Located some one hundred kilometers south of Cairo, Fayyum is a green and fertile region in a vast circular depression. Its diameter from east to west is approximately 60 kilometers, northwest of the lake of Birket Qarun. The ancient Egyptians called this region Mer-our (The Great Lake). Fayyum played a significant role during the 12th Dynasty, and later under the Ptolemies. The Fayyum portraits conflict in an intriguing manner, scattered as they are around the world in museums and collections and, which, here, bring together the image to be viewed as a whole. An ideal museum, which may be visited city by city, to which we soon become attached, to the extent that, during the visit, already familiar traits await us, as one of this art's truly ambiguous features is its ability to multiply effigies which, at first sight, quickly, even too quickly, elicit a feeling of déjà-vu.
The Fayyum portraits
Coming to grips with the Fayyum portraits does not just involve learning about a little-known art form - it is also an experience which rarely leaves one unscathed. The portrait is generally reassuring, either because it borrows sufficiently distinctive features, allowing it to be immediately identified, or it presents a secret resemblance which renders it instantly familiar. What a difference between our relationship with ancient paintings! They barely tolerate a one on one relationship: from the very first glimpse, we are attracted both by their singularity and what must be called their transparency trap. An unavoidable, troubling emotion.
Would it be excessive to speculate that these deceased have passed on some hypnotic power to their effigies which, once life has gone, manifests itself through a thin coat of paint by a sort of call, perhaps even a challenge, inviting us, demanding us to watch and be watched?
Fayyum is situated at the crossroads of the great axes of the Ancient world.
For more than three thousand years, Egypt has given man this gaze, which goes beyond death to rise to Osiris' inviolable light. Khafre, Akhenaten, Ramesses, but also the farmer, the butcher, the shepherd or the harvester draw from the same sources of eternity. Like the architecture, the sculptures and paintings are also hieroglyphs, sacred signs: they have to power to suspend time or more precisely, to bring it to a degree of incandescence which the flame constantly renews, like the sun which relentlessly pursuing its course.
All this was brought down by Rome's intractable legions, preceded by Greek hoplites. The Imperial Armies cast a gigantic shadow across the world, conceiving a new era, that of modern history. Triumphs, defeats, victories and tribulations were more than mere events, they become the framework of a civilization leaving eternity behind to conquer it by force of arms. The seasons are sharpened by sword blows; the hours are written in blood in the sand. Between the eternal body of the Egyptian and the vulnerable flesh of the Roman, the Fayyum portrait offers up a double confession: nostalgia for a world which was unaware of the separation of life and death and the coming of another world which, despite the clangor of battle and the clamor of the Gods, knows that history has numbered its days, and the inescapable figure of destiny answers in numbered days. The Gods still emanate from these portraits, but they are little more than a fading vision, while there is already a spark in their widened eyes, not so much that of Christian hope, but of the stupor brought on by He who shall conquer history through Redemption.
The Byzantine icon
Byzantine icons are very similar, exalting eternal life through the immensity of the gaze, in the same way as the Christ Pantocrator, whose eyes embrace the universe. This has less to do with relationships and influences than with deep analogies. The features depicted in the Fayyum portraits attest to the person of the deceased, but the way it which it is done sparks a transcendency, which is open to, if not favorable to, Incarnation. Byzantine art accomplishes this through its incorruptible gold.
The Sphinx
But there is another question which remains unanswered. Starting in the Roman era, and later, during the Renaissance, Western portraits have been linked to life on earth; they use social status, they deploy the full array of power; they are associated with signs of wealth and prosperity, all the while surrendering to the tribulations of age and sickness. The film of our life on earth thus unwinds, summed up by the portraits of the Great - François I, Henry VIII, Charles V, Louis XIV, Napoleon - whom nobles and the middle classes shall take it turn to resemble. In comparison to this celebration of the terrestrial existence, the Fayyum portraits, linked like Egyptian art to death and funerary rites, remain an enigma. While the Sphinx questions us about our condition, the Fayyum portraits ask us sharp questions about the problematics of our identity. Their strange power, which may well be called their topicality, perhaps comes down to forcing us to becoming aware that our effigies are immune to the opposition between life and death, just as they are immune to the distinction between sign and symbol. By doing this, by breaking with classes, they show us how, at close range, the effigy becomes coincidence. Beyond functions, beliefs and meanings, the portrait doubly exorcizes time to restore us to the stream of ambivalence, to that which never ends, threatening all the while to end.
Man appeared along the banks of the Nile toward the middle of the Paleolithic era. Of the seven oases that dot the Libyan desert along the Nile - Selimeh, Kharga, Dakhla, Farafra, Bahariya, Siwa and Fayyum the latter was the first to be settled by man: flint tools, fashioned in an oblong shape, were found there.
In approximately 4500 BC, at the dawn of the Neolithic era, man came closer to the mother Nile: the nomadic or semi-nomadic hordes finally settled, and Fayyum was immediately colonized.
A millennium later, Egypt became part of history: the nobles, princes and local dynasties who once shared power were succeeded by the first kings, called "Thinites" after their capital, This, located in Upper Egypt, not far from Abydos, where their tombs were discovered. In Hieraconpolis, holy city of the primeval era, votive offerings sacred deposits were exhumed, marking the very beginnings of the Egyptian saga. The Bull king is depicted twice, wearing in turn the red and white crowns, the pa-sekhemty, "the two Mighty Ones" which, overlapping, formed the pschent worn by the pharaohs until the last dynasties of the Roman era. Following a decisive war, the South was conquered and Fayyum was incorporated into the kingdom, becoming one of its nomes, a province called che-chema, "the Southern Lake." The Bull king, Menes of Manetho and Narmer, chronicled in native documents, were succeeded by the first dynasties; according to these annals, they erected fortresses, leveled entire cities, conducted campaigns against the desert population, ordered expeditions to the Sinai and as far away as the Red Sea, reasserting their power by inaugurating the solemn royal jubilee feast, the heb-sed and, above all, moved the court from This to Memphis, on the very border of the two Egypts. The absence of documents makes it difficult to define Fayyum's status during that period; at the most, we know that it was part of the Empire, and that the legendary fertility of its land attracted new colonists to its lake shores.
The Old Kingdom
The Old Kingdom has left us more ample accounts; Memphis was then the seat of government, home to those monarchs who lent grandeur to the 3rd through 6th Dynasties Djoser,Snefru, Khufu, Khafre, Menkaure, Userkaf and Pepi-and who chose Fayyum as their hunting and fishing grounds, close as it was to Memphis. One might well imagine that it was, at that time, already high-yield land; the pharaohs of the 4th, 5th and 6th Dynasties had pyramids built for their tombs; a royal work site required a significant concentration of workers which had to be maintained and fed. Undoubtedly, the peasants of the vast domains encircling the lake had to provide court officials with significant amounts of grain and, in season, vegetables, which were then routed to the work sites in Saggara, Giza, Abu Sir, Abu Roach, Dahshur, Meidum and Zaouyet el-Aryan. It is curious to note that all these sites were on the left bank of the Nile, or in direct relation to the granary which Fayyum had already become. During the Old Kingdom, Fayyum was not only a granary and hunting ground; as all the Egyptian nomes, it had its own life; its administrative center was already mentioned in the Pyramid Texts as Chedi. It was dedicated to Sobek, the crocodile god, who was venerated as the province's god for nearly three thousand years. The Old Kingdom ended in disorder and political and social unrest. Pepi Il's overly long reign marked the collapse of the Memphite monarchy. Freed from the requirements of service to the court, the princes and nomarchs returned to the feudalism of earlier times .
The 12th Dynasty
Peace then returned. The Theban princes were able to impose their hegemony over all the dynasties along the Nile valley and establish a strong central government in Thebes. The Antefs, Mentohouteps and Amenemhat the Usurper were the first to ascend the throne which, for the next two thousand years, would ensure Egypt's renewed grandeur. From that time on, Fayyum's history would be closely linked to the royal cause. Amenemhat I soon realized how difficult it was to rule the entire valley of the Nile from Thebes, especially the Delta, which was constantly slipping out of his control. He thus established his residence at the very junction of the two lands, not far from the town of Lisht. Its site has never been discovered. Other pharaohs of the Dynasties settled in the same region Amenemhat II in Dahshur, Amenemhat III in Hawara and Senwosret III in Kahun. The town of Kahun, which had only been occupied for several decades, which survived in a rare state of preservation for one of ancient Egypt's urban complexes; the princes' villas, modest two, three, four or six room structures are all contained in a 350 to 400 meter walled area, separated into two neighborhoods, bisected by a central avenue. During the excavation, household and votive articles, as well as scarabs were found there, allowing the province's ranking officials and notables to be identified. It is they, and so many others, who made Fayyum such a privileged domain. Until then, Fayyum had been nothing more than a vast oasis surrounding a lake, the toche, the present day lake of Birket Qarun, fed by a canal, the Bahr Yusif, which branches off from the Nile some 200 kilometers upstream. The site where the canal appeared from the desert and entered the oasis was known in Antiquity as the ro-henef, "the Crocodile's Mouth". Later, Senwosret II erected a dam at the ro-henet, allowing the water flow to be controlled The great Amenemhat III added a regulating lock to this work at the edge of Fayyum, a series of dikes to protect the land from flooding. Only infinitesimal vestiges of these remain today. Southwest of Fayyum, in Medinat Madi, the sole Middle Kingdom temple to have survived to the present day is situated alongside the koms which cover the ancient Greco-Roman city of Narmouthis. Of all of Fayyum's monuments, the Labyrinth is the one which has been the most enthusiastically received by its visitors, be they travelers or chroniclers: an elevated plain, with a town and a vast palace, made up of as many residences as there used to be nomes. Innumerable covered galleries, extended by intercommunicating corridors, ensured that a stranger could never find his way to the halls or his way out without a guide. The roofs of these residences are made up of a single sheet of rock and the galleries are covered in a similar manner, with huge sheets of rock, without the use of wood or any other material. The 12th Dynasty pharaohs thus transformed the oasis into one of the centers of the Kingdom. When Queen Sobekneferure, the last severeign of the 12th Dynasty, died around 1785 BC, the legitimate order of succession was undoubtedly overturned, and, according to the Turin Papyrus, one hundred and sixty kings reigned between the end of the Middle and the beginning of the New Kingdoms.
