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Christianity and Monasticism in the Fayoum OasisEssays from the 2004 International Symposium of the Saint Mark Foundation and the Saint Shenouda the Archimandrite Coptic Society in Honor of Martin Krause$

Gawdat Gabra

Print publication date: 2005

Print ISBN-13: 9789774248924

Published to Cairo Scholarship Online: September 2011

DOI: 10.5743/cairo/9789774248924.001.0001

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Fayoum Portraits and their Influence on the First Coptic Icons

Fayoum Portraits and their Influence on the First Coptic Icons

(p.247) 21 Fayoum Portraits and their Influence on the First Coptic Icons
Christianity and Monasticism in the Fayoum Oasis

Gawdat Gabra

American University in Cairo Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter examines the portraits in the Fayoum Oasis in Egypt made in the funerary context and investigates their influence on the first Coptic icons. The Fayoum paintings, usually encaustic, sometimes tempera, show the subject's head and shoulders on a thin wooden board, and are held in place on the mummy with bandages, like the plaster portraits. The composition is always surrounded with small scenes or motifs of an Egyptian type. This chapter provides relevant photographs.

Keywords:   portraits, funerary paintings, Fayoum Oasis, Egypt, encaustic painting, tempera paintings, Coptic icons

FROM THE END of the third century b.c. the Egyptian population began to mingle with that of the Greeks settled in Egypt since the time of Alexander. The adoption by the Greeks of local social and religious customs led naturally to a fusion of artistic style and iconography, which was to develop fully with the Roman conquest. It is in the funerary context, and particularly in the art of the portrait, that this fusion of Egyptian and Greco-Roman tradition can best be seen. It is a combination that produced works as beautiful as any previously created.

The Greeks, in adopting Egyptian beliefs and mortuary rites for their

Fayoum Portraits and their Influence on the First Coptic Icons

Fig. 21.1. Mask of Crates, Deir al-Madina, Louvre Museum, Egyptian Department, third century. © Louvre Museum.

(p.248) own burials, employed Egyptian artisans to embalm their bodies, which were then covered with a mask made of ‘cartonnage’—pressed papyrus or packed fabric—decorated all over with painted motifs (fig. 21.1). These mummies may be placed in the very same tradition as the purely Egyptian mummies of the same period. From the first century a.d. the Romans introduced innovations when they replaced the cartonnage either with plaster masks or busts or with wooden boards or shrouds painted with the image of the deceased (Parlasca 1966; Grimm 1974).

The plaster busts were sculpted in the round, enabling the artist to create a more realistic likeness of the deceased, as in the Greek and Roman conception of a portrait. They have been found in the most Hellenized regions of Egypt, in the Fayoum, and especially in Middle Egypt (Hermopolis, Antinoöpolis). The painted portraits are commonly known as “Fayoum portraits” because the greatest number of them has been found in this region; however, many examples come from around Memphis, Antinoöpolis, or Thebes. In addition, in 1991, the Polish team from the University of Warsaw discovered in the necropolis at Marina al-Alamein, on the Mediterranean coast, the mummy of a young man, dating from the beginning of the second century A.D., complete with his well-preserved painted portrait (Daszewski 1992: 34–35).

Fayoum Portraits and their Influence on the First Coptic Icons

Fig. 21.2. Mummy with bandages and painted portrait, Louvre Museum, Egyptian Department, second century. © Louvre Museum.

These paintings, usually encaustic, sometimes tempera, show the subject's head and shoulders on a thin wooden board, and are held in place on the mummy with bandages, like the plaster portraits fig. ( 21.2). These portraits are sometimes replaced with linen shrouds painted with a full-length representation of the deceased, alone or accompanied by (p.249) Egyptian deities. The composition is always surrounded with small scenes or motifs of an Egyptian type. The custom of painting on linen cloth goes back to a remote period of Egyptian history: bandages and shrouds often bear hieroglyphic inscriptions or representations of deities.

However, the tradition of the painted portrait is, in style and technique, foreign to Egypt. We must turn to Italy to find its direct antecedents in paintings found in Rome, and at Herculaneum and Pompeii, themselves most likely descended from a more ancient tradition originating in Greece. Texts by Pliny the Elder (Natural History, Book XXXV: chapter 34) testify to the existence of this tradition.

