In May 1888 a passenger ship, the Thebes, brought William Flinders Petrie and his luggage from Alexandria to Liverpool. Both the man and the luggage were remarkable. Petrie was one of the first scientific archaeologists, but his science was placed firmly at the service of his religion. On the one hand, his first essay into Egyptology caused a mild shaking of heads among the British Israelites (believers that Britons were descended from the Lost Tribe) of his acquaintance, because he had conducted an accurate survey of the Gizeh pyramids, and undermined their belief that the Great Pyramid was perfect and therefore the work of God. On the other hand, his friend the Reverend A.H. Sayce recalls: “While Iwas with him Petrie discovered the actual brick-platform on which Nebuchadrezzar’s throne was erected during his invasion of Egypt, and of which the prophet Jeremiah has preserved the record. (xliii.10)”1

A great mortifier of the flesh, Petrie had lived, during his pyramid survey, in an ancient tomb, working at night, naked, guarded by a single (and no doubt quite hysterical) slave. By daylight, he shocked his female British visitors by not wearing socks. He pioneered a disgusting kind of field cuisine whose influence can still be detected in Egypt today (“Why hasn’t he died of ptomaine poisoning?” asked Lawrence of Arabia admiringly, as he scraped the green crust off the week-long-opened tinned kidneys). But Petrie was practical. When Amelia B. Edwards of the Egypt Exploration Fund conceived the idea that her subscribers might like to receive a genuine brick made without straw by an Israelite in bondage, and asked Petrie to send her a thousand such from Tell el Maskhuta, Petrie, for whom this would have been “trading in relics,” pointed out that one Egyptian brick was very much like another, and that they were frequently made without straw. Also, think of all the packing cases required….2

Since the beginning of 1888 Petrie had been working in the Fayum region in the north of Egypt, west of the Nile, and he had had great luck. The least of it was that he had found a papyrus manuscript of the Iliad, Book II. He had also found—in itself a modest object, but one to which great significance would be attached—the first framed painting to survive from antiquity. He had found the tomb of a painter and his paint-pots, which he was bringing home with him, along with the painter’s skull (he hoped to find out whether he was Egyptian or Greek). And most importantly he had found a large cache of mummy portraits. These were naturalistic Greek paintings in wax on wooden panels, dating from the Roman period—mainly from the second and third centuries AD—and most of them were in startlingly fresh condition. They had all originally been attached to mummies.

These mummy portraits, of which today about a thousand are known, were at that time extremely rare. Only twenty had found their way into museums or other collections, although the first had been discovered as long ago as 1615 by the Italian traveler Pietro della Valle.3 In the previous year, however, an Austrian dealer called Theodor Graf had managed to buy up another cache of portraits from the same period (although many of them were in tempera rather than wax, and therefore of less interest). Petrie knew of these, and he knew that they had already been offered in Paris and London for fantastic sums.4 Most probably he had not yet seen them. Nor would he have known that, at the time of his voyage home, a Munich newspaper was running a series of articles by the “poet-Egyptologist” Dr. Georg Ebers, in which the portraits were described, incorrectly, as belonging to the Ptolemaic period (which ended with the Roman takeover of Egypt in 30 BC). Petrie was aware—and despite his uprightness he was not immune to rivalrous feelings—that Henry Wallis of the South Kensington Museum (as the Victoria and Albert was then known)had gone to Egypt expressly to look for the kind of portrait he, Petrie, had stumbled upon by chance. During the course of his excavations in the Fayum, he had done his best to keep quiet about the nature of his finds.

But now there seems to have been a race on. Petrie’s private backers (with whom he would split his finds three ways) had already booked a gallery in the Egyptian Hall, Piccadilly, and Petrie had written ahead to his father asking him to prepare forty oak frames in which to display the best of the portraits. He had already acted to preserve these, in the field, by a technique of his own devising, involving an alarming-sounding portable brazier:

The wire-grating was filled with red-hot charcoal, and then the frail portrait was slid beneath it, a few drops of melted wax laid on it, and watched. In a few seconds the fresh wax began to spread, and then at once I ladled melted wax all over the surface; a second too long, and it began to fry and to blister; too sharp a tilt to drain it when it came out, and the new wax washed away the paint.5

Arriving in Liverpool at the beginning of June, he went straight to London, where he had two weeks to unpack his finds, set up the display, mount and frame the portraits himself, write the labels for these and all the numerous exhibits, write the catalog, and organize the pre-publicity. The show opened on June 18.