New Kingdom
During the New Kingdom, under the Amenophises and the Tuthmosises Fayyum became once again, as it had during the Old Kingdom, the location of choice for a brilliant court, avid hunters and fishers. Later, Ramesses II, whose activities in Fayyum are difficult to gauge, had the chedi's temple to Sobek enlarged as he took it over. It would seem,however, that none of the New Kingdom pharaohs paid the oasis the same passionate attention as the Amenemhats and the Senwosrets had. This was further proven by the fact that during their period, the province's name itself was changed, from pehouchema , "the Southern Reservoir", a name used by engineers and administrators, to ouadj-our, the "Great Green" or, more commonly, pa-yom, "the Sea". Fayyum's present name, moreover, derives from pa-yom, subsequently bastardized from Egyptian to Greek, from Greek to Coptic and from Coptic to Arabic. As for the main feeder canal, it still bears the name of mer-our, "the Grand Canal". The Intermediate Period survived on the inheritance of the Middle Kingdom Dynasties; there is little mention of the pharaohs of the 21st to 30th dynasties in Fayyum. In fact, only Osorkon I, second king of the 22nd Dynasty is mentioned, along with Piankhi,in the stele relating his reconquest of Lower Egypt and the Delta in 725 BC.
The Tanites
The Theban Dynasties were followed by the Tanites, of Libyan origin, the Bubastites, the Saites and the Napateans of Upper Nubia. The newcomers then began to become involved in the complex play of rivalries, power struggles, treaties and countertreaties. Pacifists at first, such as Hadad, Prince of Edom who, fleeing Joab's persecution, found asylum in the Egyptian court, where he married Queen Tachpenes'sister, they later became bellicose. Assarhaddon led the Assyrian armies as far as Memphis and conquered the Delta with his son, Asurbanipal, who reigned after him. The Assyrians were followed by the Babylonians who did not, however, cross the border. They, in turn, were followed by the Persians; Cambyses, Cyrus' son, defeated Psammetichus III at Peluse and became the master of the Delta, then conquered Upper Egypt and Nubia.
Alexander then made his appearance. He defeated the Persian Empire at Granicus and crushed Darius at Issus. The Egyptians thought that they were finally rid of these barbarians who plundered their resources, oppressed their people, violated their sanctuaries and stole sacred statues from the priests, taking the nation's gods hostage. The Macedonian, perhaps attracted by a clandestine party seeking independence, was triumphantly welcomed in Memphis; no Egyptian actually realized that after the Babylonians, Assyrians and Persians, Egypt was simply acquiring a new master.
The Ptolemites
When the Conqueror died in 323 BC, the Council of Generals chose his half-brother, Philip Arrhidaeus, as regent for Alexander's posthumous son, Alexander II - known as Aegos - to whom Roxanne had just given birth. The regent, or rather Perdiccus, who reigned in his name, sent satraps, or governors, to all the conquered provinces and empires, charging them with ensuring the regime's continuity. Egypt was given to Ptolemy, Lagos' son. Alexander's boyhood friend, a good warrior and leader, he was one of the young king's most faithful companions. In 306 BC, this staunch Macedonian would become the first king of the last Pharanoiac Dynasty. Fourteen kings, all called Ptolemy, and one queen, Cleopatra, ruled during the last decades of a history which stretched over more than three millennia, the destiny of which was partly decided somewhere at sea, off Actium, in 31 BC. Under the Ptolemies Fayyum entered into its last great epoch; firstly, the entire oasis, the nome, was renamed: instead of the indigenous names of to-che, che-chema, pehou-chema, ouadj-our or even pa-yom, Greek terms were preferred: Limne - "the Lake", then "Arsinoe's Domain" or, more commonly "the Arsinoaic nome"; in fact, Fayyum was dedicated to Arsinoe, Ptolemy II Philadelphus' sister and wife. This type of traditional and ritualistic Egyptian union shocked the Greeks. To stifle the scandal, the divine nature of the new queen was exalted; Fayyum, transformed into an Arsinoaic nome, was dedicated to her, and local divinities, as thea sunnaos, were affiliated with the cult. The names of the towns and even the villages were changed to serve the royal cause and guarantee the survival of the dynastic institutions: Ptolmeus, Philadelphus, Theodelphus and Arsinoe. From the time of his ascent to the throne, Ptolemy II had dreamed of creating a New Macedonia in Egypt, a virgin territory in which Macedonian soldiers and their families could be settled and which reminded them of their homeland; with its vast expanse of fertile land, Fayyum, more than any other province, was well-suited for this. To gain new land to give to his people without, however, wronging the native owners in the process, Ptolemy II had to drain a major portion of the lake. In 253 BC, in the 32nd year of his reign, Ptolemy Philadelphus himself inspected Fayyum. Soon, side by side with the native owners who had shared the land until now, cleruchs began to appear. These cleruchs had been machimoi, warriors exclusively of Greco-Macedonian origin under the first Lagides and later also of Asian , Arab - or Semitic - origin, that is, indigenous, who were given a kleros, a parcel of land, a domain. This ingenious system allowed the king to quickly raise an army if circumstances required it. The kleros was granted by the king and returned to him to be redistributed upon the death of the recipient, unless, as usage soon established, it passed to his direct descendants. It was thus that the mingling of races, customs and religions began, the result of which was Fayyum's astonishing civilization. The oasis thus entered into another Golden Age; its rich black soil produced an abundance of the grain which was exported all over the Mediterranean world.
The Roman eagle then stooped: in 130 BC, Ptolemy VIII Euregetes, the legitimate descendant of the Lagide Dynasty, was banished from Egypt by his own mother, Cleopatra III, who replaced him with his younger brother, Ptolemy IX Soter. Exiled in Cyprus, Euregetes had to wait for the queen's death and the assassination of Soter, a very unpopular prince, to return to the capital and reestablish the legitimacy of power, affiliating his own daughter Berenice Philadelphus, to the throne. Over the previous several years, Rome had only been waiting for the right moment to involve itself in Egyptian affairs of state and then govern Egypt's fortunes as it desired. When Soter died, leaving Berenice III alone on the throne, Sulla played a major trump by sending her his own cousin, a son of Alexander who had taken refuge in Kos, to be her husband. No sooner had he been instalied in the palace, the young prince, who had become Ptolemy X Alexander, was plunged headlong into intrigues and plots. Having succeeded in eliminating the Dynasty's last legitimate representative, Rome then attempted to validate an apocryphal will of the late king which, "in gratitude" bequeathed the Egyptian Empire to the Roman Republic. That was going too far; the Alexandrians managed to stave off this coup by putting one of Soter's illegitimate sons on the throne. Irresponsible, he became so unpopular that he was forced to seek refuge in Rome and ask for its protection. In Alexandria, his daughter Berenice seized the vacant throne and decided to send a delegation to the Senate to obtain confirmation of her legitimacy . When the two Egyptian missions arrived, the Republic was locked in struggles with partisans and too preoccupied by its own troubles to play a part. Finally, when Caesar arrived in Alexandria in October of AD 48, he found Ptolemy XII, a child, and his sister-wife Cleopatra VII at the foot of the throne. In the last chapter of its history, Egypt was still powerful enough to be fought over in turn by four of the most powerful figures of the century, Pompey, Caesar, Mark Antony and Octavian, using their influence to impose themselves. Egypt's destiny was decided on September 2, 31 off Actium. A Roman province, Egypt would remained linked to the Empire until Maximinus' reign, in approximately AD 310. Under Rome's domination Fayyum lost all the benefits of the Lagide legacy; although it was isolated from nationalist uprisings, revolts, and repressions which bloodied the country for nearly three centuries. the province was none the less reduced to starvation and misery and, finally, deserted. In the beginning of the 4th century AD, "Egypt's granary" was nothing but a vast, desolate plain, its soil played out. It is true that Rome had a heavy hand; Octavian, who had now become Augustus, caring only for profitability, taxed the country ruinously. To defeat any resistance, three legions had been put under the authority of a prefect residing in Alexandria in the emperor's name. The first three prefects to rule, Cornelius Gallus, Aelius Gallus and Petronious were so implacably zealous that the Fayyum farmers, already overwhelmed by the Ptolemies' demands, soon had their backs against the wall. The emperors were plundering Egypt but still respected its gods; their effigies may be found all along the Nile valley, cloaked in priestly symbols representing the gestures required by ritual. Nero led the procession of the Nile gods in the Hathor Temple in Dendera; Domitian, Trajan and Hadrian affiliated themselves with the cult of Isis in Philae, Antoninus Pius, Commodus and Marcus Aurelius with that of Sobek in Kom Ombo. In Fayyum itself, Zobalos, the strategist, dedicated an altar to Augustus, which he put under the protection of Ermouthis, the late Rennoutet, in front of his Medinat Madi temple. It is difficult to discern whether these were political gestures or evidence of a certain fervor, or even curiosity. It is said that. Titus was present for the enthronement of an Apis bull; Hadrian was so impassioned by Egypt that he spent nearly a year there from 130 to 131. The last emperors silenced the gods of Egypt. The Christians, on the other hand annihilated them, destroyed their statues, brutalized their effigies and massacred their priests; in March of 415, the ferocious Saint Cyril of Alexandria, the "Father of all Seals", who was the architect of the triumph of orthodoxy at the Council of Ephesus, confronted the beautiful Hypatia, the daughter of Theon of Alexandria, a neo-platonic philosopher, mathematician and astronomer. Cyril unleashed a fanatical and angry mob on the Museion, where "the Pagan" was torn to pieces in the name of Christ. Egypt was then quiet.