The Greeks and Romans used portraits either to glorify the person during his lifetime (in the case of members of the imperial family or other important people), or to honor the memory of the deceased. The emperor's image, whether sculpted, engraved, or painted, was the indispensable element of the imperial cult. Its presence in public places, such as in the courts, served as a proxy for the emperor to which was transmitted his real power. Clear evidence of this is provided by a wooden medallion, dating from the beginning of the third century, kept in the Museum of Berlin (Thompson 1982: 46). It represents Septimus Severus, Julia Domna, and their two sons Geta and Caracalla (the face of Geta was effaced following his assassination by his brother). Furthermore, Pliny the Elder (Natural History, Book XXXV: chapter 2) relates that people kept wax effigies of the ancestors in their houses and carried them in funeral processions, testimony to their power of protection. In Egypt, ancestor worship was consistent with the need felt by each Egyptian to perpetuate the features of the deceased in order to ensure his survival in the afterlife. Thus certain of these paintings, sometimes provided with a wooden frame and a means of hanging, were commissioned from life for use at home; Flinders Petrie excavated in a tomb at Hawara a portrait of a woman (now at the British Museum) set into two wooden frames and hung with a twisted rope (Walker and Bierbrier 1997: no. 117, pp. 121-122). Another, fitted with two lateral panels, formed a triptych: the deceased was placed between the figures of Isis and Serapis (Thompson 1982: 8, 24–25). The paintings were probably set in niches in the walls of houses and later reused as funerary portraits.

Other framed panel paintings were known in Roman Egypt. Because they depict religious subjects they can be termed ‘icons,’ for their purpose was clearly cultic. Most of them were found in homes, chiefly in the (p.250) Fayoum. They depict one or more figures, either full- or half-length, in frontal poses with haloed heads. Among the gods Isis, Serapis, Harpocrates, Sobek, and Min, one also finds Fortune and Nemesis; as well as military and equestrian gods such as Heron. Thus these works clearly anticipate the early Christian icons. Moreover Christian authors compared the Christian cult of icons with the pagan veneration of gods through icons in private houses (Walker and Bierbrier 1997: 124–127).

With the emergence and spread of Christianity the custom of the painted portrait continued uninterrupted. Furthermore, analysis of the Christian paintings conserved in the Département des antiquités égyptiennes in the Louvre proves that the painters continued to use the

Fayoum Portraits and their Influence on the First Coptic Icons

Fig. 21.3. Christ and Abbot Mena, painting on wood, Louvre Museum Egyptian Department, end of sixth century. © Louvre Museum.

(p.251) same techniques (tempera and encaustic) and pigments known since earliest times in Egypt (Rutschowscaya 1992: 24–25).

Seven small wooden tablets dating from the fifth-sixth centuries a.d. were discovered in a burial chamber at Antinoë (Breccia and Donadoni 1938: 285–318). The subjects of five of them have been identified: one represents a veiled woman, another an angel or a victory, and the last three each depict a holy figure. Some of them have a hole at the top, perhaps so that they can be fixed to a wall. Afterward, they were piously placed in the tomb. In style, these first painted portraits resemble the last Fayoum portraits, which disappear at the end of the fourth century following the end of the practice of mummification.

These first Christian portraits were, therefore, not made as a substitute for the face of the deceased to immortalize his features.1 The two most famous of these come from monasteries. One, depicting the Bishop Abraham from the Saint Phoïbamon monastery at Dayr al-Bahri, is now in the Berlin Museum (Ägypten 1996: 148, n. 110). This one has a hole at the top so that it can be attached to a wall. The second, depicting Christ with the Abbot Mena from the Bawit monastery in Middle Egypt, is now in the Louvre (Rutschowscaya 1992: 32, 35–37, 58–59; Rutschowscaya 1998). This one (fig. 21.3), of extraordinary dimensions (57 centimeters square by 2 centimeters thick) could be set into the wall of a monk's cell or a church in the same way as the sculpted wooden panels found in their original positions in one of the churches of this monastery (Chassinat 1911: pl. XXIV, XXXVI-XXXVII). This display as pictures, inherited from Greek and Roman painting, may also be seen in the painted murals of this site (Clédat 1904: pl. XII-XIX).

Other fragments exist in the form of panels for friezes that could be attached to buildings (Rutschowscaya 1992: 69; Ägypten 1996: 146–147). This architectural use appears to be particularly Egyptian. Or they might be part of a piece of furniture, like the sixth-century casket in the Berlin collection, whose lid shows the head and shoulders of the young Christ while the sides are painted with the busts of archangels and holy figures Ägypten 1996: 147).

At a later date (ninth to twelfth centuries) the main church of the Monastery of Abu Maqar in the Wadi al-Natrun presents a style of decoration where paintings on wood and paintings on walls are intricately mixed (Leroy 1982: 23–27). Ethiopia, attached for centuries to the Alexandrian patriarchy, for a long time drew on the Coptic decorative repertoire. (p.252) Several Ethiopian churches, dating from between the ninth and fifteenth centuries, are decorated with wooden panels painted with holy figures set into the upper part of walls (Lepage 1974: 416–454; Lepage 1977: 368).