The Egyptian Hall was an imaginative building, dating from 1812, and supposedly designed in imitation of the temple at Dendereh. It was a strictly commercial venture, and had nothing originally to do with Egypt or Egyptology beyond the style of its façade, although it did house, in 1821, Belzoni’s exhibition of the sarcophagus of Seti I, with replicas of two chambers from his tomb. It was a place to show anything sensational: a huge painting, a freak, a model of the Battle of Waterloo—anything that would draw a crowd prepared to part with a shilling. In 1820 Géricault showed The Raft of the Medusa there, and it was supposedly seen by fifty thousand people. Géricault made between 17,000 and 20,000 francs out of the event, which sounds like a handy sum. In the same year, to the delight of Hazlitt and the dying Keats, Benjamin Robert Haydon showed his Christ’s Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem there; 31,000 visitors came, but Haydon’s creditors pounced on the proceeds. Among the freak shows seen at the Egyptian Hall were a family of Laplanders, the original Siamese Twins, and P.T. Barnum’s American midget General Tom Thumb. One of the later successes of the hall in 1896 was the first moving picture show to play in London before a paying audience.

Such was the setting for Petrie’s exhibition. The classical scholar Dominic Montserrat, who has generously allowed me to draw on his unpublished research, points out that throughout the period of the exhibition the Egyptian Hall was advertised on the front page of the Times as “England’s home of mystery and the arcana” offering “expositions of automata-mental telegraphy, so-called thought transference, and ventriloqual sketches.”6 And it is as well to remember this context when we think of the original viewing public and their enthusiastic response. Egyptology has always had its mystical undertow. The reviewer in the Illustrated London News did not call Petrie an archaeologist—he called him a traveler “gifted with all the instincts of an explorer.” And when he summed up the message of the mummy portraits it was in terms of thought transference: “‘Think not of the wan, sunken face within,’ the artist seems to say to us: ‘but remember your dear one as she lived, with the glow of life quivering on her cheek and the light of life beaming from her eye.”‘ 7

The accompanying illustration shows a part of the exhibition as it was laid out, with coffin lids held half open by string, permitting a glimpse of the linen-wrapped mummies. (Many of the objects illustrated can be seen in the British Museum’s current show, Ancient Faces.) On the walls, in between complete standing mummy cases, hang the portraits which Petrie had detached from their often disintegrating mummies, mounted on the appropriate shade of cardboard, and framed. From the moment Petrie first found the portraits, he thought of them as works of art which should be seen in the context of the European tradition. As he wrote half-jocularly in his journal:

I have the notion—beside any special exhibition that we make of these—that it would be a grand joke to send in all the paintings that I bring home to the winter exhibition of Old Masters at Burlington House [i.e., the Royal Academy]. Most would go in readily for their art alone, apart from their history; and for technical interest Ishould think a dozen or more would be most welcome here.8

This early sense that what he had found came into the category of high art was soon elaborated. What he had found was the best evidence so far for what Greek painting had once been like:

Though only a sort of undertaker’s business, in a provincial town of Egypt, and belonging to the Roman age, when art had greatly declined, yet these paintings give us a better idea of what ancient painting was, and what a high state it must have reached in its prime, than anything yet known, excepting some of the Pompeian frescoes. Mannerism is evident in nearly all of these, and faults may be easily detected; yet there is a spirit, a sentiment, an expression about the better examples which can only be the relic of a magnificent school, whose traditions and skill were not then quite lost…. If such was Greek painting still, centuries after its zenith, by obscure commercial artists, and in a distant town of a foreign land, we may dimly credit what it may have been in its grandeur.

Petrie took a genuine pride in the fact that “the National Gallery now begins its history of paintings far before that of any other collection; the finest examples left, after the selection of the Bulak Museum [the forerunner of the Cairo Museum], being now at Trafalgar Square.”9


Today the National Gallery’s “history of paintings” begins in 1260 and ends in the year 1900. But for a while the Gallery not only began, in the foyer, with Fayum portraits. It continued with Byzantine icons. The story of ancient painting was thus linked to Gothic and Renaissance art. But by the 1930s this disposition was no longer convincing, and in 1936 the Fayum portraits were first lent, then more recently for the most part given, to the British Museum, along with the icons. Atypically Victorian sense of the connectedness of things—a sense of the present being rooted in the classical past—had lost its grip on the imagination.


The Victorians were not, of course, the first to speculate about the origins of classical painting, nor were their artists the first to set their practical minds to its reconstruction. The humanists were always using examples from stories of ancient art, and it is not surprising that Botticelli and Mantegna should, independently, have produced compositions called The “Calumny” of Apelles, based on a description by Lucian of a lost work by that famous master. Two other subjects, The Family of a Centaur and Alexander’s Marriage to Roxane, have their origin in a description by Lucian of lost works. 10 The earlier artists who painted them had to rely entirely on their imagination, since they knew nothing at all of Greek painting style, and the outcome of this leap of the imagination is likely to be more satisfactory than that of a too-slavish attempt to follow archaeological evidence.