The major sites
Unfortunately, we are not well informed with regard to the necropolises and the hypogea where the mummies with portraits were discovered. The major sites of er-Rubayat, Abousir el-Melek and even Hawara were looted by grave robbers well before the archeologists took them over; the looting was far too advanced to even consider an investigation: yawning trenches, dismembered mummies and tattered shrouds prevented even normal sampling, let alone the study of Egyptian Greco-Roman funerary rites, of which we know so little. Moreover, many of these portraits were acquired by museums or collectors on the open market, from specialized antique dealers, such as Theodor Graf, who procured them from their regular agents in Cairo who were, in turn, supplied by professional scouts, whose talents consisted of finding peasants with a lucky shovel. A person seeking to follow the trail will always be blocked, at one level or another, by the obstinate silence of people who will never reveal their sources.
According to Petrie, the mummies in Hawara were dropped in simple trenches in the open ground and covered with sand; for the most part, the internal walls of the trench were lined with unbaked bricks in even rows, which alone provided for the protection of the buried bodies. During all the excavations he conducted there, Petrie only found one tomb carved out of the rock: it consisted of one small funerary chamber (2.31 X 1.61 meters), with no decoration; it was accessed by a large shaft. This tomb, one of the oldest in the necropolis, yielded 5 mummies, of which three had portraits.
Abousir el-Melek
n Abousir el-Melek, during the winter campaign of 1903 to 1904, the entrance to one of the most important funerary establishments in the province was uncovered; it was a shaft dug into the side of a hill, leading to a gallery approximately thirty meters long with twenty-one loculi opening off it, ten on the left side and eleven on the right, each one containing from one to five sarcophagi each, with absolutely no funerary offerings. The first sarcophagi examined dated from the Roman period; farther back, however, other older ones were found, probably Saitic; the gallery, occupied until the first centuries AD, had already been dug during the first half of the seventh century BC during the reign of Psamtik I, first king of the 26th Dynasty, affixed his cartouches to a more ambitious project, although with an analogous design, the Apis Bull Galleries (the Serapeum) in Saqqara.
Er Rubayat
With respect to er-Rubayat, the reports are even sketchier; according to Reinach, the most beautiful portraits of the Graf collections were found in tombs "carved out of the rock" and in mysterious "small round or square edicules sheltering a large chamber from which the loculi radiated"; we are aware of these edicules thanks to three sketches, plans and sections, made by Stadler, an Austrian engineer who took part in the discovery or, at the very least, compromised himself by selling, on his own behalf, a group of portraits to Ali, Graf's well-known agent. These layouts are, however, so visibly erroneous and uncertain, that they cannot honestly be considered as archeological material. The third and final account comes from the great collector, Dr. Fouquet, who was then residing in Cairo. In a statement to the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles Lettres, dated April 25, 1887, Fouquet announced the discovery of the necropolis and, on the site's outskirts, a "grotto": "the ground was covered with corpses, some mummified, others simply covered with several layers of shrouds. A small wood panel was found under the head of each of these bodies, on which was inscribed the deceased's name, profession and place of birth. The walls of the grotto were covered with a large number of portraits painted on wood and were, for the most part, well-conserved. The vandals who made this important discovery were apparently not afraid to spend three consecutive nights burning the inscriptions and portraits, of which only a few pieces escaped the carnage." After an investigation, it would seem that Fouquet's report was only based on second-hand accounts; it should thus be considered with the same amount of skepticism accorded to Stadler's sketches.
Cheik Abadeh
Fortunately, we know more about the Roman necropolises in Upper Egypt; thanks to Albert Gayet, thanks to the colored drawings which he devoted to his excavations in Cheik Abadeh. Gayet discovered, one after the other, the deceased of ancient Antinopolis: "from one area to another of this City of the Dead, the appearance of the tombs differs significantly. Those in the first consisted of a small vault, built of unbaked bricks, located two meters beneath the ground, within which was laid an unornamented wooden sarcophagus. In some cases, the body was simply laid out on a board swathed in wrappings. In the two other areas, this vault is reduced to a sort of sepulcher of the size of a casket. Two or three flagstones make up the floor, two or three others the walls and yet two or three more the top. Flush with the ground, a rectangle, laid out with bricks, set flat, marks the tomb's location and forms a structure which, in the past, might have served as a monument base".
Three basic types of tombs
  1. The most common, and also the most rudimentary type, consists of a trench dug in the sand or scree containing one or, sometimes several mummies, protected by a brick frame; tombs of this first type, which are the most numerous, comprise the central core of the Cheik Abadeh and Hawara necropolises; according to Gayet and Petrie, they all date from the late Imperial period.
  2. The second type of foundation resembles a pit or down-sloping access: a narrow corridor carved out of the rock, leading to a small funerary chamber as it does in Hawara, or to a spinal gallery off which the loculi open, as in Abousir el-Melek; these tombs are, no doubt, earlier than those of the first type; the Abousir el-Melek gallery had already been dug in the Saitic period. In Hawara, the examination of the five mummies found enable the chamber's design to be dated at the end of the Ist century AD, during Nerva's or Trajan's reign. The Saqqara hypogeum, explored by Pietro della Valle, may also be associated with this second group, as well as, if his sources did not deceive him, Dr. Fouquet's "grotto" at er-Rubayat.
  3. The third group is harder to define, as any study is necessarily based on Stadler's sketches: if one were to believe the engineer, three common tombs of a new design were discovered at er-Rubayat, revolutionary even for Egypt; the first, lined with unbaked bricks, in fact, strangely resembles the hypogeum at Abousir el-Melek: stairs lead to an underground chamber servicing fifteen louculi, six on each of the lateral axes and three on the central axis. The second, in dressed stone, has six loculi, four of them with niches, in groups of two around a square atrium. The third is the most disconcerting. A level, circular construction, containing seven loculi radiating from a central open-air court, to which access is provided by a low corridor with four compartments, each large enough to contain a sarcophagus. None of the three tombs described by Stadler has been identified in the field.
The funerary offerings discovered in the tombs of Upper and Lower Egypt are of the most rudimentary nature; neither the Cheik Abadeh or Hawara trenches, nor the Abousir el-Melek or er-Rubayat loculi could have contained the sumptuous offerings of the large hypogea of the High Period. Because of a lack of space, the offerings were limited to the minimum which the ritual required be placed at the deceased's side. However modest these objects were, the looters devastated everything while stealing the mummies. Gayet had the great fortune of discovering unlooted tombs at Cheik Abadeh and could thus, report on the offerings which had not been desecrated: "in a Byzantine woman's tomb, there was a convex glass mirror, set in a silver mounting; in another, tapestry cushions, perhaps woven on the deceased's loom, and which were used to adorn her couches before forming her final resting place; from another, terra cotta figurines, a winged Horkhuiti astride a sphinx; an Anubis which, in the hands of the Greek modeler, had become a curly poodle; a child Horus, his finger to his lips; Minervas; funerary lamps, decorated with Cupids' and Medusan heads; terra cotta and ivory pots; figures of Venus in enameled clay." Further on, in Leukyone's tomb, Gayet found a small altar next to the dead woman, on which effigies of the domestic gods had been arranged at the time of the funeral; this shrine is a perfect example of how the Egyptian, Greek and Roman deities were mixed and merged. Yet another group of symbols: shoots and palm and lotus flowers underlines the meaning of the genesic rite, indicated by the Olympian lararium. The mystical eye to ward off misfortune; the heart, to justify its owner when the latter appears before Osiris' court. Other jewelry gives this shrine its definitive meaning with, beginning with the initiation into the mysteries of Isis, proven by the presence of carnelian rings. In Egyptian dogma, carnelian rings "are Isis' blood, used to wash away the deceased's sins at the time that the soul is to be weighed after the heart has been justified". In this period, it is true that the ring's form differs; but, even though it takes on an annular form, its meaning remains unchanged. The symbols of Black Stone worship, honored by Heliogabale, while dating this tomb, express the true interpretation of the religions represented. Finally, Venus-Isis heads, delightful Tanagra figurines with opulent layered hairdos with interwoven leaves, were once part of another necklace which, attached to a metallic mounting, became part of the emblems of the One Life.
