Friday, January 30, 2004

Fayoum Portraits' Cultural Source Debated

"The so-called Fayoum portraits, more than 1,000 of them, are the largest body of ancient portable paintings to have survived. The use of the word 'Roman portrait' was rejected by British archaeologist Flinders Petrie after his discovery of 300 portraits in excellent condition from a massive cache of mummies in Fayoum in 1888. At once the term 'Fayoum portrait' was coined. This was an acceptable but not accurate term, as they were not to be found in Fayoum alone. The extraordinarily beautiful 2,000-year-old portraits have been found on mummies in Egyptian burial grounds not only in Fayoum but also in 'middle' and Upper Egypt and even on the Mediterranean coast, all dating to between the first and fourth centuries.

Still they did not escape controversy. Specialists in Graeco-Roman art regarded them as Egyptian, but Egyptologists considered them to be works of the early years of the Christian era when Egypt was under Roman occupation, and therefore out of their sphere. For too long art historians neglected these masterpieces. Today they are receiving their due, with one startling fact to emerge being the possibility that the portraits inserted into the wrappings of mummies may not be representative of Roman provincial art, as earlier described, but created by Egyptians for Egyptians. In other words, they may not be portraits of the Mediterranean aristocracy who controlled Egypt in Roman times, but of Egyptians themselves. "
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