But perhaps this is no more than to say that Botticelli is a better artist than a certain Carl Robert who, in the late nineteenth century, attempted to reconstruct the very detailed and full account Pausanias gives of paintings by Polygnotus at Delphi. Robert used Greek vase painting as his guide, and ended up with something that looks like the sum total of a large number of vases, set on a flat plane. One may ask why should a wall painting resemble a vase painting at all, when the one has to involve paint laid on some form of stucco, while the other has to be fired onto clay. Generally speaking, our idea of Greek painting is dominated by all those vases. If there was no French painting left from the last few centuries, but only a mass of French ceramics, we would have a strangely skewed notion of what French painting might have been like.

Nor is it only a matter of trying to imagine Greek wall paintings. There is plenty of evidence that the Greeks adorned their houses and public buildings with panel paintings of all kinds: images of the gods, portraits, landscapes, seascapes, still lifes, battle scenes, and mythological scenes. There is evidence for all of these genres either in ancient literature or in the fictive paintings visible in Pompeian murals, or in the mosaics that reproduce Greek paintings.

A recent exhibition that began in Amsterdam and went to Leeds took as its subject the related question of The Colour of Sculpture, charting the history of the perception that ancient sculpture had often been polychrome.11 The catalog dates this perception back to the latter part of the eighteenth century, to the researches of the archaeologist Quatremère de Quincy, who in the 1770s accompanied the painter David on a trip to Paestum. Ten years later, and perhaps in part as the outcome of their conversations, David included in his Brutus a statue of the goddess Roma which, though shown in shadow, was quite definitely polychrome. From then on, in various countries of Europe, the contemplation of art from other epochs became a regular subject for painting. The Colour of Sculpture catalog shows several paintings of this genre. What did a medieval sculptor’s studio look like in operation? In what circumstances were the Tanagra figurines made and sold? What did the Parthenon look like for the vernissage of the Elgin Marbles?

The last-mentioned scene is the subject of a painting (now in Birmingham) by Lawrence Alma-Tadema, who balanced extensive archaeological research with an imagination that said: What the heck, why shouldn’t Phidias have invited the citizens of Athens, and their wives, to look at the frieze while the scaffolding was still in place and the paint all fresh? And why shouldn’t the sculptor have remained at hand, to answer questions or receive compliments? Perhaps the past is not so very different from the present after all.

In another of these works of imagination underpinned by scholarship, The Picture Gallery (Burnley Museum, Lancashire), Alma-Tadema asked, in 1874, what a Roman art dealer’s premises would have been like. The figures in his composition, all portraits of contemporaries, include the dealer Ernest Gambart and, apparently, Paul Durand-Ruel. The pictures on the gallery walls are learned and teasing references to works of art recorded by Pliny, a Sacrifice of Iphigenia, a fragment of the famous Battle of Issus, whose appearance is known from the copy in mosaic that was discovered in Pompeii, and a picture of an ox, which we must imagine to resemble one painted by Pausias.

In other words, Alma-Tadema was interested in more than simply letting his imagination rip—he was keen to harness all the evidence he could for the accurate reconstruction of antiquity in every detail. He amassed a large photographic archive for this purpose. It is hardly surprising that he and his fellow artists should have been enthusiastic about Petrie’s exhibition:it answered questions which had been posed, time and again, by the artists of the previous century. The show provided the opportunity for Petrie to meet, and form a friendship with, Holman Hunt. Edward Poynter also came, and Sir Frederic Burton, a painter who had laid his brushes aside on becoming director of the National Gallery, was enthusiastic enough to persuade his trustees to buy four portraits (for a total of å£95). The Gallery was given seven more by Petrie’s backers.

The show was a success, and yet one has to admit that it fell short of total success in that it did not fully change the general idea of classical painting. Just as the campaigners for the historicity of colored sculpture may have won the argument but failed in the long run to change the general idea of Greek sculpture as consisting of pure white marble forms, so the Fayum portraits have not taken a central place in our notion of classical painting. They appear rather like a single episode in the history of art, an anomaly.

Even in Petrie’s estimate, which I quoted above, the paintings are almost apologized for, on account of their provinciality and distance from the zenith of Greek art. One has to remember that this idea of a decline in Greek painting has its origins in historical theory rather than archaeological evidence. Take, say, “Isidora,” the portrait of a young woman from the Getty Museum (cat. 108, see page 57 of this article), one of the very best in the Ancient Faces exhibition:Who is to say that it is provincial? What force does the word have when applied to an artist who could perfectly well have been trained in Alexandria? And who is to say that this work belongs to the nadir rather than the zenith of its tradition?


Only once in his journal of the 1888 Fayum excavations does Petrie indulge in that speculation about the characters of the sitters which became so typical of the Victorian responses to the portraits: he finds “a young man who was no beauty anyhow:he looks as though he would have made a very conscientious hard-working curate, with a tendency to pulpit hysterics.”12 As far as I can tell, it was not Petrie who began the tradition of racial speculation to which the portraits give birth, nor was he (unless I have missed something) responsible for the notion that a large number of them were representations of Jews.