The Pure Place
The main intention of the long ceremonial was far more than the conservation of the body; it was meant to give it eternal life by assimilating it to Osiris' destiny, to reawaken its forces, by awakening its perception. By the Late Period, however, the embalmers had lost the deep meaning and sense of magic: they were given a body, they delivered a mummy! The operation was, moreover, very expensive; including taxes, a meticulously prepared mummy could consume an entire year's earnings. The stay in the Pure Place, the imposed seventy day stay, the payments to the priests, paraschistes, taricheutes, coachytes and all the associated personnel, the equipment rental, tables, stylets, hooks, dry natron, ointments, fragrant oils, precious essences, resins, strips of fine linen, shrouds, amulets, mask - everything had to be paid for; once the State taxes on the body's transport and the celebration of the ultimate ritual had been paid, the family could feel that it had paid its dues both to Man and to God. But could one ever be sure of not having been cheated or misled? Examination of mummies revealed innumerable frauds: in some cases, precious amulets had been removed by the swaddlers; in others, precious oils, thinned with water to save money, were nothing more than brownish deposits, serving no other purpose than to stain the shroud; in yet other cases, packages of tow and rope, hurriedly slipped into the abdominal cavity, were substituted for the viscera, undoubtedly misplaced by the officiant. During the autopsy of one body, the dried remains of three mice, which must have gotten lost during the embalmment, were found in the thoracic cavity! If the bodies were ill-treated in the secrecy of the wabt, the most careful attention was paid to the funeral adornments; mummies were never as well prepared as during the Roman period. The body was first covered by a close-fitting shroud of the finest linen; then came the complex network of wrappings which, limb by limb, finger by finger, ensured the body's integrity. Sometimes, pads were even inserted under the wrappings to gave emaciated arms and legs an appearance of life. A last layer was laid in a concentric diamond-shaped pattern and adorned with a wax or gilded stucco floral ornaments, imitating a coat of mail. One or more painted shrouds completed the treatment. The mummy was then enclosed in a stuccoed and polychrome cartonnage; the deceased was sometimes depicted as already having been resuscitated, in ornately embroidered ceremonial dress, adorned with gold ornaments or, more often, a set of vignettes in light relief, chosen from the Book of the Dead for their protective powers.
The Artemidorus cartonnage
The Artemidorus cartonnage has three panels, with a bright pink background enhanced with gold:
  1. Anubis putting the finishing touches to the mummy's toilette, as it is stretched out on the lion-shaped funeral bed; Isis and Nephthys mourn the deceased.
  2. Horus and Thoth, the former wearing a pschent, the latter an atef, guard the emblem of the ta-our, from the nome of the "Great Earth" of Abydos, Osiris' kingdom.
  3. Finally, Osiris rising from the funerary bed, greeted by Isis in her falcon form. A large necklace - ousekh - with crowned falcon heads, the two Ma'ats and, at his feet, the winged solar disk completed the outfit. Some mummies, such as this one, bore only the essential symbols, while others developed an infinitely complex iconography, such as Dion's and Tayntho's shrouds, covered with deities and monsters. But all, whether shrouds or cartonnages, refer only to traditional Egyptian myths, with no trace of a Greek or Roman influence other than the traditional wish, eupsuchi, "Godspeed". The mask was finally attached, as an absolute rule, to a spot over the face on the mummy's outer envelope, either in the armor-strip network or by means of a stucco strip on the cartonnage. Artemidorus, Ammonius, Demetrios and all the others were discovered thus; men from the West, they chose to affiliate themselves for eternity with the mysteries of Ancient Egypt.
The traditional ritual
The intent of the traditional ritual was to animate an inert body, to transfigure it, to glorify it as the living Osiris or, more accurately, make it share the God's destiny, to assimilate it to his trials; like Osiris, it shall know the shadow of death; much as Osiris, its body shall be dismembered by the forces of Evil, and the guardian goddesses, Isis and Nephthys, both wives and sisters, shall gather its scattered members and reassemble its ill-treated body as they did for Osiris, then purify it; then during a long ceremony, they shall give it back to the day, to light; assisted by Anubis, sometimes by Sokar, and by Horus' four sons, Imsety, Hapi, Duamutef and Qebehsenuef, by other deities and spirits, they unite their forces in order to open the god's eye, to animate his gaze. Tirelessly, for centuries, the priests repeated for each person and over each person, this mystery, each phrase, each formula, each gesture, each offering, each balm, each amulet contributing to the advent of a god "resplendent with life". It is more than a little striking to note the importance accorded to the head, the face or its substitute, the mask, while the ritual is carried out; it would seem that the priests considered the eyes, nostrils and the mouth as the very links which unite man to the cosmic forces, to the gods which are their manifestation; for this also transfigures the deceased while incorporating it into these animated forces which drive the universe to help it reach Duat. For each person, the ceremony of the return to life unfolded in two stages: the mummification itself and the entombment, and in two locations, the Pure Place and the tomb's forecourt. The corpse was first "prepared" by the embalmers; at this point, the head was already subjected to extreme attention, requiring the priests to have perfect knowledge of the ritual. Before even treating the body, they anointed the face to purify it. Once the body had been emptied and treated with natron, and after the first shroud had been applied and gold finger stalls had been put on the hands and feet, the bandages were then applied, the head being wrapped first. After a stay of some seventy days in the Pure Place, the deceased, now a mummy, was carried to the tomb; once there, before being placed inside, a last ritual was celebrated, perhaps even more important than the preceding one, as it was meant to "animate" the mummy, to give it back, sense by sense, all the powers of a living being. The swaddled body, enclosed in an anthropoid coffin, was set on a sand platform (which explains the singular size of the foot boxes of the Late Period and New Kingdom sarcophagi); after the mourners had lamented for a lengthy period of time at its feet, as though to retain him on earth, after the large and small djerets had been detached from the group as a symbol of Isis' and Nephthys' pain and anguish, the leaders of the ceremony stepped forward, led by the priest-sem, wearing a panther skin, who directed the "play". The sarcophagus, purified by repeated glazings and incense fumigations, was then finally delivered to the priests. The mask was then anointed with sacred oils and the all-powerful wedjat, Horus' eye was affixed to its forehead; brought to life, the deceased opened its eyes, its entire body released.
he Fayyum portraits and the traditional ritual
The Fayyum portraits were not part of the requirements of the Egyptian ritual: for the ritual of the Opening of the Mouth to be celebrated, for the forehead, the eyes, the nose, the mouth, the temple to be touched in turn, for the pupils to come alive, for the lungs to fill again through the power of the sacred word, the mask, the medium and vehicle of the divine powers, must be treated as sculpture in the round. It is, in fact, difficult to conceive that the mystery, as we know it, could have been celebrated in front of a painted panel. The hypothesis which espouses the theory that our portraits are the last step of a long evolution of the funerary mask to the stucco effigies to the easel figurines is thus incorrect. Unless one limits the mask's role solely to identification, allowing the soul, after justification, to return to its body, a mere envelope, one cannot include the Fayyum portraits in the pure Egyptian tradition. In all likelihood, they should be affiliated to the Roman rite.
The Fayyum portraits and the Roman rite
Our portraits all date from the end of the first to the end of the fourth century AD, from the reigns of Tiberius and Caligula to the Valentinians; but, from its start, the Imperial era signaled the start of the weakening of the great religion, or at least of Roman religiousness. The gods still kept their vigils in the temples, Jupiter, Mars, Juno, Venus and Minerva still controlled human destinies; the high priests still made the required sacrifices and devoted the required feast days to them, observed the dies fasti and nefasti listed in the ritual calendar, but the rhythm had been broken, the faith frozen; the great gods of the Republic were nothing more than pale puppets, swept against their will into unbelievable adventures which can barely be considered myths; the coldness of their subjects wore down the blood of the Immortals.
Unlike the Roman gods "who no longer had ears", Isis knew how to listen to prayers addressed to her and to reward those who served her with a pure heart.
This was the basis for the fascination with Eastern religions, from the cult of Isis to the Mithra mysteries, and even to burgeoning Christianity: for them, death was not an end. Even for a Roman, Osiris' kingdom was far superior to the desolate lair where Pluto inflicted his punishments: "it is a sloping road, darkened by the funereal shade of the
yew, it leads in silence, unbroken by a single voice, to the infernal region. The Styx, with its dead waters, exhales its vapors and conveys the shadows of the newly dead, specters destined for the tomb. Pallor and cold reign over these desolate places..."
The Egyptian considered death to be an accession; the Roman, who had not searched for comfort in other metaphysics, in myths other than his own, considered death to be an injustice.
The temples of the Eastern deities were thus no longer emptying; worry was followed by indignation: Juvenal condemned the bigots, the followers of Isis who, to follow the rite, in the depths of winter, broke the ice on the Tiber and dove three times into dirty water which they believed to have purifying powers.
