which give a realistic way sometimes women, sometimes men, sometimes children, kept their secret, and somehow distanced from the public. It took another hundred years to become known in the world, but even now, to have gained full understanding. This may be a role that is played for funeral portraits, namely that the principle destination was the future life: were to accompany the dead in another unknown world. If now we add that this is a well known type of painting that puzzled even the experts as to where to incorporate, we understand why the Fayum funeral portraits are still wrapped in a veil of mystery. For a century, museums were undecided whether to integrate them into the Egyptian, or Coptic to Greek and Roman collections, and all they did was to present it as a kind of curious, always on the sidelines when one and when the other of these collections ."

The term Fayum portraits meant the body of portraits painted by the 1st to the 3rd century by followers of the late Hellenistic tradition of the Alexandrian School and survived into modern times. The portraits discovered and first reported by the Italian traveler (Pietro Della Valle) in 1615. These funeral portraits, destined for burial use, took their name from the Fayum oasis, which were first discovered, 85 km south of Cairo.
The archaeological excavations carried out by British and French missions in the early 19th century revealed several portraits, but to spur the interest of connoisseurs of art. In 1887, residents of the area near al-Roumpagiat discovered and excavated mummification bodies with portraits of the head position. The specific works purchased by Theodor Graf (1840-1903), an Austrian businessman and presented in various European cities and New York.
A large proportion of the total corpus, however, came to the fore thanks to the English archaeologist William Flinders Petrie (Sir William Flinders Petrie), who in January 1900 seeking to enter the pyramid Hawar Fayum oasis in Egypt, identified the Roman necropolis of Arsinoe known from Herodotus as Crocodiles city , center of worship of the god Sobek.
The technique
Perfectly preserved because of the dry desert climate of Egypt, the Fayum portraits are painted either with the encaustic technique or the technique of tempera. These techniques come from the ancient painting tradition that continued in early Christian encaustic icons of the Monastery of Saint Catherine in Sinai.
The encaustic technique is characterized by the melted wax with the help of the "torrid" brush or "kestra" stretched on wood or cloth to be painted. The wax is spread evenly on the surface and painting on the artist performing the play he wanted. The work in many cases depending on the financial standing of the deceased used gold leaf, which is attributed to the decorative wreaths and jewelry.
Their look is familiar to you because you know these images from Byzantine icons. It is a look of a personal farewell, they look at your eyes directly but simultaneously also through you far away.
The Fayum Portraits: Greek and Roman painting style, encaustic (εγκαυστική) (from enkaio “to burn-in” ) on wood, part of the Egyptian culture (funeral portraits). They show the faces of the inhabitants of ancient Egypt at a period influenced by Greeks and Romans. The Fayum portraits are the best preserved paintings of Antiquity. Some of these produced by Greeks who worked in Egypt, part of the Greek population that settled in cities like Alexandria, when Egypt was ruled by Greek kings after the peaceful conquest of Egypt by Alexander the Great. The portraits, many from Fayum, are from a period when Romans followed the Greeks as rulers and their influence is shown (for example Roman fashion). Examples were found in various Necropolis: in Memphis (Saqqara), Philadelphia (Er-Rubayat and ‘Kerke’), Arsinoe (Hawara), Antinoopolis, Panopolis (Akhmim), Marina (el-Alamein), Thebes and Ankyronpolis (el-Hiba) and other places.

The artists
The painting of the Egyptians have a specific style.
It depicts the person in two dimensions and be deprived of the depth of the background.
Unlike the painting of the ancient Greeks who had discovered the concept of three dimensions long before the 7-8 century BC .
Therefore the Fayum is not Egyptian but Greek art.
The area of Alexandria, since the Pharaoh Ptolemy Greek (appointed by Alexander the Great), was inhabited by huge numbers of Greek immigrants.
Therefore what he paints the Fayum and was not Egyptian, was Greeks.
Later on the Roman Empire, was introduced some Latin Artists who learned painting from the Greek teachers

The Galerie

The Artemidorus mummy with scenes from Egyptian religion (Anubis or Anpu) at the bed of the dead with his sisters Isis andNephthysHorus and Thoth around an emblem of Osiris. The soul of the dead in the form of a bird). Elements of Egyptian Religion in the Roman period with Greek text (Artemidorus farewell)
Among these portraits there is a young boy with a Greek name, Eutyhes . His name probably is derived from eu and tyhe which means good and luck or lucky and in modern Greek also happy. But he was probably not so lucky and died very young probably around 50-100 AD. Due to the influence of the Greeks in Egypt for around 300 years and later the Romans many persons shown have Greek names and wear Roman clothes but their religion is Egyptian.
