The Fayoum Portraits
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2005_0223_121959AA by Hans Ollermann.2005_0223_122011AA- by Hans Ollermann.

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 Necropolises: in Memphis (Saqqara), Philadelphia (Er-Rubayat and ‘Kerke’), Arsinoe (Hawara), Antinoopolis, Panopolis (Akhmim), Marina el-Alamein, Thebes and el-Hiba (Ankyronpolis) and other places.

2005_0223_121950AA. by Hans Ollermann.2005_0223_121935AA by Hans Ollermann.

From Euphrosyne Doxiadis (1995): The Mysterious Fayum Portraits: Faces from Ancient Egypt. Paintings from the 1st century BC to 3rd century AD. The climate in Egypt and the conditions there allowed these paintings to survive. Similar Hellenistic – Egyptian paintings were produced in many places of the Roman Empire but only in Fayum many examples were found. The image of a woman could be similar to the portraits produced by Iaia of Cyzicus, a woman Greek painter. According to Pliny the Elder she worked in Rome producing paintings of women and a self-portait. These portraits on wooden panels included in mummies probably represent the deceased. The instruments used:

cauter or cauterium (καυτήρ, καυτήριον), an instrument used to fix the colors

penicillum or penicill ( ράβδιον), a brush

cestrum (κέστρον), a (probably hot) graver

How and if these instruments as Pliny mentions were used is actually not knownas the opinions of the experts differ. As the portraits show young men and women either they show the persons when they were young or it shows also that the life expectancy at that time was rather small. The encausting technique was a Greek method used in Egypt to produce these brilliant paintings. The method originated in Classical Greece in the fifth and fourth centuries BC.

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.


Euphrosyne Doxiadis, The Mysterious Fayum Portraits Faces from Ancient Egypt , Thames & Hudson 1995, ISBN 0-500-23713-1 An excellent book with interesting information and many beautiful examples

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