This was too much! The defenders of virtue were frightened; frightened above all that the souls of their great men might go and live eternally in some exotic nirvana, some lost paradise. During the first century AD, they tried to revive ancestral customs, to restore Roman honors to the Romans.
The funeral procedure followed a very precise ritual: as soon as death occurred, the family, friends and servants went to the four corners of the domain, crying out the name of the deceased. Then, the body was washed and purified, sometimes crudely embalmed. The Roman customs seem to be taken directly from those of classical Greece; as was done in Athens, the body was exhibited in the foyer of his house, clothed in white, the face uncovered. The Greeks and the Romans had a fundamentally different attitude toward death: the Greeks honored their dead, the Romans glorified theirs. Everybody's participation in the bereavement, the exhibition of the body in the Forum, the public reading of the elegy all bear witness to this.
In Rome, it was not the apotheosis of the deceased, the fusion with the gods that was celebrated as it was in Egypt, but his terrestrial grandeur, his virtues and his merits; only worth ensured immortality.
The imago was molded directly on the deceased's face, painted naturally by a specialized polinctor, adorned with embedded eyes and false hair. It was exhibited next to the body during the conclamatio, it accompanied the convoy to the tomb; in the Forum, it even substituted for the corpse, as the orator addressed his laudatio to it, as thought it were a separate being. Its final resting place was in the atrium among the ancestors, and a wooden tablet, the tabulinium, was devoted to it, on which was inscribed the text or the summary of the elegy. But the effigy's role was not limited to the glorification of the deceased; the imagines took part, as did all the household spirits, in the life of the people. During the funeral of one of the family members, they were taken from their reliquaries and were made part of the ceremonies.
The Fayyum portraits, the only imagines?
Could it be that the Fayyum portraits are the only imagines which we have recovered? Probably not, as all the portraits were found in tombs, on mummies, and not in the atria of private residences as Roman custom dictated. Moreover, the imagines were molded on the face itself of the deceased; a painted portrait could not substitute for a bust.
However, some sixty years ago, while closely examining mummies he had just exhumed in Hawara, Petrie made some strange observations: the cartonnages in which they were found were scarred, a deep horizontal scratch as though it had been damaged when set upright; in another area, around the calf, a stick man a child might have scrawled; elsewhere, even traces of mold on the finishing coating due, it would seem to bad weather. And further stains, splashes and even fly droppings, which would never be found on an object which, enclosed in its burial chamber immediately after completion, would have been protected from any such external contact.
Petrie hypothesized that the Roman Egyptians replaced the imagines majorem with the majores themselves, and that the household worship was directed at the mummy. As disconcerting as this may appear at first, the hypothesis is credible: as the Romans believed that the imago was a simulacrum, could one not imagine that the colonists in Egypt, who were certainly not initiated into all the mysteries of the Egyptian ritual, might have likened the mummies delivered by the embalmers, encased in their brightly painted containers, to the busts in their homeland? This is made even more conceivable by the fact that several years later, in the German concession of Abousir el-Melek, an unknown type of sarcophagus was discovered: the mummies, in anthropoid cartonnages were enclosed in naos, in wooden cupboards with double swinging doors, which the discoverers had dubbed Schranksarge.
As Petrie did, we must thus conclude that the Fayyum portraits, inseparable from the deceased whose face it extolled, the bandage-strips, the cartonnage and the sarcophagus were part of the domestic worship of the imagines; but the deeper meaning had evolved as a result of the Egyptian influence, to the extent that the body, dramatized by the magical power of its container, had replaced the imago.
Can one be certain that the Romans in Fayyum still glorified their spirits? A portrait from the Cairo Museum, The Schoolgirl, attests to that; in fact, it is less a portrait than an altar: the effigy of a young girl, in tondo and ringed with a garland, is recessed in a small, painted wood edicule, supported by two thin columns; ritual offerings, bouquets of flowers, baskets of fruit, one amphora and two canthari are painted on the base. An object of this nature could not be placed on a mummy's face; by itself, the Schoolgirl's altar confirms the survival of jus imaginum in imperial Egypt. This also elucidates the mysterious tondo of the Two Brothers in the Cairo Museum: two young men, shoulder to shoulder, on a round panel, flanked by the monochrome effigies of the Greco-Egyptian deities, Hermanubis, Psychopompe and Osirantinos - and the deified Antinous. If one insists on believing that the Fayyum portraits were nothing more than funerary masks, the tondo cannot be explained away: a double mummy with a single mask is unimaginable, as is a sarcophagus containing two bodies. If, on the other hand, one were to assume that the portraits were also imagines, and celebrated as such, the mystery disappears: this is then one of the clipei mentioned by Pliny, one of those medallions which sometimes replaced the traditional masks, to serve the same purpose.
In Fayyum and in all of Roman Egypt, the portrait went through more than one evolution or transformation: part of Roman tradition, it was introduced in Egypt by the colonists; it was venerated in patrician and bourgeois homes as was the clipeus in Rome. The mysteries of the Egyptian religions, however, so fascinated the Mediterraneans that they soon began to entrust their dead to Osiris, imploring him for the blessing of resurrection, the grandeur of which had been silenced by their own religion. Never forgetting their Roman roots, however, they retained their custom of respecting the likeness, the vera effigies, which led them to replace the Egyptian mask with the clipeus and the sacred imago. The spirits, however, were not entrusted to the ground; they thus extended image worship to the entire mummy.
Moreover, all the portraits were found in tombs. We know that the Egyptian ritual required that the body be laid in its "eternal home". At some point, the time of which cannot be ascertained, given our present understanding, the Osirian ritual regained its sway and the bodies were taken down to the burial chamber. This is why burial chambers were discovered, much to the excavators's astonishment, in Hawara and Akhmim, which sheltered mummies from the same family, but often from different generations; they were never able to discover the slightest indication that the pit had been reopened. This is also why Petrie was surprised to find two mummies in the same foundation; once their jewels and hairdos had been examined, one was dated from Trajan's reign and the other from that of Commodus, nearly a century later.
Painted from a live model?
Were these portraits painted from the living model, or on the features, already stiffened, of a corpse ready to be entrusted to the embalmers? At first, one is attracted to the second hypothesis: after all, all these portraits belonged to the realm of the dead, whether they were conceived as funerary masks or imagines. As Roman practice called for the mold to be taken from the face several hours after death, it is difficult to imagine the Egyptian Romans calling for a painter while they were still alive. Yet these portraits are so alive, their eyes are so penetrating that, intuitively, it would seem impossible for a painter, brilliant though he might have been, presented with a lifeless face, to animate the gaze to that extent, to show a hint of a smile, an imperceptible frown or a slight shrug.
Painted from a live model?? The experts' opinions
The experts' opinions could not be more diverse: Smith feels that all the portraits were painted post mortem. Wilcken feels, on the contrary, the model was alive when the painter recorded the features. Drerup believes that the artist posed his model, but that the portrait was specifically for the funeral. Reinach takes the same position, but with qualifications: the patron would have summoned the artist with a "profane" goal, to adorn his house, to make sure that his image showed up well in the exhedra; later, after his death, the painting would have been reworked in order to meet the ritual's requirements. For his part, Ebers thinks that there are two distinct traditions: one, the "profane" portrait, the Salonbild [parlor portrait], and the other, the "sacred" portrait meant for the mummy; he tends to believe, however, that the "sacred" portraits were nothing more than copies of the portraits, done by secondary artists; as no "profane" portraits were found in Fayyum, all the originals must have been lost. Buber comes to the same conclusions: noting that some of the portraits occupy the entire surface of the panel, while others have significant margins; he considers that the former were the "profane" portraits, and the latter, which would be partly covered by the linen bandage-strips, were painted for the mummy. Finally, Gayet disputes all the opinions; in his opinion there is no difference between "sacred" and "profane" portraits, not should there be an attempt to determine whether the portraits were painted in vivo or post mortem, they were all bought from painters or even merchants who offered their clients a sampling of race, type, age, attire, hairdo and jewels; all that was left to do was choose from the selection which best resembled the dear departed. The Fayyum portraits were clearly painted from a live model; they were displayed in the house, only assuming their ultimate purpose at the time of death, reworked if necessary to meet the ritual's requirements. One final argument would seem to be determining; if the portraits were painted for the funeral, it would be logical to assume that the portraits depicted their subjects as they appeared in death. It was not deemed necessary to systematically examine all the Greco-Roman mummies. Under X-ray, however, some of the mummies revealed some strange secrets: the Ny Carlsberg Glyptothek in Copenhagen owns one of the most beautiful Hawara portraits, also one of the oldest, dating from Vespasian's reign; an energetic man, at his physical peak with a strong face, both intelligent and sensual. Under the bandage-strips and the shrouds, the X-rays revealed the body of an old man, an octogenarian with little hair, gnarled joints, a hunched back and worn-down teeth; the portrait had thus been painted some forty years before its model's death. The same applies to the Demetrios in the Brooklyn Art Museum, one of the most compelling portraits from the Flavian period: one might guess the model's age to be forty-five, while an inscription on the first shroud indicates that he "left the mortal coil at the age of eighty-nine". We know that the Egyptian Romans were too taken with verisimilitude to adopt "ideal portraits"; in both cases, the two portraits were painted well before the patron's death. That notwithstanding, we do not believe that the Fayyum portraits were profane works, works to fit the occasion; Pliny the Elder has described the veneration shown to one's family's effigies, even while they were still alive. An image of life, the Fayyum portraits are also a challenge to eternity.