Portrait-Painting in Ancient Egypt." by Amelia Ann Blanford Edwards: “Finer by far, as a work of art, is the portrait of a young man named Diogenes He was apparently a professional musician. A small wooden label found with the mummy-case calls him "Diogenes of the Flute of Arsinoe;" while a second inscription, written in ink upon one of the mummy-wrappings, describes him as "Diogenes who abode at the Harp when he was alive." From these it is evident that he was a flautist, born in the city of Arsinoe, and that when he came to live at Hawara, he lodged at the sign of the Harp. The panel, like too many others, is badly cracked; but the head is so characteristic, and the expression so fine, that not even this blemish mars its effect. There is a set look in the face, as of some solemn purpose to be fulfilled; and the eyes arrest us, like the eyes of a living man. The hair is very thick and curly, and the features are distinctly Jewish in type. That he should be a Jew would be quite in accordance with his profession for the gift of music has ever been an inheritance of the children of Israel. “

                                                                 ROMAN MAN
The Petrie believed that man Roman feature type, because of the hair, which belongs to the era of Emperor Trajan. The portrait has been painted with hot wax, a through very "modern", almost impressionistic way. The main tool employed by the artist is a kind of spatula. The thick impasto, the "psomomeni" paint, reminiscent of the technique of oil paint, which is not surprising, considering that the Punic wax is mixed perfectly with linoleum, which was abundant at that time in Egypt.
                                                           YOUNG ATHLETE
Portrait of a young man from Hawar Museum, Petrie, University College London (UC 19610). Dimensions 0,395 x0, 27x0 ,003-4 m. The second excavation of Petrie, 1911.Period of Hadrian, 117 to 138.
In this portrait, although it has a damaged eye, characterized by greater definition of detail - example of-art veteran painters - and the variety of surface texture of paint. It is a shocking piece of art.
Portrait of young man with a golden wreath from Hawar, encaustic on wood ash, Museum Petrie, University College London (UC 19613). Dimensions 0,35 x0, 23x (approx) 0.003 m. The second excavation of Petrie, 1911. 2nd Period AD century.
In this portrait there is evidence from the Greek tradition as the pose of three quarters and the sense of "volume" which becomes the head thanks to the successful shading, the overall styling makes the portrait more like a death mask. One feels that here is an attempt to paint the traditional interpretation of Egyptian mask that from the depths of the centuries covered the faces of the pharaohs.

Encaustic portrait of woman in elm wood, British Museum, Department of Egyptian Antiquities (EA74716). Dimensions 0,33 x0, 19x0, 0025 m. The second excavation of Petrie, 1911. Period Nero, 54 - 68 AD
The crescent necklace (lunula) wearing the neck is a symbol of fertility associated with the goddess Selene.
It is painted with hot wax and hard tool (a kind of spatula). The painting quality is high.The portrait has worked with very impressionistic, "" modern "way, the dark wood and the preparation of the coating appears gray under color of flesh. Characteristic here is that a refined female form emerges from the rough bondage of paint.
                                                     WOMAN IN FLAX SAVANNAH
Portrait of woman with gold leaf on linen shroud, tempera and encaustic, British Museum, Department of Egyptian Antiquities (EA74709). Dimensions 0,45 x0, 35 m from the first excavation of Petrie, 1888. Claudius Period, 41-548 AD
Portrait-like tapestry. The decorative, two-dimensional character of the portrait is accentuated by the variety of gold jewelry: parting gold brooch, earrings, necklace with a central motif a clam, braided bracelets in the shape of snakes. The gold leaves contrasting with the glossy black hair and the dark clothes. This is a rare portrait, which is pictured holding a wreath made of pink roses tied with a string, a symbol of eternal life. The girl's face, although quite sketchy, it exudes "oriental serenity. An imperceptible sweetness visible on the cheeks, and light red lips.
Portrait woman, encaustic on wood, British Museum, Department of Egyptian Antiquities (EA 74 713). Dimensions 0.40 x 0.20 m. The first excavation of Petrie, 1888.
