The mystery of the Fayum portraits

When you first see these portraits, which are almost two thousand years old, it seems that you are faced with a real miracle. Like this? 5 centuries before the Byzantine faces? 10 centuries before Romanesque art? 15 centuries before the Renaissance? They are completely alive!


In the 1880s, robbers of ancient Egyptian graves found unusual portraits on wooden boards near the Al-Fayum oasis, which conveyed the features of dead people with amazing accuracy. Each was inserted into the mummy's covering tissue in place of the face, and under the bandages lay a plaque indicating the person's name, age and occupation. The robbers tore out the portraits, the plaques were thrown by them and almost all of them died.

The enterprising Viennese antiquarian Theodor Graf acquired some of the boards found from Egyptian resellers and in 1887 showed them at exhibitions in Berlin, Munich, Paris, Brussels, London and New York. This is how the world learned about the portraits called Fayum. Subsequently, similar paintings began to be found in other regions of Egypt, but the first name became collective, and all portraits continue to be called by the name of a distant oasis on the border of the Libyan desert.

Several portraits from the collection of Theodor Graf are in the Vienna Museum of Art History. Here is one of them, depicting a dark-skinned man with curly hair and piercing eyes:

Portrait of a man. Fayum, Egypt, 161-192 AD Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

In the same 1887, an expedition of the English archaeologist Flinders Petrie worked in Hawara, at the southern end of the Fayum oasis. He managed to find 80 more portraits, some of which can be safely attributed to the masterpieces of world painting, they are so expressive:

A woman in a red tunic. Hawara, Egypt, 110-130 biennium AD National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh

It should be said that the Fayum portraits found at the end of the 19th century were not the first Egyptian funerary images that became known in Europe. Back in 1615, the Italian traveler Pietro della Valle brought three mummies from Egypt, two of which were with portraits. Then in the 1820s, through Henry Salt, the British consul in Cairo, several more portraits came to Europe, one of which was acquired by the Louvre:

Portrait of a woman. Thebes, Egypt, 2nd half of the 2nd century AD Louvre, Paris

This portrait has been in the Hall of Egyptian Antiquities of the Louvre since 1826, all visitors have seen it, but. few people noticed. It took a turning point in the visual arts of the last third of the 19th century, the emergence of new painting trends, especially impressionism, so that the consciousness of contemporaries was ready to accept Fayum portraits not as an amusing curiosity, but as a phenomenon of world culture.

One of the important points in this process was the discovery by Richard von Kaufmann of the so-called Alina's Tomb. This happened in 1892 in Hawara. In a small tomb, the archaeologist discovered eight mummies, three of which - a woman and two children - were with portraits. From the Greek inscription it became known that the woman's name was Alina and she died at the age of 35. The realism of this portrait is striking, and the technique of execution is such that, without knowing the date of creation, it could well be attributed to the 19th century.

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