Thursday, March 3, 2016

The Fayum Portraits

And now, something totally different from what usually appears in this blog.  

I have for years been moved by a collection of ancient portraits discovered in Egypt affixed to mummies and preserved to the present day because of the extraordinarily dry conditions in the desert where the cemeteries in which these dead were buried are located.  The mummies and the portraits date from the first to third centuries AD.  They portray mostly young people and some children.  When the body of the dead was wrapped in strips of cloth, the portrait, painted on wooden boards using the Greek encaustic method, was affixed as the face of the mummy.  Every indication is that the painting is of the now dead person.  It is possible that the painting depicts the person when they were young.  But it is likely that they are realistic portrayals of the individual before he or she was overtaken by death.  If this is the case, then these paintings are a stark indication of how brief life was in the first centuries of the common era.

Evidently, portraits in this style were done throughout the Roman empire.  But they have survived to the present day primarily in Egyptian site of Fayum, but also in other Egyptian archeological necropolises found near Memphis, Philadelphia, Arsinoe, Antinopolis, Thebes, and several other places as well.

These paintings provide a unique window into the realities of Egyptian life during the Roman era.  But for me, as look at each picture, each human face, I find them full of pathos.  The contrast of faces so full of life, eyes so engaging, the life that lays behind each picture stands in stark contrast to the reality of death and its almighty power to cut off such life and hopes and dreams and network of relationships.  It reminds me that the faces that surround me now, the lives, the relationships, the hopes and dreams, are all similarly and precariously perched in time.  Of course we all think we are going to live our lives and pursue our business forever.  Living yet another day of good health and of circumstances that are mostly happy lends credence to this common deception.  Death is far from our thoughts, and we live care-less-ly day to day as if we can get away with living however we want to live and treating others however we want to treat them.

But the Fayum faces jerk us back to reality.  Earlier generations, closer to death than we are, understood the implications of death for life.  The following inscription appears in 17th and 18th century American tombstones:

Remember me as you pass by,
As you are now, so once was I,
As I am now, so you will be
Prepare for death and follow me.

The Fayum portraits were commissioned to remind the living of the dead who, until recently, were among them.  Shockingly realistic, they draw us into the lives of those portrayed.  Their voices are no longer heard, embraces no longer given, smiles no longer exchanged.  They raise the questions, for me at least: what is this brief life meant to be about, and (to paraphrase Francis Schaeffer) how should I then live?

So here they are.

The oldest known icon of Christ, 'Christ of Sinai' 6th century
encaustic painting, in the same style as the portraits above.

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