The portraits up closes
If, however, one examines the portraits closely, to scrutinize the feel, the grain, turn them over, handle them, one must make some curious observations; one first notices that the back is often scratched and soiled, with traces of plaster and bitumen, as though the portraits had been embedded in a mortar frame before being placed on the mummy. Others bear traces of nails and dowels around their edges. In Hawara, Petrie even found one which still bore the string used to hang it. There is no possible doubt: before being made into funerary masks, the Fayyum portraits had another function, at least domestic, if not ornamental. Pliny informs us that Roman tradition was not uaware of genre portraits; the Fayyum portraits were perhaps also that. Removing the portraits from the linen bandage-strips and shrouds which imprisoned them, it became evident that a number of them had kept all or part of their original frame: painted wood beading, raised stucco ridges, sometimes gilded, adorned with ivy and vine motifs or, even more simply by larger purple or ochre borders, painted directly on the panel. One Worcester portrait still has its entire frame: rectangular, it is edged with a painted border, adorned with a garland of small pearls. To be fitted on to the mummy, to occupy the place reserved for them, most of the portraits were transformed: when they were too large, they were trimmed, when they were too small, they were enlarged with several hasty brush strokes directly on the shroud. As neither the square format nor the tondo were well-suited to the head, the upper corners were sawed off and the sides were planed down to give the panel the characteristic form of an elongated stele. If the portrait broke while being manipulated in this manner, it was crudely restored with cloth joints dipped in clear gesso and glued together. Moreover, it would seem that religious imperatives might have dictated that the portraits be altered; one of Hawara's most beautiful panels, that of a patrician with a heavy face but transfigured by a master's brush, had literally been "redressed"; his attire, perhaps judged unsuitable for death, had been covered with a thick coat of white paint, the second artist not making any attempt to mold the material. The beautiful young girl from Antinopolis, whose neck appears to be haloed in gold, had also been mistreated: examining it under X-ray, it was discovered that this precious mist, a clumsy evocation of an ousekh necklace, was perhaps covering up a first necklace, a dog collar made up of several rows of gold disks. This would lead one to believe that a number of the jewels, ritual crowns placed on the deceaseds' foreheads, were added at the time of the funeral, as though to exalt their new-found divinity. It should be pointed out that all the modifications observed, all the interventions were done quickly with last-minute haste and crudeness, and they attest to a complete disregard for the originals. There were even cases in which the portrait was damaged, broken or neglected, the model being dead and it was not deemed necessary to inter the mummy with its imago, and it was then reused: the Dresden Museum owns a panel on the front of which is the effigy of a woman, painted in encaustic, dating from the first or second century A.D., while the back bears the representation of a man, painted in tempera, from the second half of the third century; the latter, incidentally, is mediocre.
The Fayyum portraits and singularity
Despite their similarity, the portraits contain differences which the eye must be trained to discern, distinctive singularities and accents: this is thus an art form which is less formulaic, as one would be tempted to think at first sight, than it is a modulation, based on an ideal type. To the extent that the Fayyum portraits are not a "group" or a set, subject to the principles and methods of the historian, but works concerning individual people and unique life-styles, it is evident that it is this uniqueness which merits attention. It becomes a question of sensitivity; it implies that in the classifications used, the feeling of contact should be perceived rather than a theory reached from a set of concepts.
The Fayyum portraits and museums
Today, the Fayyum portraits hang in museums, but it should be noted that museum collections and most private collections are made up of fragments. Only the portrait was recovered from the sarcophagus and even from the tomb. This is, moreover, the fate of most works of art: Malraux observed that a crucifix becomes a museum piece as soon as it is removed from the church and thus separated from its original function. Museums, as well as books, force us to look differently at things, even at that which we call "art". A no less legitimate perception than that of the historian, on the condition that the changes it entails are kept in mind: is one not awed when, after having admired Egyptian monuments in the Louvre, Berlin, Turin and New York, one discovers Luxor and Karnak, the very spots from which they were torn, but where something of their glorious splendor still remains.
The Fayyum portraits and the interrogation
The only things which remain are thin wood panels, a light, fragile material, a colored film on a linen which is no less fragile; and yet, not only the gaze, but also this long interrogation, which never ceases, emanate from these objects; they obsess us, as though we were personally concerned. And, how can we fail to be, when the eye and the spirit are united in features which could well be our own? This is not say that the hereafter becomes apparent, or even comes within reach, but it does take on a tangible value which affects us; the eyes dominate the portrait as though, with no regard for type, age or gender, a certain magnetism give them life and brings us life in their presence. The pupil is not dilated (the Fayyum artists were unaware of the effect) but is huge, surrounded by a cornea so vast that it could be likened to "a pebble abandoned by the sea", perhaps a remembrance of the inlays of bygone days. A pupil enlarged to equal the dimension of the interrogation and which the white of the eye transforms also into a somber star. But is not our life on earth akin to a pebble tide-borne on the sand, and our hopes, beyond death, like so many stars in the infinite night?
The Fayyum portraits and realism
The determining point is that, beneath the layer of flesh and blood the artist explores , be it in its alterations or even, sometimes, its defects, there is a persistent manifestation of something which goes beyond individuality. If realism consists of reproducing realistic traits, which means what the eye perceives, one could say that the Fayyum portraits are realistic, although they are in no way limited to this aspect. The attention paid by the artist to his models is only one aspect of his art; that whitch is yielded to perception, to the eye, and which can, in one word be called identity, is both enveloped and underlined by a formal set of tenets which transcend the delimitations of realism.
The Fayyum portraits and the present
Going back to the portraits, one can observe that, whatever the superficial differences, one can reach another level through increased attention, namely that of spiritual import; as though the artist, faced with the oneness of his models, tried to bring them, feature by feature, to the point where the spirit opens itself to another dimension, to a common destiny. One can well wonder whether the Fayyum portraits pose a fundamental question which art history has too often set aside. To study the discovery of the cities of the dead, to follow the strange trail of the painted panels, to group them under the name of "Fayyum art", to situate them in time, to analyze their relationship with other civilizations and other cultural pools and establish a chronology is one thing. This is dominated by the historical preoccupation of recreating the past. The facts established by means of the critic's fine-toothed comb culminate in an essentially scientific knowledge ; knowledge whose limits must, however be recognized. One might indeed imagine that the Fayyum portraits, exhaustively reevaluated under a different light, would finally cease to be a problem, that all the questions with respect to provenance, attribution and influence would finally be answered. Where would this lead us? To be faced with a body of work and facts, each as irrefutable as the next; but they would still be facts. And, even if one were able to define them according to beliefs, rites and their specific roles, we would still have to be dealing with facts. But we can sense that there is far more: frequently the actuality of the Fayyum portraits is invoked. We must take care though to avoid ambiguity; it is not simply the rediscovery of a realm which had long been considered secondary and marginal with respect to major art - Egyptian, Greek and Roman - nor is it a question of rehabilitation, as though by exploring these fringes, one would attain a comprehensive area of knowledge which could be defined as definitive. The actuality must be sought elsewhere, it must be understood as different from that which is defined by traditional knowledge. If we address the Fayyum portraits, it is because we have opened a new dialogue with them, discovered something in them not previously revealed by classical artistic expressions, which, not long ago, we believed constituted the basic essentials of our past. This past itself is transformed in function of our own evolution. It is in this perspective, I believe, that we feel the renewed attraction for expressions - outside the mainstream of major art forms - which show up our own doubts, these interrogations that bewilder and confuse us, that we cannot or hardly dare to formulate, as though it were improper to distrust that which we ourselves have wraught.
The media

