Mummy portraits or Fayum mummy portraits (also Faiyum mummy portraits) is the modern term given to a type of naturalistic painted portrait on wooden boards attached to Egyptian mummies from the Coptic period. 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.
Mummy portraits have been found across Egypt, but are most common in the Faiyum Basin, particularly from Hawara in the Fayum Basin (hence the common name) and the Hadrianic Roman city Antinoopolis. “Faiyum Portraits” is generally thought of as a stylistic, rather than a geographic, description. While painted cartonnage mummy cases date back to pharaonic times, the Faiyum mummy portraits were an innovation dating to the Coptic period at the time of the Roman occupation of Egypt.
They date to the Roman period, from the late 1st century BC or the early 1st century AD onwards. It is not clear when their production ended, but recent research suggests the middle of the 3rd century. They are among the largest groups among the very few survivors of the highly prestigious panel painting tradition of the classical world, which was continued into Byzantine and Western traditions in the post-classical world, including the local tradition of Coptic iconography in Egypt.
The portraits covered the faces of bodies that were mummified for burial. Extant examples indicate that they were mounted into the bands of cloth that were used to wrap the bodies. Almost all have now been detached from the mummies. They usually depict a single person, showing the head, or head and upper chest, viewed frontally. In terms of artistic tradition, the images clearly derive more from Graeco-Roman traditions than Egyptian ones.
Two groups of portraits can be distinguished by technique: one of encaustic (wax) paintings, the other in tempera. The former are usually of higher quality. About 900 mummy portraits are known at present. The majority were found in the necropoleis of Faiyum. Due to the hot dry Egyptian climate, the paintings are frequently very well preserved, often retaining their brilliant colours seemingly unfaded by time.
Personally I`ve seen some at the Museum and was stunned and hypnotized by the ancient 2000 year-old faces looking at me as if they were there with me.
The mummies were discovered more than a decade ago below the remnants of 11th-century houses at Cladh Hallan, a prehistoric village on the island of South Uist, off the coast of Scotland.
The bodies had been buried in the fetal position 300 to 600 years after death.
Based on the condition and structures of the skeletons, scientists had previously determined that the bodies had been placed in a peat bog just long enough to preserve them and then removed. The skeletons were then reburied hundreds of years later.
There was something wrong about these bodies, though. The woman’s jaw was a little too large for her skull, and the man’s limbs seemed out of place.
The female body had been put together with parts from people who had died around the same time. But the parts that made up the male body were from people who had died hundreds of years apart.
After 10 years, researchers ran DNA tests on the bodies and discovered something disturbing and macabre: These were not the bodies of two people. They were the bodies of six separate people fused together like a morbid jigsaw puzzle or like Frankenstein’s monster.
Whoever made these jigsaw corpses didn’t simply push bones together. The researchers believed that the bodies were still preserved when they were attached—with mummified flesh still on the bones.
Neskhons (“She Belongs to Khons”), once more commonly known as “Nsikhonsou”, was a noble lady of the 21st dynasty of Egypt.
She was the daughter of Smendes II and Takhentdjehuti, and wed her
paternal uncle, High Priest Pinedjem II, by whom she had four children:
two sons, Tjanefer and Masaharta, and two daughters, Itawy and
Nesitanebetashru. These are named on a decree written on a wooden
tablet, which was placed in her tomb in order to ensure her well-being
in the afterlife and to prevent her doing harm to her husband and children. This suggests family problems around the time of her death.
She predeceased her husband and her mummy was placed with that of
Pinedjem II in Tomb DB320 in the Theban Necropolis, in which it was
rediscovered in 1881. She was buried in the 5th regnal year of Siamun in
coffins that were originally made for Pinedjem’s sister and first wife
Neskhons’s mummy was partially unwrapped by Gaston
Maspero on 27 June 1886; twenty years later, G. Elliot Smith removed the
remainder of the wrappings. Neskhons did not have any gray hairs, so it
is likely that she died young; according to Smith, she was either
pregnant or giving birth at her death. The gold decoration of her coffin
has been stolen in antiquity; her heart scarab was stolen by the
Abd-el-Rassul family of grave robbers, but has been recovered and taken
to the British Museum.
“Mummy No. 30007, currently residing at the American Museum of Natural History, is a showstopper. She’s known as the Gilded Lady, for good reason: Her coffin, intricately decorated with linen, a golden headdress and facial features, has an air of divinity. She’s so well preserved that she looks exactly how the people of her time hoped she would appear for eternity. To contemporary scientists, however, it’s what they don’t see that is equally fascinating: Who was this ancient woman, and what did she look like when she was alive?” Read more about Mummies via The New York Times.