Women in the Fayum portraits are decorated with jewels and clothes in beautiful colors, to enjoy eternal life and the luxury world of the living. The jewels were an important asset, which the women brought with them as a dowry to their marriage.The Portrait belongs to the "classical" school. The artist has a very solid knowledge of the Greek painting tradition. The performance is reminiscent of those early works of Picasso in which women have also illustrated the character of monumental sculpture.The artistic sense of the artist has given the model not only of dignity and power of the gaze.The "regeneration" of the person depicted as based on the actual skull, which together with other skulls I held the Petrie, not as perfect as they are, to capture the spiritual dimension of the face.
Portrait of a woman named Isar with gold earrings and necklace, encaustic on wood ash additions of plaster and gold leaf. Museum Petrie, University College London (UC 19611). Dimensions 0,365 x0, 18m.
 It bears the inscription "Equal-AREAS" in the Greek left and right neck. Since the first excavation of Petrie, 1888. 50 to 100 ADThe crescent necklace (lunula) wearing the neck is a symbol of fertility associated with the goddess Selene.It is painted with hot wax and hard tool (a kind of spatula). The painting quality is high.
Portrait of a priest Serapis was located, encaustic on wood, British Museum, Department of Egyptian Antiquities (EA 74 714). Dimensions 0,40 x0, 19m. From the second excavation of Petrie, 1911. Antonine Period (early), 138 -161 AD.
The portrait is the only painting portrait of a priest who survived Serapidos was located, it is the viewer with a strong presence. We experience so strange to look in the eyes of a pagan priest, who was a real person and lived before the nineteenth centuries.This great work of the classical tradition, the "dark" immobility caused deep impression on the viewer.
                                                                    Egyptian MAN
Portrait of a man encaustic on wood, British Museum, Department of Egyptian Antiquities (EA 74 718). Dimensions 0,36 x0, 18x0 ,0015-20m. From the second excavation of Petrie, 1911. Antonine Period (early), 138 -161 AD
Vibrant portrait of men whose features have been attributed to realism. Thanks to exemplary methodical excavation of Petrie, we have a real skull model, so we are now able to compare the portrait of the 'regenerated' head. The similarities are amazing. The portrait is another compelling testimony to the perfection which had reached the naturalistic Greek painting tradition.
                                                     WOMAN IN BLUE ROBE
Portrait of woman with blue robe, the Hawar, museum Petrie, university College London (UC 14692). Dimensions 0.37 x 0.225 x (approximately) 0.002 m. From the excavations of Petrie. Antonine period (mid or late), 161 -192 AD
This magnificent portrait is the second discovered by Petrie in Hawar. The freshness of the skin, as assigned by the artist gives the viewer the feeling that the girl has not ever seen the sun. The figure is depicted the dignity, seriousness, melancholy and spirituality. This major finding will certainly affect Petrie in the evaluation of the entire excavation and convinced him that while in these graves were not gems or gold, has a maximum value for the culture to save the great Greek tradition of portraiture.
Portrait woman, encaustic on wood from elm, British Museum, Department of Egyptian Antiquities (EA 74 706). Dimensions 0,35 x0, 20x0, 0015 m. The first excavation of Petrie, 1888. Period flavonon, 69-96 AD
The portraits depict women Hawar first and second century AD.
These women with jet-black hair and neat hairstyles, all have white skin, suggesting that they are not exposed to the sun. White and pink women's skin sample was noble birth and high social status. They wear all the colors (cyclamen, etc.) and ornaments (emeralds, amethysts, pearls) who say the economic situation of women but simultaneously a delight and joy of life. The girls were one could have the answer to the streets of any Mediterranean city even today. Their faces exude femininity and fragility seem to tell stories of love, maternal affection and human suffering
Portrait woman, encaustic on wood, British Museum, Department of Egyptian Antiquities (EA 74 712). Dimensions 0,36 x0, 18x0, 002 meters from the first excavation of Petrie, 1888. Period Trajan, 98-117 AD
The portrait that heralds the Byzantine exemplary technique. The relationship between models and sarcoma is so perfect and works so well, that gives the viewer the illusion of perfect third dimension.
