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When you first see these portraits, which are almost two thousand years old, it seems that you are faced with a real miracle. Like this? 5 centuries before the Byzantine faces? 10 centuries before Romanesque art? 15 centuries before the Renaissance? They are completely alive!
In the 1880s, robbers of ancient Egyptian graves found unusual portraits on wooden boards near the Al-Fayum oasis, which conveyed the features of dead people with amazing accuracy. Each was inserted into the covering tissue of the mummy in place of the face, and under the bandages lay a plaque indicating the name of the person, his age and occupation. The robbers tore out the portraits, the plaques were thrown by them and almost all of them died.
The entrepreneurial Viennese antiquarian Theodor Graf acquired some of the found boards from Egyptian resellers and in 1887 showed them at exhibitions in Berlin, Munich, Paris, Brussels, London and New York. This is how the world learned about the portraits called Fayum. Subsequently, similar paintings began to be found in other regions of Egypt, but the first name became collective, and all portraits continue to be named after a distant oasis on the border of the Libyan desert.
Several portraits from the collection of Theodor Graf are in the Vienna Museum of Art History. Here is one of them, depicting a swarthy man with curly hair and piercing eyes:
In the same 1887, an expedition of the English archaeologist Flinders Petrie worked in Hawara, at the southern end of the Fayum oasis. He managed to find 80 more portraits, some of which can be safely attributed to the masterpieces of world painting, they are so expressive:
It should be said that the Fayum portraits found at the end of the 19th century were not the first Egyptian burial images to become known in Europe. Back in 1615, the Italian traveler Pietro della Valle brought three mummies from Egypt, two of which were with portraits. Then in the 1820s, through Henry Salt, the British consul in Cairo, several more portraits came to Europe, one of which was acquired by the Louvre:
This portrait has been in the hall of Egyptian antiquities of the Louvre since 1826, all visitors saw it, but … few noticed. It took a turning point in the visual arts of the last third of the 19th century, the emergence of new painting trends, especially impressionism, so that the consciousness of contemporaries was ready to accept Fayum portraits not as an amusing curiosity, but as a phenomenon of world culture.
One of the important points in this process was the discovery by Richard von Kaufmann of the so-called Alina's Tomb. This happened in 1892 in Hawara. In a small tomb, the archaeologist discovered eight mummies, three of which - a woman and two children - were with portraits. From the Greek inscription it became known that the woman's name was Alina and she died at the age of 35. The realism of this portrait is striking, and the technique of execution is such that, without knowing the date of creation, it could well be attributed to the 19th century.
Where are we from?
To date, almost a thousand Fayum portraits are known, a third of which have been found in the vicinity of El Fayum, and the rest have been found in other regions of Egypt. All of them date back to the 1st-3rd centuries AD. How were these unusual images created? Why exactly in Egypt? Why at the beginning of our era? The short answer is just a few words: coincidentally. Three cultural sources merged together and formed a new stream.
1. Greek roots
In the 4th century BC, Egypt was conquered by Alexander the Great. After his death, Alexander's closest friend, Ptolemy, became the king of Egypt, whose descendants ruled the country for more than three centuries.
Under the Ptolemies, Egypt regained its previously lost power, while the ruling class became largely Greek, and Hellenism spread widely throughout the country. It was at this time that Greek painting reached its heyday: they learned to convey volume in chiaroscuro, linear and aerial perspectives were used, coloristics developed. Therefore, it can be said with certainty that the pictorial tradition of Fayum portraits has Greek roots.
Unfortunately, Hellenistic painting has not reached us. Everyone knows Greek sculpture, but no paintings or portraits of Greek artists have survived. All we know about this art are descriptions by historians and Roman copies of individual works. One of the most famous Greek artists was a contemporary of Alexander the Great, Appeles, he was the first to paint portraits and the only king trusted him to paint himself. A Roman fresco has come down to us, which is considered a copy of one of the works of Appeles, representing Hetero Phryne in the image of Aphrodite:
We can also judge about another famous Greek portrait only from a Roman copy, "preserved" in Pompeii by the ashes of Vesuvius during the eruption of 79 AD. This mosaic depicts the battle of Alexander the Great with the Persian king Darius and is considered to be a copy of a painting by the Greek master Philoxenus, who lived in IV BC. (There is, however, an opinion that the author of the picture was Appeles).
The main technique that came to Egypt from Greece and was used in Fayum portraits was encaustics - painting with painted wax. The work was carried out with melted wax paints using not only brushes, but also spatulas and even incisors. Corrections were almost impossible, everything in the picture must be done right the first time. They painted most often on wood, less often on fabric. It is believed that encaustic was invented in Ancient Greece, from where it spread throughout the ancient world, but the Fayum portraits were the first examples that have come down to us.
2. Roman influence
The Greek portrait has always been conventional and idealized. In classical Greece, individuality was never emphasized in the images of real people, and even on the contrary, it was forbidden so that vanity would not develop in citizens. The heroes did not glorify themselves, but their city-states, the famous athletes were presented as ideal statues. The realistic direction developed only in the Hellenistic period after the campaigns of Alexander. But even then, the basis of the portrait was not the face, but the whole figure, "man in general", depicted in full growth.
