Faiyum portrait of a woman

This Faiyum portrait of a young woman dates from around 100-200 A.D., and depicts an Egyptian woman with hair tied back in a bun and styled in ringlets, wearing a dusty pink and rust tunic, with thick eyebrows, and baretta earrings. She has a slight Mona-Lisa smile as she gazes ahead.

These portraits, known as “Faiyum Portraits” are lifelike painted portraits on wooden boards attached to upper-class Egyptian mummies who lived during the Roman occupation. They are part of the panel painting tradition, which is one of the most highly appreciated genres of art in the Classical era. The Faiyum portraits are the only significant body of art from that tradition to have survived. Previously, they were wrongly referred to as Coptic portraits. The portraits would have been placed upon the mummified remains of the deceased pictured in the painting, as somewhat of a replacement of the earlier periods ‘death mask’.

Faiyum portrait of a woman
Faiyum portrait of a woman. Encaustic on wood
On display at the Atles Museum, Berlin. 31161, 27

The portraits covered the faces of mummified mummies awaiting burial. Existing specimens show that they were included into the bands of cloth used to encircle the body. Almost all have been separated from the mummies. They usually portray a single person, with the head or head and upper chest viewed from the front. In terms of artistic tradition, the images definitely draw from Greco-Roman traditions rather than Egyptian ones.

Portraits can be divided into two classes based on technique: encaustic (wax) paintings and tempera. The former are often of higher quality.

There are currently around 900 known mummy portraits. The majority of the remains were discovered in the Faiyum Necropolis. Because of Egypt’s hot, dry climate, the paintings are typically exceptionally well maintained, with dazzling colours that appear unfaded by time.