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.
On the day of her discharge from rehab, following knee surgery to repair a broken patella, my 93-year-old grandmother settled in a lift chair in her home that belonged to my grandfather, who died in 2011. My grandparents had been married for 67 years.