Egyptian Fayum or mummy portraits

April 1, 2012 at 8:20 pm (Art, Book clubs, books, Mystery fiction)

[This post is the third in a series on the Egyptian Art Galleries of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Click here for the first post, and here for the second.]

Man with the mole on his nose

Woman with a gold wreath

Portrait of the boy Eutyches

(It seems almost miraculous that Eutyches has been rescued from anonymity by the barely decipherable Greek writing near the top of his tunic….)

These portraits date from the Coptic period, roughly one hundred years BCE to the third century CE. Although the method originated with the Greeks, it would appear to have been perfected by  the Egyptians in late antiquity, while the kingdom was under Roman rule. From the Wikipedia entry:

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.


Portrait of a Youth with a Surgical Cut in one Eye

Here’s the (rather astonishing) explanatory comment on this portrait from the Met’s site:

The faint growth of hair on the jaws and upper lip identify the subject of this painting as a youth. Remarkably, his right eye seems to show signs of an abnormality that has been treated. The grayish fold of skin below the lower lid, the lack of lashes, and the slightly slack right cheek may be traces of the abnormality; the straight line on the lower lid suggests a surgical cut to relieve the condition.

Portrait of a thin faced, bearded man

(This portrait is accompanied by a lengthy description of how this art was created; click here to read.)


At our last Usual Suspects meeting, we discussed Crocodile on a Sandbank, the first entry in the Amelia Peabody series written by Elizabeth Peters.   This delightful novel features two men and two women – convenient elements for the potential formation of two couples – who are faced with various perils while on an archaeological expedition in Egypt. The action takes place in the late nineteenth century, when exciting developments in archaeology were taking place. ( ‘Elizabeth Peters’ is a pseudonym for Barbara Mertz, who holds a PhD in Egyptology from the University of Chicago. In addition to the mysteries she has written pseudonymously, she is the author of two nonfiction works about ancient Egypt.)

The reason I bring this up here (yes – There is a reason!) is that I believe that this recent pleasant experience of rereading and discussing Crocodile on a Sandbank  got me into an Egyptian mood, as it were. Thus, these objects exerted an exceptionally powerful attraction upon my imagination. This was especially the case with the people depicted in these funerary portraits, with their direct, unblinking gaze and vivid features. They possess an immediacy that is haunting and unnerving, and also poignant. They have been gone so long – and yet, by means of these portraits, they still, in some sense, dwell among us.

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