                                                                 YOUNG WOMAN
Portrait of young woman, encaustic on wood from elm, British Museum, Department of Egyptian Antiquities (EA 74 705). Dimensions 0,33 x0, 16x0, 002 meters from the first excavation of Petrie, 1888. Period Hadrian, 117-138 AD
Portrait woman, encaustic on wood from elm, British Museum, Department of Egyptian Antiquities (EA 74 710). Dimensions 0,33 x0, 16x (approx) 0.006 m. From the excavation of Petrie, 1888. Antonine period (mid or late), 161-192 AD
The damage suffered by the region of the eye of the girl was probably caused, already in antiquity, from excessive heat.
                                                    WITH GILDED MAN PLASTER
Portrait of young man in a box with gilded plaster, encaustic on wood from elm, British Museum, Department of Egyptian Antiquities (EA 74 704). Dimensions 0.38 x 0.21 x 0.004 meters. Since the first excavation of Petrie, 1888. Antonine Period (early), 138 -161 AD.
The man of portrait so with green eyes and sad face, has been around hair arched frame (indicative signal origin from Hawar) from gold leaf embossed on plaster. This element could be interpreted as a precursor to Halo. No longer just radiates the face of the god Apollo or the Sun, but also of ordinary the dead people in the   crocodiles city .
                                                                       YOUNG MAN
Portrait of young man, encaustic on wood from elm, British Museum, Department of Egyptian Antiquities (EA 74 707). Dimensions 0,383 x0, 228 m from the first excavation of Petrie, 1888. Around 70-120 AD
Persons from Arsinoe are persons concerned. In these we see not only our friends and our neighbors, but mostly ourselves. Our face in the crowd on the market at the festival. Or at athletic events?
Portrait woman, encaustic on wood from elm, British Museum, Department of Egyptian Antiquities (EA 74 703). Dimensions 0,27 x0, 19x0, 0025 m. The first excavation of Petrie, 1888. Period Severus, 193-235 AD
                                                    PORTRAIT OF ARTEMIDOROS
Mummy's Artemidoros with encaustic portrait of elm wood, decorated with gold leaf, British Museum, Department of Egyptian Antiquities (EA 21 810). Length 1.67 m Mummy Season Trajan 98 -117 AD
The Artemidorus The young man age nineteen or twenty years who died from head injury can be considered one of the first "when compared (both pagan and Christian), art. The misspelled Greek inscription in gold letters, writes Artemidorus `spirited (= Artemidorus, courage!). The gold cross in the plaster portrait may mean that some of his relatives had taken the initiative to add the Christian faith in the pantheon of gods who believed the family. The mummy of Artemidoros found by Petrie in a mass grave, together with the well embalmed body of a beautiful girl of Thermytharin, and a more mature man who was also called Artemidorus.
                                             WOMAN WITH A WREATH OF GOLD LEAF
Portrait of woman with a wreath of gold leaf, encaustic on wood, British Museum, Department of Egyptian Antiquities (EA 65 346).
Dimensions 0,44 x0, 20x0, 005 meters from the first excavation of Petrie, 1888.
Antonine period (mid or late), 161 -192 AD
The portrait comes from the necropolis of Philadelphia. Characterized by the timeless elegance and intensity of the gaze, leads our thoughts and emotions in worlds unknown, lost in splendor and stories that can never be touched. This type of woman will be Mary in the hands of the artists will get more orders from Christians.


Portrait official, encaustic and tempera, probably in wood of oak, British Museum, Department of Egyptian Antiquities (EA 65 345). Dimensions 0,437 x0, 165x0 ,0025-40 AD 125-150 m.
The portrait comes from the necropolis of Philadelphia. One officer, an elderly woman and a young girl, have survived from the society of ancient Philadelphia. The two women wear necklaces that dominates the apotropaic head of Medusa, which kicks eternal evil.
Portrait woman, encaustic on wood, from Saqqara, British Museum, Department of Egyptian Antiquities (EA 29 772). Dimensions 0,38 x0, 17 m from the first excavation of Petrie, 1888. Antonine Period (early), 138 -161 AD
Girl from Saqqara, the necropolis of Memphis. Here the ability of artists to give nature reaches its climax. The girl has been painted so as to give the impression that they are alive, that through the thin dry "paste" beats a human soul.
                                                              YOUNG WOMAN
Portrait of young woman, encaustic on linen, Athens, Collection of George Mavroidis, Hadrian-Antonine period (c. 117-161 AD).
A young girl painted in a simplified manner. She wears rich jewels, necklaces, earrings and a rare jewel that is the golden chain adorns her hair. Despite extensive damage to the project survives the almost full face. Described by the irregular contour of the worn cloth on which is painted.
