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Tag Archives: Fayoum portraits

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This is what we know about her: she lived in Egypt, probably in the Fayoum region, though she may have lived in Antinooupolis, Memphis, or Thebes. She spoke Egyptian and possibly Greek as a second language. She was alive in the second century of the Common Era. Apart from her beauty and apparent wealth (the earrings, the necklace), we know nothing else about her except that when she posed for this portrait she did so knowing that it would one day serve as her passport to the afterlife.

Fayoum portraits, named after the Fayoum region in Egypt, are the oldest known portraits. They are a curious hybrid: the portrait, which represents the individuality of the sitter, is anchored in the Greco-Roman tradition. This frontal, realistic portrait (as opposed to the profile view of older Egyptian portraits) was then bandaged onto the head of the mummy as its face, a bit like a Greco-Roman postage stamp on an Egyptian body being sent on its way. As both John Berger and Jean-Christophe Bailly have pointed out, the fact that these portraits were destined for the afterlife imparts to them a certain poignancy: they look at us and at the same time they face their own mortality. They look into the face of death head on.

Gazing at the young woman in our Fayoum portrait gives me an irrepressible urge to sit down with her, have a cup of tea, or maybe invite her for dinner. This drive some of us have to discover and reach out to the other makes me think of a neighbor who invites foreign university students to her home for Thanksgiving dinner. At first it is a very solemn affair: they sit down with their different faces, languages, and customs to eat this strange, large bird on a platter. They are:  Yemenis, Bosnians, Italians, Indonesians; it changes every year. Gradually there is some pointing and gesticulating, then come the strange faces as the gamey taste of turkey is experienced, and eventually stories are told; there is laughter, there are smiles.

In much the same way that my neighbor brings together for an evening meal disparate parts of the world, painters through portraiture have invited the faces of the past to our table; their existence in our world defies the sitter’s own historicity; they are with us. In On the Theory of Knowledge, Theory of Progress Walter Benjamin describes this about the work of the historian:

At any given time, the living see themselves in the midday of history. They are obliged to prepare a banquet for the past. The historian is the herald who invites the dead to the table.

And the painter?

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I am indebted to Jean-Christophe Bailly’s incisive book on the Fayoum portraits: L’Apostrophe Muette (unfortunately not translated into English). The Metropolitan Museum of Art has one of the largest collections of Fayoum portraits; it is possible that there are some nice publications available there. I am planning on going there in May to see them.

Walter Benjamin is quoted from the work called The Arcade Project, posthumously published by the Harvard University Press. The book is divided into what Benjamin called convolutes and On the Theory of Knowledge, Theory of Progress is convolute N.

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