The ancient Roman tradition was different. Here, the development of the portrait was associated with an increase in interest in a particular personality with all its characteristics. The basis of the Roman portrait (primarily sculptural) was based on a careful naturalistic transfer of the individual traits of the character. The Romans believed in themselves and considered a person worthy of respect in the form that he is, without embellishing and hiding physical disabilities.
From sculptural images in full growth, they moved on to busts, since according to the ideas of the Celtic and Italic worlds, vitality and personality are concentrated in the head, and it is enough to depict only it to express the whole person.
Ancient Roman portraiture, having adopted the transfer of volume and compositional techniques from the Greek masters, introduced new features into their system. This is, first of all, personification, attention to facial features, enrichment of color, a free manner that preserves the character of a sketch.
These features are clearly visible in the Fayum portraits. It is no coincidence that they appeared at the turn of our era, since it was at this time that Hellenistic Egypt was conquered by Rome (30 BC) and turned into one of the provinces of the Roman Empire. The ruling elite of Egypt gradually became Roman, and the culture of the metropolis, including pictorial styles, began to dominate its province.
3. Egyptian traditions
For all their Hellenistic and Roman features, the Fayum portraits still remain deeply Egyptian in their spirit, since they are primarily funerary portraits.
The cult of the dead has existed in Egypt since ancient times. One of its foundations is the concept of an immortal twin soul of a person that lives in the afterlife, but can return to a buried body. And it is very important that the soul recognizes its body. For this, the dead were mummified and preserved; for this, the mummies were supplied with hidden nameplates, for this, funeral masks and portraits were used.
This is one of the oldest portraits of a person. At the time of Cheops, such heads were placed in a tomb not far from the owner's mummy, so that the soul could return to it in case of damage to the mummy, or, perhaps, to recognize "its" body. Later burial Egyptian masks not only carried the features of a real person, but also were the image of his soul and astral spirit. Therefore, they had idealized features, being, as it were, the faces of eternity.
According to the beliefs of the Egyptians, a part of a person's soul called Ka, after death, had to see favorite household things, sacrifices, food and drink buried along with the body, in order to “use” all this in the afterlife.
Another part of the soul, Ba, who traveled through the afterlife, left the body through the mouth and returned through the eyes. To do this, on the sarcophagus or on the wall of the tomb, an image of the deceased with open eyes was necessarily made (a terrible revenge was to cover up the eyes on such an image …). Therefore, it is far from accidental that the eyes in the Fayum portraits are so elaborated and emphasized. This is not a desire to embellish a person, but a necessary feature of the ritual, without which the portrait could not fulfill its main functions. And it is also no coincidence that the eyes in these images do not look at the viewer, but through him - these are glances into eternity, into another world.
Fayum portraits were buried together with the mummy of the person they portrayed. This apparently became the main factor that allowed us to admire these creations many centuries after their creation. The dry climate of Egypt and the stable atmosphere of closed tombs preserved the delicate wax painting, did not allow its wooden and woven bases to collapse.
Who are we?
Surprisingly, the Fayum portrait does not seem to be associated with any particular category of the population. The ethnic, social and even religious origins of the characters are very diverse: there are Egyptian priests, Jews and Christians (despite protests, Egyptian Christians embalmed their dead), high-ranking Roman officials and freed slaves, athletes and war heroes, Ethiopians and Somalis … However, it was it is wrong to believe in a kind of "conversion" of these people to the Egyptian religion. Rather, we can talk about their acceptance of certain ideas that came from Egyptian funeral rites, and following the traditions of the country of residence.
Most likely, this woman was a fairly wealthy Roman. She is dressed in a purple tunic and a yellow cloak, which is fastened with a round brooch with a large emerald. Her ears are adorned with earrings, each of which consists of a dark stone inserted between two large pearls.
Underneath a gold leaf applied to the neck, laboratory analysis revealed a pearl necklace. The shining of gold, reminiscent of sunlight, made this metal a symbol of immortality for the Egyptians. Therefore, gold leaves or inserts were often used for burial portraits, covering the background around the head, the frame around the portrait, or, as here, part of the clothing.
Fayum portraits were painted from living people, and this was done when a person was at a fairly young age, one might say in his prime. After that, the portrait could have been in the owner's house for many years. The archaeologist Petrie found frames for portraits and portraits with suspensions in houses.After the death of a person, the image was embedded in the bandages of the mummy, often a golden wreath was applied to it through a stencil - a typical funerary attribute of the Greeks.
Apparently, children's images were an exception to the rule of painting portraits from living nature. Many of them were created after the death of the child …
Some Fayum portraits are dated fairly accurately. In addition to scientific methods, the timing of their execution helped establish hairstyles. Fashion played a large role in Roman society. The era of the reign of each emperor was marked by its own style. Men adjusted to the emperor, and the empress or another representative of the imperial house invented a special hairstyle that was unique to her, which was copied by women. Samples of new hairstyles were brought to Egypt in the form of head models.