In a way this is odd. Petrie was absolutely fascinated by the races of the Middle East, and a year before his Fayum finds he had published a volume of Racial Photographs from the Egyptian Monuments, undertaken at the request of Francis Galton (the theorist of inherited genius). Professor Sayce, mentioned above, was the author of a book called The Races of the Old Testament. Petrie, besides being a premature campaigner against smoking, was an ardent anti-Communist and wrote a book called Janus in Modern Life, in which, besides banning sport and “amusements” (excepting for those incapable of work), he

advocated limitation of the birthrate by the State, by encouraging the “best stocks” to breed by means of grants and privileges and penalizing the “lower class of the unfits” with compulsory work; their women would be encouraged to seek voluntary sterilization. The higher the social organization and reward of ability, the more intense will be the weeding of the less capable, and the more highly sustained will be the general level of ability.13

Petrie and Sayce and Amelia Edwards and their kind were—to coin a phrase—Old Testament Christians. What fired their imagination was the thought of all those tribes and races wandering around Egypt and Palestine, leaving proof of their passing, above and below ground. Petrie, just after the London show, was in Jerusalem, at Bishop Gobat’s orphanage school, when, his biographer tells us, he noticed two “decided Hittites,” boys who came from east of Jordan. In next to no time he was trying to organize English residents of Palestine to take racial portraits up and down the country. “If this succeeds,” he wrote, “we may learn a great deal as to the distribution of the Amorite, Hittite, Hyksos and of the races in Palestine.”14

In 1933 Petrie became a Palestinian citizen and went to live in Jerusalem. His attitude to the Arabs is dismissive: “We hear that 1,300 years of occupation is to be remembered, but what occupation?Only to destruction…. For 1,300 years the land has been desolate; is that a title to have the right to keep it so?… All that the Arab does is destroy to reduce it again to a desert; and then requires 30 acres for a family while the Jew only needs five.”15

Petrie had many of the makings of a Nazi, but not the love of sport, and not the anti-Semitism. Rather the opposite. And Amelia Edwards, the “Queen of Egyptology,” who seems to have been one of the pioneers of the racial reading of the Fayum portraits, was rather more down on Egyptians than she was on the Jews. Here is one of the portrait descriptions from a series of lectures with which she toured America:

She is probably of Romano-Egyptian parentage. The eyebrows and eyelashes are singularly thick and dark; the eyes long and of Oriental depth and blackness; and the swarthiness of the complexion is emphasized by the dark down on the upper lip. It is a passionate, intense-looking face—the face of a woman with a history.16

Edwards believed that the young man depicted in cat. 24 was a Jew, Diogenes the flute player. This misunderstanding arose from the fact that she thought the wooden label (cat. 238) and fragment of mummy wrapping (cat. 239) belonged to this portrait, whereas in fact they had been found beneath it. The label she translated as “Diogenes of the Flute of Arsinoe,” the wrapping as “Diogenes who abode at the Harp while he was alive.” So she imagined a Jewish flute player who lived at the sign of the Harp in Arsinoe:

There is a set look in the face as of some solemn purpose to be fulfilled; and the eyes arrest us, like the eyes of a living man. The hair is very thick and curly, and the features are distinctly Jewish in type. That he should be a Jew would be quite in accordance with his profession for the gift of music has ever been an inheritance of the children of Israel.

But she had the wrong label, and translated it wrongly.

This urge to make a good story out of the portraits has its parallel in the reception of the Oxyrhynchus papyri, which were found in the same period and which soon inspired a literature of their own. As Dominic Montserrat points out in his admirable and entertaining study, Sex and Society in Graeco-Roman Egypt, papyrus fragments at once seem sexy and exciting. In 1890, Anatole France published a novel called Thaïs, about a prostitute who becomes a saint. This was followed by Les Chansons de Bilitis (1894) by Pierre LouÌÀs, “a selection of sensual prose-poems with a Lesbian theme, purported to be translations from Greek texts found in the Egyptian tomb of a woman called Bilitis, who left her home in Pamphylia to have all kinds of sexy adventures, including one with Sappho.”17

The urge to make a romance of the past affected even Petrie, who probably never read a novel but who wrote some pages from the journal of Cleopatra. So Amelia Edwards was by no means alone. In 1890 she became the first person to tour America with her account of the Fayum portraits, a strenuous tour which she insisted on completing even though she fell downstairs in Columbus, Ohio, and sustained a compound fracture of the arm. On she went, lecturing in her slightly racy style: “The man is somewhat on the wrong side of fifty. His face is deeply furrowed, probably by business cares, and he looks straight out from the panel with the alert and resolute air of one who is intent on a profitable bargain….”18

