Saturday, July 25, 2009

Egyptian Mummy Portraits

Long before realistic portrait painting developed in Europe in the Renaissance, Roman-Egyptian artists did striking likenesses in wax on limewood. These Fayum funeral portraits date from around 100 years A.D. According to the Metropolitan Museum:

The finely executed portrait depicts a youth with large, deep-set eyes and a down-turned mouth. His downy moustache indicates that he is no older than his early twenties. A number of mummy portraits represent youths with their first facial hair, a feature that had particular connotations in the Greek-educated society of Roman Egypt. The incipient moustache was both an indicator of the young man's entrance into important social groups and a signal that he was at the prime of sexual attractiveness and vigor.

Flickr source, link.

12 comments:

Liv said...

Wow that looks like it must play with the light in fantastic ways, I bet the original has parts that are pretty resplendent in direct light. Very very cool. Thanks for sharing!

Kevin said...

While only one piece of Hellenistic Greek painting survives (outside of pottery painting, which was deliberately stylized), it shows a comparable degree of realism, and was presumably presumably the inspiration for Egyptian encaustic portraits. So Egypt didn't precede Europe in this regard; they just have a better preserved tradition.

splynch said...

Julius = downy faced youth

James Gurney said...

Kevin, you're right, thanks for that. I've been wanting to do a post on the lost art of Apelles. If he painted anything like his peers sculpted, the works must have been amazing.

i, me said...

Kevin, James,
Further touching on that, I believe there is a description of art of ancient greek painters (perhaps Apelles?) contemporary w/ classical sculptors - I can't recall the book I read it in, but a contemporary description said they could paint grapes so realistically that people reached out to touch them.

Also, its interesting to see how the Greco-Roman conquerers (first the Ptolemy dynasty, then the Romans, brought their tradition (painting) but adopted the egyptian funerary customs (mummying) speaking off.. as most of you probably know..there was a brown pigment made from mummies)

Leara said...

this is one of my favorite exhibits in the museum. i find it really interesting to see that this style and complexity is so much older than what we consider to be ''fine art''. i makes me wonder what the subject looked like in person.

ramon said...

these guys sure knew their planes!

Kevin said...

To add to what I said earlier, here is the only surviving example of Hellenistic painting (strictly speaking, a Roman copy of a Greek painting):

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/0d/Issus_-_Alexander.jpg

The faces are certainly not as well observed as in the Egyptian mummy portraits, but this seems just as likely the product of the number of figures in the scene as a reflection of Greek skill.

Max said...

gorgeous, looks like

this always bothered me about the approach to basic art history as tought at my college: spotting an era by how sophisticated the observation of the artists appears to be. i saw an ancient egyptian bust in a touring show that, while from the front was prety stylized, from behind was so carefully realistic that it seemed alive. paintings like this make me cringe at how dumbed-down history lessons can be.

marionros said...

Kevin, isn't this 'Roman copy from a Greek painting' a mosaic?

Kevin said...

The Roman copy is a mosaic. The Greek painting it is based on was not.

Wilson said...

Thank you for the info. It sounds pretty user friendly. I guess I’ll pick one up for fun. thank u

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