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.