In 1893, New Yorkers and visitors to the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago were able to see the collection of the Austrian dealer Theo-dor Graf, which had already toured Germany and Austria, and which seems to have stayed together much longer than Petrie’s because the prices asked were extortionate (and also there was some feeling that the works might not be authentic). The guidebook to the exhibition was by Georg Ebers, a Jew who had converted to Catholicism and who was, according to Montserrat, particularly interested in picking out the Jews among the portraits. One learns of one man whose features were “of an unmistakeably Semitic cast” whom the Berlin public called by Jewish names. Another was “a woman of wealth and splendid tastes. The public, it is said, believed she was the bedizened wife of a butcher…. She too, perhaps, was of Semitic race.” In addition there were men of “truly Greek features,” “men of Ethiopian blood,” and “a half-breed” who owed “his clear brown skin, thick whiskers, lips by no means thick, and expressive eyes to a father or mother of a nobler race.”19

Montserrat quotes two of Ebers’s steamier descriptions of young, bare-shouldered males—portraits whose implied nudity seems to suggest that they are members of a gymnasium. Pliny mentions such portraits of athletes, and Euphrosyne Doxiades, in her book The Mysterious Fayum Portraits, quotes this wonderful passage from the Oneirocritica (Interpretation of Dreams) of Artemidorus of Daldis:

A man dreamt that he went into a gymnasium in his home town, and saw his own portrait actually hanging up there. Then he dreamt that the whole frame surrounding the picture disintegrated. When another man asked him what had happened to his portrait, he seemed to say: “There is nothing wrong with my portrait, but the frame is broken.” Unsurprisingly, he went lame in both feet: for the gymnasium symbolized the good health of his entire body, while the portrait represented the area around his face, and the frame surrounding it meant the other parts of his body.

Here then are two portraits of youths, probably members of the gymnasium (and therefore of the elite). One is, according to Ebers,

the dark-olive son of rich parents, of Egyptian race, and perhaps of princely birth, for gold foliage is twined with his black hair. Defiance and sensuality accentuate his full lips, self-reliance sparkles in his large dark eyes, and…still enables us to look into the soul of a youth untroubled by any thought of death, who enjoyed all the pleasures of his age and was already satiated with some.

The other, by contrast, has

a face of light complexion, with hair cut straight of over the forehead. Softer boyish features are hardly conceivable, and yet this youth was not easily led…. His tutor may have found it hard to discipline this pupil, for a faint tinge of melancholy shrouds this sweet, purely Greek countenance. It would be easy to believe that this delicate blossom of manhood foresaw its early end.

Montserrat comments that “Ebers’s physiognomic and racial preconceptions turn the adolescent boys into either dissipated, hot-blooded sensualists (Oriental) or romantic, languid flowers who embrace death (Greek).”

The tradition of looking at the Fayum portraits and finding a gallery of Jews was led decisively in the direction of anti-Semitism by one Hans F.K. Günther in his Rassenkunde des jüdischen Volkes (1930). Günther, who had already written a popular account of the German people from the point of view of racial science, turned his attention to the Jews, and assembled a great photographic archive of mug shots, covering Jews or supposed Jews from every part of the world and every period from, practically, prehistory to the then-Marquis of Reading, Rufus Isaacs. He presents seven Fayum portraits, and provides them with abbreviated racial analyses of some elaboration: “eines griech- ägypt. Mischlings… vorw. orient. od. vorw. hamit. m. neger. (u. vor- derasiat.) Einschlag.” (A Greek-Egyptian half-breed…predominantly oriental or predominantly Hamitic with negroid (and Near-Asian) coloring.) Günther is out to prove that Jews are a product of a very early racial mixture (including negro blood), that their hatred of, and alienation from, the societies in which they live is such that they really ought to go somewhere else, perhaps Israel, that there are far too many of them in Germany and Eastern Europe, and so forth.

The last document in this tradition is the most extraordinary. Published in Hamburg in 1943 in a series of studies on the Jewish question (which looked into such issues as: What are the earliest caricatures of Jews to survive from antiquity?), Das Antike Weltjudentum included an analysis of eighty mummy portraits. The authors believed that of a population of eight million in the Egypt of the period, around one million were Jewish. These 12 to 13 percent belonged to the upper levels of society, and probably included “intellectuals,” tradespeople, civil servants, a sort of nouveau riche that had risen swiftly to the upper echelons of society, “just like the Eastern Jews in the most recent past with us.” But in 1943 that recent past has been disposed of. The Jewish journalists, art critics, politicians, lawyers, “cultivated Jews with intellectual and artistic interests” are no longer around. Looking at the Fayum portraits, the authors are reminded of what the Jews used to look like—“rich Jewesses, women of the type one used to see ten years ago in Kurfürstendamm.”20 One realizes the utility of this scholarship in the instruction of the young, who after ten years of Hitler might well not know how to recognize a Jew, and indeed the authors go into some detail about this problem.

