10 Facts about the Faiyum Mummy Portraits

When the Roman Empire conquered Egypt, mummies began to take on a whole new look

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Mummy Portrait of a Man (A.D. 100–125), autor: UnknownThe J. Paul Getty Museum

The result was the Faiyum Mummy Portraits.

Mummy Portrait of a Bearded Man (about A.D. 150–170), autor: UnknownThe J. Paul Getty Museum

The art of tempera paintings on wooden panels was one of the most highly appreciated in the ancient world, but very few examples survive. But the dry desert conditions of Egypt mean these are almost as vivid as the day they were painted - making them important to art historians.

Fayum-portrait of a man (0175/0225), autor: UnknownRijksmuseum van Oudheden

This style of Roman-era mummy portrait has been found all across Egypt, but is most common in the Faiyum Basin area, particularly around the rich Roman city of Antinoopolis, whose upper-class inhabitants would have been able to afford the expensive mummification.

Portrait of the Boy Eutyches (100/150)The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The first modern eyes to see these portraits were those of the Italian explorer Pietro della Valle in 1615. However they remained largely unknown until the 19th century, when the European fashion for all things Egyptian began to take hold.

Mummy Portrait of a Man (0025/0075), autor: Unknown artistNy Carlsberg Glyptotek

In 1887, the British archaeologist Flinders Petrie started excavations at Hawara, eventually discovering around 150 portraits. Despite the poor condition of these works, they remain the only ones found during systematic, well-recorded excavations - vital for modern research.

Mummy Portrait of a Youth (A.D. 150–200), autor: UnknownThe J. Paul Getty Museum

So many of the portraits depict children, that many believed they were simply reusing old portraits on the mummies. But analysis of the bodies shows many really were as young as their picture suggests. They may have been the elite of the city, but life was still difficult.

A man in a blue cloak (1st century AD), autor: UnknownThe Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts

Despite the lifelike depictions of facial features, clothing, and hairstyles, it's impossible to know who these people were, socially and professionally. Only one single inscription is positively identified as indicating the deceased's profession - a shipowner - correctly.

Mummy Portrait of a Young Woman (about A.D. 170–200), autor: UnknownThe J. Paul Getty Museum

While it's easy to imagine these were realistic images of the deceased, questions remain about whether these portraits were painted from life, or whether they were simply stylized versions that only superficially resembled their owners. If you look at many portraits together…

Mummy Portrait: Woman with Necklace (161 AD - 192 AD), autor: unknownKunsthistorisches Museum Wien

… you begin to see similarities between them. Perhaps the artists had basic patterns that they followed for hair, beards, and clothes, mixing and matching for their patron. In any case, the Faiyum Mummy Portraits demonstrate the remarkable skills of their ancient makers.

Cartonnage of Nespanetjerenpere (ca. 945-718 B.C.E.), autor: UnknownBrooklyn Museum

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