The media

All the Fayyum portraits are either painted on wood or cloth, sized or unsized.

The wood

The thickness of the wood panels varies between 2 and 20 millimeters (.08 to .8"); it has been noted that the thinner panels often take the form of steles, that is to say that the upper edge is curved or the corners trimmed. Their dimensions vary between 40 and 44 centimeters (15.8 to 17.5") in height and 21 to 24 centimeters (8.25 to 9.5") in width. The most common woods are native species, such as sycamore or acacia; one of the Antinopolis portraits was even done on a simple board of fig wood (ficus carica). But as the portraits were luxury items, imported species were also used, in particular cedar and lime, the density and fine grain of which were highly valued. With certain rare exceptions, and whatever the species chosen, the wood was always worked in such a way that the grain of the surface to be painted was vertical. One might imagine that this made it easier to place the portrait on the mummy's rounded form. Some rare portraits were painted directly on the wood; but the surface to be painted was mostly covered with a white coating, the texture of which was smooth and dense, sometimes tinted by adding blue or black pigments. In most of the cases studied, this coating was made up of calcium sulfate, or plaster, to which was added a varying quantity of an albuminoid binder - this is gesso. Gesso had been know in Egypt since the earliest days of antiquity; it was first identified in King Djoser's funerary suite in Saqqara, where it was used to attach elements of blue decorative faience to the walls. Statues and statuettes from the Old, Middle and New Kingdoms were also covered with gesso before being polychromed. The painters of the New Kingdom did not alter the formula in preparing the walls of the tombs they were decorating. During the Ptolemaic and Roman eras, the funerary masks were made of molded gesso or, more rarely, molded on a core of papyrus or a mass of sized cloth. The carefully polished wood, covered with a coat of gesso, which was allowed to dry, then, after being smoothed, was ready to be painted. With a few brush strokes, in black or in red ochre, the artist quickly sketched his model. Some of these sketches, the first expression of creation, have been found on the very back of the panel.

The canvas

Canvas was another medium. It was used prior to the advent of the Romans, as attested by small votive paintings on linen, exhumed in Deir el-Medina and Deir el-Bahara, representing the deceased before his table of offerings or his arrival at the portal of the Amenti; these date from the 18th to the 21st Dynasties. But the oldest example of painting on canvas, currently preserved in the Turin Museum, dates back to the first half of the fourth millennium BC; found in fragments at Gebelein, it represents the preparations for a funeral ceremony. In the Fayyum ateliers, sized or unsized linen was used nearly as often as wood. Its suppleness leads one to believe that it was reserved for funerary portraits only, with no other function than simply to be placed upon the mummy.
The pigments
We know that the legendary brightness of Egyptian paintings comes from the quality of the pigments used, nearly all are of mineral origin, longer-lasting than organic pigments. The palette of Egyptian artists of the Pharaonic Period, and that of the Fayyum painters who succeeded them, was just as extensive as ours, as it offered an infinite variation black and white - and thus grey, browns - from beige to dark brown, blues and reds which, when combined produced violet, yellow and green.

Black, white and grey

Much like gesso, to which it is related, white was made from carbonate or calcium sulfate. Black was based on charcoal, ground to a fine powder, or soot; pyrolusite, a manganese derivative from the Sinai region, was very rarely used. Grey was the result of mixture of variable proportions of black and white, or sometimes extracted from natural clay with iron added.