At the time of the publication of this study, Petrie’s head was sitting in a glass jar in a hospital in Jerusalem, awaiting the outcome of the war. He had donated it in the hope that the Royal College of Surgeons in London might conduct a histological examination of his brain, and his doctor agreed in the hope that examination might “reveal some of the reasons for the remarkable capacity and retentive memory he had, even up to the day he died, for the most minute facts.” It was indeed a remarkable brain. Petrie, if he wanted to make a complicated calculation, could imagine a slide rule, and work out his calculation on this imaginary instrument. But he also believed that Stonehenge was the burial place of the ancient kings of Britain, and that the dates in the Old Testament could be justified, as long as one allowed for imperfect transmission of the text. Applied science and pure barminess were thus closely interwoven. People like H.F.K. Günther read the works of Petrie and Sayce and Galton with some attention. They were something worse than barmy, and they took from this scholarship whatever they fancied, and used it for their own bleak purposes.


All over the classical world there were people wearing clothes, but if we want to study ancient cloth we look to the Fayum. All over the classical world people were writing on papyrus, but most of the papyrus that survives comes from the Fayum region or the nearby town of Oxyrhynchus. And all over the classical world there were artists painting pictures, and framing them, and hanging them on walls, but the ones that have survived come from the Fayum. We have to remember that the things that survive in the Fayum are both typical of the classical world—in the sense of being common objects—and untypical, in the sense that the garbage dumps of Oxyrhynchus can hardly be supposed to be the same as every other garbage dump in every other town. The Fayum portraits are typical classical products used in a highly untypical way. That is why they survived.

The portraits differ according to the medium in which they are painted. Those that are in tempera tend to look like folk art of a more or less formulaic kind. The ones executed in wax are the startlingly realistic ones, often said to be in encaustic, a word which Pliny mentions in Book 35 of his Natural History, and which he explains as meaning a “burning in.” You might burn the wax in, to fix it in place, by using a hot metal tool, or by some version of the method Petrie used to preserve the Fayum portraits, with his little charcoal brazier. But nobody, according to Morris Bierbrier, the co-author of the British Museum catalog, has succeeded in replicating the method used in painting the portraits. It could have involved some other way of softening the wax than by heat.

The portraits are painted on wood, and a large number of them (the old books are often misleading on this point) turn out to be on lime wood. That would have been imported from the northern Mediterranean, and was therefore no doubt relatively expensive. Mummification itself was not for the poor. Petrie said that out of any hundred mummies he exhumed at the Hawara site in Fayum he might expect to find portraits on one or two. So we are talking about a minority of a minority using painted wax portraits on their mummies—although there is no reason to assume that this minority of a minority is determined by money. It could be, after all, that the practice was simply not very popular.

Of the one thousand or so surviving mummy portraits, about one hundred are still attached to their mummies. Some of these are wrapped in linen bandages with gilded studs. Others come in stucco casings covered with traditional Egyptian deities. In both types, there will be a footcase or representation of the feet, and it was traditional for the footcase to depict two or four enemies, as in the example Petrie records in his journal: “On the bottom the four races painted, kneeling and chained together; a pink European, brownish Semite, yellowish Maghrabi, and greenish grey Sudani.”21 The symbolism of triumph over one’s enemies had in earlier centuries been associated with royal burials. Here it seems to have been translated into religious terms for non-royals. Triumphing over one’s enemies in death, one was assured the royal advantages of the afterlife.

Whatever form the mummy takes, it will be plain to anyone that the painted mummy portrait of the Fayum type comes from a different iconography. It has not even been adapted. The mummy portraits are not made to fit a traditional Egyptian shape. Rather they stare out at us as if through a window in the wrappings. Nor do the figures always face us squarely, as the corpses inside may be presumed to do. The figures in the paintings sit quite often at an angle to the viewer, turning their heads toward us. It is a pose elementary to portrait photography:the turning of the head toward the viewer implies the bestowing of attention; the torsion of the neck gives interest to the composition; the pose distinguishes the portrait from police mug shots and passport photographs.

This pose alone signals to us that we are looking at a painting produced by an artist with a living sitter, and that signal is more than reinforced by the depiction of the eyes. Iris and pupil are carefully distinguished, and in the vast majority of cases there is a highlight, a patch of reflected light, indicating the moist surface of the eyeball. The eyes in the Fayum portraits have always struck viewers as unusually, perhaps unnaturally, large—but always intensely lively. The largeness has been explained in different ways. Petrie must have told one of the original reviewers that the skulls of the sitters had unusually large eye sockets. Others have said that because the portraits are posthumous, the artist miscalculated the size of the eyes. But most people find it hard to believe that these portraits are posthumous.