We know from archaeological evidence and later testimonies that the first churches already had a screen in sculpted wood separating the choir from the nave (fig. 21.4). It is possible that icons were placed on this screen, as they are today. However, Egypt never knew the spectacular

Fayoum Portraits and their Influence on the First Coptic Icons

Fig. 21.4. North church of Bawit, view to the east. © Bawit, J.-L. Bovot.

development that led, in Byzantine churches, to the creation of the immense iconostasis covered with row upon row of icons.

The veneration of icons, a huge subject of discord in the bosom of the church from its foundation up to the iconoclastic crisis (eighth to ninth centuries), certainly attracted as many faithful in Egypt as in the rest of the Christian world. We know from texts of the seventh and eighth centuries that the Copts were familiar with icons—portable or fixed images, in various techniques—which were objects of veneration and cult objects in the same way as were the relics of saints or martyrs (Rutschowscaya 1998: 35, 52–53).

The portable painted icon had a particularly important development because of the fact that it was, and continues to be, used not only in public worship but also in private worship in the home. It is, however, surprising (p.253) to note that painted icons disappear in Egypt from the seventh century, only to reappear in the eighteenth. Several reasons have been advanced for this, none of them for the time being very satisfactory (Langen 1990: 13–14; Coquin and Coquin 1995: 163).

If we compare the Egyptian works to icons of the same period from the Monastery of Saint Catherine in the Sinai (founded by the Emperor Justinian in the sixth century), we can measure the stylistic differences separating these two productions that, nevertheless, emerge from the same Greek and Roman traditions. The Saint Catherine's icons are linked to imperial Byzantine art, with their vigorously contoured faces and the supple folds in the drapery. The Coptic paintings are characterized

Fayoum Portraits and their Influence on the First Coptic Icons

Fig. 21.5. Tyche of Constantinople, painting on wood, Louvre Museum, Egyptian Department, first half of seventh century. © Louvre Museum, Ch. Larrieu.

by rounded, stylized forms, flat colors with little contour, sober folds in broad, well-defined loops. It is in the monasteries that a typically Egyptian style was born and developed. The numerous processions of holy figures adorning the walls of private oratories and churches are a product of the same artistic language, to such an extent, moreover, that the monastic style also appears in works of profane art. A striking example of this is provided in an inscribed Aramaic wooden tablet subsequently painted over with an image of Tyche, a figure personifying the city of Constantinople (Louvre, first half of the seventh century; Rutschowscaya 1992, 30–31, 60–62; fig. 21.5; Rutschowscaya and Desreumaux, 1992). This iconography, created by the sculptor Euthycides, a pupil of Lysippus, was later widely taken up in reproductions in the antique style. In contrast, the (p.254) image of Tyche turns resolutely away from this style, the painter clearly having been influenced by the style of the Monastery of Saint Jeremy at Saqqara, or perhaps even having worked there himself (sixth to seventh centuries; Quibell 1909: pl. IX).

Although the technique is quite different, tapestry portraits no doubt had a precise function, either in churches or in houses, as wall hangings, curtains, or altar cloths. They may, however, be compared to the painted portraits which they resemble in style and also because they too may have been considered icons: a portrait of Saint Theodore (fifth-sixth centuries, now at the Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, Mass.); the Colluthus fabric (mid-fifth century, now at the Brussels Museum), a joint portrait of Saints Peter and Paul (sixth-seventh centuries, now at the Berlin Museum; Rutschowscaya 1990: 47, 138–140). Finally, mention must be made of the celebrated sixth-century wall hanging in the Cleveland Museum. Here, the enthroned Virgin and Child are framed by the archangels Michael and Gabriel; above is an ascension scene (Rutschowscaya 1990: 135). The floral surround contains medallions enclosing the heads and shoulders of the twelve apostles, each identified by name. It is impossible not to make the connection with the great compositions in the apses of the

Fayoum Portraits and their Influence on the First Coptic Icons

Fig. 21.6. Virgin Mary with Child between Apostles, niche of room 6 in the Bawit monastery, Coptic Museum of Cairo, sixth-seventh centuries. © Louvre Museum, J.-L. Bovot.

(p.255) monasteries atBawit, Saqqara, Aswan, Esna, and Wadi al-Natrun; Leroy 1975: 37–54) where apostles, monks, or holy figures accompany the majesty of Christ or the Virgin (fig. 21.6).


(1.) The most exhaustive list of Coptic paintings on wood appears in a table in Rutschowscaya 1992: 36–37. (p.256)


(*) I would like to thank my friend, Susan Howe, for translating this text with such great skill.

(1.) The most exhaustive list of Coptic paintings on wood appears in a table in Rutschowscaya 1992: 36–37. (p.256)