The browns

If brown was not the result of a combination of red and black, it consisted of natural ochres and, more rarely, of iron oxides. All reds were based on iron oxides, even that of the Egyptian soil of which Pliny sang the praises under the name of sinopis and rubica.

The blues

The blues were extracted from azurite, a copper carbonate originated in the Sinai. Traces of azurite were found, deposited on the bottom of a shell which an artist in Meidum had used as a paint pot as early as the 4th Dynasty. From the dawn of history, if no azurite was to be had, a deep blue frit was made which, when analyzed, reveals a copper-calcium silicate; it was obtained by fusing calcium and copper carbonates, malachite for example, sand and, apparently, natron; this would be the caeruleum of which Vitruvius spoke.

The yellows

There were two kinds of yellow: yellow ochre for less intense tones, naturally abundant all over the country; for the others, orpiment, normally derived from arsenic trisulfide, was used. During the New Kingdom, a time when gold was considered the supreme symbol of the divine essence, the artists preferred orpiment, whose warm tones on hypogeum walls glistened like the precious metal. Despite its sinister reputation (its components are all toxic and even deadly), orpiment was still largely used by the painters of the great Alexandrian schools.

The greens

Common greens were produced by combining blue and yellow, but the painters preferred a frit with cupreous components or simply ground-down malachite from the Sinai region.

The oranges, violets and pinks

Orange, violet and pink were made by respectively blending combinations of red and yellow, red and blue and red and white. During the Greco-Roman period, a more intense pink was developed, rawer than the traditional pink, by adding madder root extract to gesso which had been diluted with water; madder was first imported from Greece, then introduced in the Fayyum area. This pink, rather similar to what we call Turkey red, was popular during the entire Roman period. The ground pigments, cleansed of their impurities, came in the form of compact cakes in stone paint pots. They were then ready to be mixed with the binders.
The vehicles
The Egyptians did not know the oil technique which we traditionally use, soaking the pigments in stable oil, such as nut or linseed oil, which then, expected to the air, slowly dry. From the time of the first Dynasties, the favored vehicles were water with gum, gluten glue or pure albumin , most often, egg white (tempera technique) and "compounded" wax, enriched with malleable resins (encaustic technique).
The techniques of creation
The tempera technique, brought to prominence from the time of the Old Kingdom in Meidum and throughout the Middle and New Kingdoms in Beni Hassan and Thebes, is too well-known to spend much time on. The ground pigment, soaked in water, was applied to the medium, a wall or a panel, coated with dry gesso. The tempera portraits may be recognized by their matte finish, their stifled colors and their crisp, sharp graphics. Until the end of the second century AD, encaustic was preferred to tempera, being more flexible, richer and allowing brilliant colors to sing out, glorifying a serpentine line, a delicate form. Despite Pliny's comments, the encaustic technique still poses many problems to contemporary commentators; in and of itself, the process is simple, as it only differs from tempera by the choice of vehicle, wax instead of water. According to Pliny, it would seem that the pigments were mixed with cera punica, then applied while still hot. Once the work was finished, the wax having set, a heated metal instrument, apparently a bronze plaque, was delicately run over the panel, thus softening the vehicle and producing the blend which was the hallmark of the masters' works. Encaustic painting was made famous by Pausanias, Apelles' rival, but the chronicles do not reveal its inventor's name: Ceres pingere, ac picturam inurere quis excogitaverit non constat. This process, often experimented with from the eighteenth century on, has given nothing less than catastrophic result. One can therefore suppose that the exegetes of Natural history misinterpreted the original text. One of the more eminent specialists in the techniques of Antiquity, Philippe de Tubières, Count of Caylus, who, in 1755, presented his treatise on encaustic painting and wax painting to the Académie des Belles Lettres was the first to translate picturam inurere as "fix the paint by heating it" and not "burn the paint" or "run an iron over it". He ran the experiment which was nearly disastrous! The terms urere and inurere would thus apply to the vehicle, the wax itself, rather than the finished work. In fact, Pliny reports that the cera punica was obtained with beeswax,usta - "burned" - several times, that is to say, boiled in sea water, enriched with sodium carbonate and natron. This was done to eliminate impurities, bleach the wax and make it flexible for brush application. Exposed to sun beams and then moon beams, it thus acquired, if the author is to be believed, stability through this atmospheric exposure. The submission of several Fayyum portraits to laboratory analysis, raised some doubt as to whether beeswax was cera punica's base material; experts observed that the degree of fusion of the sampled material was, in fact, much higher than in the raw material. Without refuting the analysis results, it has, however, been generally accepted that the processing with sea water and natron and particularly the age of the analyzed materials were solely responsible for the noted modifications. From the time of the first decades of the third century AD, artists superimposed the two techniques: the portraits were painted in tempera, then covered with a film of wax. The fragile pigments were thus protected, the colors intensified, all the while respecting the sharp graphics, which tempera alone delivered. Careful examination of the portraits also reveals a combined use of the two techniques: the artist used tempera for the backgrounds, boldly hatch marked, for the clothes, sketched in with rough brush strokes, while encaustic was used only for the face, which needed a more refined finish and, above all, this delicate form, obtained by light blending strokes in decreasing amounts of clear ochre. A study of the portraits under oblique light reveals the extent to which the artist was careful in using his brush to underline the facial structure, to round the neck, emphasize a projecting cheek bone or the fullness of a chin by means of impasto. In the most precious portraits, the necklace, jewels and sometimes the hair were done in light relief: the artist raised the field by modeling the gesso, or by fashioning diadems, earrings and necklaces with the wax. These precious elements were then covered with gold leaf, attached with egg white; their thickness varied between .02 and .09 millimeters. Some of the gold leaf examined was less than .001 millimeters thick!
The instruments of creation
In studying the technique of the painters of Antiquity, no problem is thornier than that of the atelier. Pliny, who described artists' equipment in great detail, gave names to round brushes, flat brushes and spatulae, about which the specialists are far from unanimous: his cestrum, viriculum and cauterium are still subjetc to discussion. From the time of the first dynasties until the third century AD, Egyptians used a native rush stalk, the juncus maritimus; the rush was topped, cut to the desired length and one end was beveled, then hammered or chewed to separate the fibers. Full lines were drawn with the flat of the brush, fine lines with its edge, while the other end of the stalk, sharpened, was used to scratch in the color and correct the drawing. Eleven of these calami, discovered in a 18th Dynasty tomb, were 23 to 26 centimeters long with a brush width of 1 to 2 centimeters. During the Greco-Roman period, reeds, phragnites communis, were preferred to rushes; they were cut in a double bevel, much like our quills pens. When new, they were approximately 27 centimeters long. They were recut when the edge became too worn; excavations in one of Thebes' Copt communities uncovered some which measured no more than 6 centimeters. These round brushes were also of plant origin: they were made of palm fibers gathered in a fasciculus, folded in half and joined at the ends; some were discovered at Deir el-Medina, still bearing traces of color. The finest brushes were taken from the palm tree's medial vein and, like calami, were hammered or chewed at one end; the examination of the decorative paintings at Tel el-Amarna disclosed minuscule fiber fragments in the pigments. In all likelihood, the artist's equipment was limited to round and flat brushes of varying thickness. Macro photographic examination of the portraits does not indicate the use of the spatula; the impastos which can be distinguished under oblique lightseem to have been made with a scraper or, simply with the upper end of the brush. Today, it is accepted that the Fayyum portraits were painted on an easel, in a vertical position, for as the discerning observer can make out, on most, drops and sometimes streaks are always directed toward the bottom of the panel. We know nothing about the Greek and Roman artists' easels, as Pliny only uses the vague term - machina. On the other hand, thanks to a relief in Mereruka's mastabah in Saqqara, we do know about the easels of the Egyptian masters of the Old Kingdom: the deceased seated, calamus and paint pot in hand, puts the finishing touches on a composition grouping the three seasons of the year, akhet, peret and chemou; the painting rests on a wooden stand with a notched pull to adjust the angle. This is probably the oldest representation of an artist at work which has ever come down to us.
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