The simplest explanation of the size of the eyes is that large eyes were considered beautiful: this is the one element of unconscious idealization in a body of work that values specific detail, idiosyncrasy, individual characteristics above all else. There is a Fayum portrait in the Metropolitan Museum labeled “Boy with Damaged Eye.” The surface of the paint is itself damaged, but there is no doubt that the label is correct: the boy’s right eye has been damaged in such a way as to render the face asymmetrical, and the lower part of the socket seems to show exposed flesh. One has to suppose that sitter and artist valued accurate representation above all to produce such works. A posthumous portrait would be most likely to have the face tidied up.

Despite all this, the British Museum’s experts, Bierbrier and Susan Walker, have come to the conclusion that the portraits were made around the time of the death of the sitters. I asked Bierbrier himself, during a special showing of the exhibition, to go through his reasons for this conclusion. He told me that it was based on the following considerations. A number of the portraits depict children, but these must surely be sudden or unexpected deaths. There are the portraits on shrouds, which must be made for funereal purposes. A high proportion of the mummies which have been investigated by CAT scans (computerized axial tomography) show that the apparent age of the sitter corresponded closely to the age of the corpse. Finally, it had been Petrie’s idea that the portraits had hung, during the sitters’ lifetime, in their houses. When the sitter died, his portrait was taken down, removed from its frame, and cut into an appropriate shape to fit the mummy. Thus, what we were looking at was essentially domestic portraiture. But Bierbrier and Walker both point out that the actual framed portrait Petrie found, which they call “the only surviving framed portrait,” is much too small to have been used as a mummy portrait, which are normally close to life size.

I asked Bierbrier whether he really imagined that the artists painted these individuals from their corpses. He did indeed think that that would have sometimes been the case, although he added that the artists might well have known the sitters. He also told me that the painting had to be done quickly (because it was in wax). It is clear that Bierbrier and Walker are strongly wedded to these theories, and since their theories fly in the face of common sense I have wondered a great deal since why on earth they should have come to such perverse conclusions.

Taking the arguments in order again, if we begin by allowing that not everyone in the period who could afford mummification was buried with a portrait, the problem of the children disappears. One can say: in cases where a portrait had been painted, this was available for incorporation into the child’s mummy. Children often died young. Some of them also had their portraits painted young, but not necessarily all of them. In the case of the shrouds, it seems to be assumed that no living Greek would want to have his or her shroud made. But these people might well have been as happy to commission a shroud as a Florentine merchant to commission his tomb.

The CAT scans have been performed on eight mummies at the museum, and before going through the results one might mention what is known of a few other mummies. Petrie himself was once opening a child’s mummy casing when

on pulling away the dummy sandals I found—not infantile toes, but a man’s knee joint. I then pulled it to pieces, & found that the undertaker had not troubled to mummify the little brat at all; but had picked up, three old leg bones, & an old skull full of mud, & with scraps of old wraps on it; & the rascal had done them up tidily to satisfy the parental feelings, & put on a little gilt head-piece and sandals to look proper.22

In the museum in Pretoria, there is a mummy portrait showing a man with beard and moustache, but the associated body is female. In the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen there is a portrait of a middle-aged man on linen wrappings, but the body inside is much older, suggesting, as does the body of Demetrius in the Brooklyn Museum, that those who did live to a ripe old age had their portraits done years if not decades before their death: an inscription on Demetrius says he died aged eighty-nine, but his portrait is middle-aged.

The above four examples, three of which are cited by Joyce Filer, another member of the British Museum staff, in her essay on the CAT scans in Portraits and Masks, are enough to show that the contents of the mummies do not always correspond to the portrait. In two of the cases cited, there was surely some sharp practice on behalf of the morticians. In the case of the Copenhagen body, Filer believes that the portrait on the wrappings must be “a copy of a portrait painted some considerable time before the man’s death.” Brooklyn’s Demetrius seems a clear-cut case of the portrait being painted long before death.

So what about the British Museum’s new CAT scans? It turns out that they have no bearing at all on the question of when the wax portraits were painted, since in one instance the mummy is without a portrait, in another the head is in a gilded case, and three others are on shrouds. Nor does Joyce Filer herself make anything like the claims that Walker and Bierbrier try to deduce from her evidence. Several of the mummies are of children, but in those cases a CAT scan cannot even ascertain the sex of the child. One is left astonished at the poor quality of the argument from CAT scans.

What then about the “only surviving framed portrait”? It is a fascinating object, which must have made a startling find since the frame is of a type that was common in Victorian England. Petrie calls it an Oxford frame. The mortice joints allow the component pieces of wood to overlap, creating a cross at each corner, and perhaps for this reason a frame of this kind was commonly used for devotional texts (“Thou God Seest Me”) on parlor walls. The frame was made without nails, held together with wooden wedges which Petrie was able to remove in order to clean and reassemble it. The portrait is held in place by an internal frame, and there is also an extra groove in the main frame which Petrie concluded would have held glass. He had, on a previous dig at Tanis, found a piece of glass that would fit. Finally, a piece of twisted cord was still tied to the upper part of the frame as if to illustrate how it would have been hung.