For example, a male portrait from the Vienna Museum of Art History dates from the reign of Marcus Aurelius. Compare it to the bust of the emperor:
And here is a portrait of a young woman, whose modest hairstyle is typical enough for the period of the reign of Emperor Hadrian (117-138 AD):
This portrait has not been separated from the mummy into which it is inserted. X-ray analysis showed that the deceased was a forty-year-old woman, and not young, as in the portrait, i.e. the date of creation of the mummy is approximately the middle of the 2nd century.
This mummy lies behind the glass of the Louvre window in such a way that it is very difficult to photograph it together with the "face", so I bring a full-length picture of it from the museum's website. Apparently, for this, the mummy was taken out of the showcase.
The Greek inscription ΕΥΨΥΧΙ ΕΥΔΑΙΜΟΝΙ, written in black ink, is visible on the woman's chest. Interpretations of it differ, some authors read the inscription as "Farewell, be happy", others consider the second word ("Evdaimon") to be the name of the deceased.
On the portrait board, wrapped in bandages, the slanting saw marks are visible over the woman’s shoulders near her neck. This is a characteristic detail for works from Antinople: local portraits, as in other places, were painted on rectangular boards, but before swaddling their upper part was trimmed from the sides so that the board would better fit into the shape of the mummy.
Another portrait from this region, also cropped at shoulder level:
The artist skillfully used the density of the wax, laying it in strokes that follow the shape of the face, the curves of the eyebrows. The same technique is clearly visible in the portrait of a European woman, where the wax strokes are even more subtle and convex. It is interesting that in that portrait the eyelashes were not drawn, but cut: in the right places the wax was scraped off with a sharp tool to the bottom layer of black soil.
This image was found by Flinders Petrie during excavations at Hawara. It depicts the priest of the cult of the god Serapis, whose distinctive feature was a diadem with a seven-pointed star - the symbol of the seven heavenly bodies. Serapis was the Hellenistic god of abundance, the underworld, and the afterlife. He was usually depicted as a Greek god, but with Egyptian attributes.
This portrait is not painted on a board, but on a cloth that is part of the burial shroud. It is interesting for its details. In one hand, the young man holds a rich goblet of wine, in the other - the "wreath of Osiris", a garland of flowers, symbolizing his cleansing from sins. To the left of the neck is a yellow sign of Ankh - a symbol of life, and to the right - a small statue of a deity, most likely Osiris. In the corner of the collar of the white tunic, two small purple lines are visible, which characterize the accuracy of the artist's work: on many tunics found in Egyptian tombs, the joints of the fabric at the collar were pulled together with several stitches of red, blue or purple wool.
Where are we going?
By the 3rd century A.D. the laborious encaustic painting of Fayum portraits is gradually beginning to be replaced by tempera, where not wax is used as a binder for paints, but egg yolk and water. But changes are taking place not only in the simplification of the writing technique, but also in the very style of the images: their bodily realism seems to begin to fade away, the volumetric forms are replaced by planar decorativeness.
There is a rejection of the ideals of ancient realism, artists increasingly prefer schematic and symbolic images. Apparently, many portraits were no longer painted from life. In the later Fayum portraits, the conventionality in the interpretation of the face and clothing increases, the role of silhouette increases.
Quite different explanations are found for such tendencies. Some authors believe that burial portraits are placed on the stream, become more a craft and popular print than art. Others believe that with the development of religious ideas, it is not the artistic image that comes to the fore, but the theological idea, which increasingly brings the new style closer to icon painting. Sometimes Fayum portraits are even called "icons before icon painting" - after all, ancient artists strove to depict not just the appearance of the deceased, but his eternal soul.
One way or another, but the pattern is not accidental: a huge historical change was taking place in the world of that time. The Roman Empire gradually collapsed under the onslaught of the barbarians, the center of spirituality and power moved from west to east, and Christianity became the most widespread religion.
In 313, Emperor Constantine recognized Christianity as the state religion of the empire, and in 395, Egypt became part of Byzantium. Since that time and for many centuries, painting has entered the two-dimensional world. Someone calls this the loss of the third dimension, someone - the acquisition of the fourth, in which the picture has the divine qualities of the one it represents. Fayum portraits are gradually disappearing, since Christianity stops the Egyptian practice of embalming bodies, and the encaustic technique is forgotten.
So where did they go?
One can only guess what heights the Greek and Roman fine arts reached. Most likely, the Fayum portraits are not the flowering of ancient painting, but its decline - the last breath of the outgoing antiquity before the beginning of its eternal life.
Or maybe so?
The Fayum portrait is the forerunner and in many ways the source of Byzantine culture. These are the faces that crossed the threshold of eternity and became symbols of both the search for God and reunification with him. The gaze of their huge eyes, directed through the viewer, learned something inaccessible to the living and conveyed this to all Christian art.
… the Fayum portrait is an ancient impressionism, in which artists convey their instant impressions. The beginning of improvisational techniques, the development of the culture of the stroke, the system of additional tones and colorful glazes, which influenced the painting of the 20th century.
… no theories are needed, but it is enough to look around and see portraits come to life next to us? The look of this girl, which slid past me into infinity, was the impetus that led to the appearance of this record.