mummification - fayum coffin portraits

Charles Woods and Connie Tindale

Mummy portraits have been found in all parts of Egypt, but are especially common in the Fayum (Fayoum) Basin, particularly from Hawara hence the common name "Fayum Portraits".   The Hawara coffins were discovered between 1888 and 1911 by Flinders Petrie and are extremely important historical documents because they show an obvious change in the burial habits of the Egyptians.While painted mummy cases date back to pharaonic times, the Fayum mummy portraits were an innovation dating to the time of the Greek and Roman occupation of Egypt.  Egypt’s extremely hot dry climate helped to preserve the paintings, leaving the rich colours and textures intact.

Fayum is an area in Egypt, south of Cairo, along the Nile River but as the portraits have been found as far south as Aswan, the term is generally used to describe a style rather than a geographic location.  Fayum was unique to the rest of Egypt at that time because of its diverse population.  Following the conquest of Egypt by Alexander the Great it became a melting pot of Greeks, Egyptians, Libyans, Syrians, and later Romans. 

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Before the Fayum portraits, Egyptians followed ancient and largely unchanged burial traditions, which consisted of mummifying deceased members of the upper class who were then placed into a decorative coffin and their heads were covered with a carved wooden mask which would identify the owner in the afterlife.  Although many aspects of Egyptian social life were lost by the time of the Roman occupation, there was an integration of Egyptian and Roman gods.  This may have led to a combining of Egyptian burial art with Roman portrait painting and ancestor worship.

The method of painting the Fayum portraits was based on mixing colours with wax and possibly a small amount of oil which gave the drawing a glossy appearance to look like oil paintings.  Although the portraits appear to capture the unique features of specific individuals, it is unlikely that the earliest examples were painted from live models.  There may be evidence that later examples could have been hung in the owner’s home while their owners still lived to be admired before later use.

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