PRE-PICTURES? Roman Portraits from FAYUUM

Portrait of a woman, c. A.D. 130.
Encaustic on cedarwood with added gilding; 41 x 24 cm (16 1/8 x 9 1/2 in.)
Musée du Louvre, Paris

THESE REMARKABLE PAINTINGS were exhibited in 2000 at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Fayuum is an area in Egypt colonized by the Romans some 200 years ago. It has a climate that has preserved organic material normally destroyed in more humid areas. Among the treasures preserved are payrus scrolls and these remarkable "portraits."

Painted with encaustic (wax plus pigment) on thin wood panels, they strike me as the very first "oil paintings" extant. Like oil, encaustic is rich and thick; it sits on the surface. It tends to present itself more emphatically than fresco or tempera.

The striking "realism" of these paintings has often been remarked upon. The portraits are not "pictures" as we consider pictures today -- nor were they intended to be. They were attached to mummy containers, in effect set into the upper parts of coffins, to replace more traditional sculptural masks. (Painting has often replaced sculpture throughout history.) What they lost in three-dimensional presence, they gained in the illusion of liveliness that only painting with lights and shades and colour can provide. Nevertheless, their high quality raises a host of questions.

Question: Does their realism reflect domestic painting of the time, now lost? Pliny the Elder speaks of famous Greek painters in encaustic, but his descriptions have mainly to do with subjects -- figures and figure groups -- more than with unified compositions. The evidence of murals at Pompeii would seem to confirm this. Were encaustic panel paintings made for dwellings (or public buildings) of the period? So much as been lost, so much of archaeology relies upon tombs and garbage dumps.

Question: If encaustic was used for domestic art, how was it presented?

Question: The shading, such as it is, is strikingly modern, often with warm to cool flesh tones. Dark paint tends to be reserved for hair and eyes. For all their stylization, the paintings possess a tremendous sense of individual personality, common as well in Roman portrait busts but here, if anything, more vividly present.


THE TECHNIQUE used in painting the majority of mummy portraits is called encaustic (Greek for "burnt in"). This term, used by ancient authors, is somewhat misleading, because heat is not absolutely necessary to attain the effects seen in the encaustic panels. Therefore, encaustic has come to mean any painting method in which pigment is mixed with beeswax. Researchers have found that a great variety of methods were used to achieve the desired effects in the encaustic paintings: hot or cold wax, under-painting with various colors, and a variety of soft or hard tools that were used cold or heated. To the modern viewer, part of the attraction of encaustic paintings is their similarity to oil painting, since the wax medium could be applied in thick layers showing a great variety of tool marks and free brush strokes. An important characteristic of encaustic mummy portraits is the use of wafer-thin gold leaf. In some pieces, the entire background is gilded, in others, wreaths and fillets are added, and jewelry and garment decoration is emphasized.
--Metropolitan Museum

Portrait of a boy inscribed in Greek with his name "Eutyches", c. A.D. 100­50
Encaustic on limewood; 15 x 7 1/2 in.
Metropolitan Museum, Gift of Edward S. Harkness, 1918


If you have answers or COMMENTS, I'd appreciate it if you'd pass them on to me. e-mail Terry Fenton