This is not the only such framed picture to survive from the Fayum. Another, found in a house rather than a cemetery, used to exist in Berlin until it was destroyed in World War II. A slightly cruder version of the same Oxford frame, it contained a panel painting in tempera depicting two seated gods. And in Brussels (but currently on exhibition in Marseilles) there is another of these Oxford frames, also an icon, representing the Greek military god Heron with a figure at his side making a sacrifice to him. In the bottom left-hand corner, the woman who dedicates the picture is represented in miniature, just like a donor in an altarpiece, and in the right corner there is a slave.23

All three of these (and there is another in Providence, Rhode Island)are presumably what the Greeks of the time would have called eikones—likenesses—and it is surely quite possible that the little portrait Petrie found was part of some domestic shrine. Why would it have needed glass, if indeed it was glazed, unless it was placed near lamps?

In the same case in the exhibition, astonishingly enough, we find an object from the Getty Museum that can only be understood as a once-framed portrait, part of a triptych in which, as it happens, the wings have also survived. David L. Thompson, in his discussion of the way this picture would have been framed, reprints seven technical illustrations of the way the folding pictures of antiquity would have been constructed. In this case, the central panel was set in an Oxford frame, to which the unframed wings would have been attached by “pintle hinges” (of which the remains exist). The central portrait was flanked by panels depicting Isis and Serapis, and the whole ensemble obviously constitutes some kind of shrine.24

It was always a bad idea to argue that because one remaining framed portrait is of the wrong size, therefore none of the mummy portraits can originally have had a domestic use. Petrie had never argued that the Hawara portraits were the only kind of domestic icon. The Getty triptych is quite obviously another, and directly related to the mummy portraits in tempera. The other icons further flesh out the picture, giving us an idea of a humble devotional genre.

The most spectacular evidence of the non-funerary portrait is the “Tondo of the Two Brothers,” the round painting found in Antinoöpolis, and now in the Cairo Museum, which Doxiadis reproduces on her title page. Montserrat tells us that “in the ancient world, the tondo seems to have been the format par excellence for portraits of the living, and the Antinoöpolis tondo probably did not start out as a funerary portrait as such, although it is supposed to have been found in a tomb and the gods depicted on it certainly suggest that its subjects are dead.”25 The puzzle of the tondo is that it bears a single date, and beside each brother there is a faint depiction of a statue of a god, the composite figures of Osirantinous and Hermanubis. Montserrat suggests that the date is the day the brothers drowned, and that the image commemorates the fact that their bodies were not recovered.

This seems ingenious, with perhaps more than a whiff of the perfume of Amelia Edwards. It is interesting that the tondo was used for family portraits—there is one of the Emperor Septimius Severus and his family. And in another medium altogether—in what might be called a miniature version of these wax paintings—there are the gold-glass portraits, miniature tondos that were sometimes incorporated into bowls, and that appear to commemorate family occasions. The technique of the best of these is astonishing:the gold leaf was laid on the glass, stuck to it with perhaps honey, and the minute drawing was done by means of scraping the gold away, before a layer of molten glass was poured over the top, to seal it in.

C.R. Morey, who catalogued the Vatican collection of these wonderful objects (and included examples from other museums as well),tells us that

the arresting portraits of the earlier class are most like those of the Fayum, and the labels on the earliest of them show peculiarities of Egyptian Greek. They date from the early third century into the early fourth, and are the work of craftsmen trained in the Alexandrian techniques but probably domiciled in Italy, and planting there a tradition of miniature portrait-making which gradually lost its fine technique as time went on….26

The greatest of these seems to be the family portrait on the great cross in the Museo Cristiano in Brescia.


“Petition to Zenon from the painter Theophilos. Since the work for you [decorating the house] is finished and there is nothing more to do, and I am left without the wherewithal, you will do good if there are any paintings [pinakes] to be made, to give them to me to do, so I can have work and the necessary. But if you don’t give me them, you will do well to give me some money for the journey, so I can go back to my brothers in the city. Greetings.”27

The letter dates from 260 BC; it is from the Fayum, but centuries before the mummy portraits, and the word pinakes means paintings rather than portraits. But don’t you think that this is the way it happened? The painter comes from Alexandria, paints the interior, spins the job out a bit, sizes the place up, says: Look, this has taken so long I’m out of pocket—give me a couple of portraits to do, so I have enough for the return journey.

And you think: Why not? It’ll get him off my hands. And come to think of it, I might regret it if I don’t. Let him paint the wife and children.

(Or does this sound too much like Amelia Edwards?)

This Issue

July 17, 1997