Portrait man, fragments of the shroud, tempera on linen, with additions of plaster, Benaki Museum (6878). Dimensions 0,505 x0, 30 m, 225-250 AD
The man's portrait of the Benaki Museum bought Antonis Benakis in Cairo in 1948, in poor condition. It was wrapped and dry hard like mops. Professor Manolis Hatzidakis has described the moments of joy when the caretaker slowly unfolded the linen cloth and unveiled the portrait. Reminiscent of a painting by El Greco. The resemblance to the painting of the great Greek painter, goes much deeper than depicted in the figure. It is the integration of the Greek psyche. Did the Greek emigrant?
Portrait woman, fragments of the shroud, tempera on linen, with additions of plaster and gold leaf, the Benaki Museum (6877). Dimensions 0.64 x 0.38 meters. Period Severus, from 193 to 235 AD.
The flagship frontal is more important than the representation of this woman. The pictured one hand Wields early Christian (?) Cross and lifted the palm of the other hand reject the evil. Will be faithful to the last pagan god, Antinous, or is it something out of the functions of the first Christians? The Saint FOTEINI on the fresco of the 14th century (Saint Catherine of Sinai, Heraklion Crete) wields a cross in her right hand lifting the palm of the left. It could be regarded as echoes and looks like the reflection in the mirror the girl at the Benaki Museum.
In the garden of Egypt
Today we know more than 1,000 portraits of Fayum, which are scattered in museums and private collections. It is the largest corpus of painting that came to our days of antiquity. Most of the portraits come from the Fayum region, a department of ancient Egypt, covering a wide and fertile valley some 60 kilometers south of Cairo on the west bank of the Nile. Since ancient times the area of Fayoum was called the "garden of Egypt" for its rich vegetation. It was a rich valley which seemed like an oasis in the vast silence of the desert. In the center of the valley resembles a natural lake basin was Moirida, which resembled the sea when the summer was overflowing and the Nile waters flooded the area. When the water withdrew, the people who lived in the highest points of valley cultivated the fertile land. The cities were built on the edge of the hills that surround the Fayum and nearby people used to bury their dead. Very old, in the 19th century BC, Pharaoh Amenemchat III built the pyramid of the Hawar of Fayoum and opened channels to try to control the flow of water to protect the valley from floods. But it seems that his efforts did not succeed and the place was forgotten.
The second boom came in the Fayum Hellenistic period, when in Alexandria was king Ptolemy II 
the Philadelphus. The Philadelphus then gave the Fayum the name of his wife and sister Arsinoe and named the city he built there in Philadelphia. The valley is still fertile and now close to the Egyptians lived harmoniously Greeks, Syrians, Romans, Jews and Nouvians. It was a multiethnic society, open to different practices from other places and other tribes. The ranks of wealthy landowners and merchants lived on the edge of the "basin" of the Fayum and the Egyptians occupied the land. Like the rest of Egypt, over the years people spoke Greek. But were still worship the Egyptian gods and keep the old religious traditions. The Fayum seen in this boom period, which continued in the first three centuries of Roman occupation. Eventually, the taxes imposed by the Romans affected mainly the wealthy landowners, who slowly left the area, which then all filled by sand winds bringing the desert. So the valley of the Fayum forgotten once again and with its inhabitants, their works and their habits
What to say, watching these masterpieces, which were 2000 years ago.
Forerunners of modern painting, these artists are unknown, marked and singled out the styles in a unique way.
Distinguished all the techniques of Byzantine art and all styles of portraiture from the Renaissance onwards.
The diffusion of light in persons (the hardest part of painting art) and unparalleled craftsmanship of emphasis in Depth, pleasantly surprised.
The faces of the portraits are undoubtedly the elite families of Greek and Roman landlords and merchants and others who could afford comfort to ensure the immortality of the display of their form in the mummy. So the common element in most of these projects is the unique quality of art which he more than race, morphological or cultural barriers.
It is confirmation of the continuity of art from the Hellenistic school of Alexandria in the early Byzantine iconography. It is the missing link in the chain of painting now thought behind these strange forms with fiery eyes and lips tightly sealed. It is, finally, the fleeting and elusive shadows emerging from the Egyptian desert and have time to see the last glimpses of decreasing Alexandria and the first buzz of the upcoming Christianity. It's difficult transition from paganism to Christianity and is beautiful.

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