Paintings of this type, often called Faiyum portraits (though not all of
them come from the Faiyum oasis), are typical products of the
multicultural, multiethnic society of Roman Egypt. Most of them are
painted in the elaborate encaustic technique, in which pigments were
mixed with hot or cold beeswax and other ingredients, such as egg,
resin, and linseed oil. This versatile medium allowed artists to create
images that in many ways are akin to oil paintings. The boy's head, for
instance, stands out from the light olive-coloured background, creating
an impression of real depth. His face is modelled with flowing
brushstrokes and a subtle blend of light and dark colours. Shadows on the
left side of the face, neck, and garment and bright shiny spots on the
forehead and below the right eye indicate a strong source of light on
the boy's right. Most arresting are the dark brown eyes with black
pupils reflecting the light with bright spots. This manner of painting,
which is very different from the traditional Egyptian style but was well
known in Graeco-Roman Egypt, originated in Classical Greece in the 5th
and 4th centuries BC.
Although the painting technique on Faiyum portrait panels is Greek,
their use is entirely Egyptian. When a person died, the portrait panel
was placed over the face of the mummy with parts of the outermost
wrapping holding it in place. This implies Egyptian beliefs about the
afterlife. After having been ruled for three hundred years by a Greek
(Macedonian) dynasty and a century or more by Roman administrators,
Roman Egypt was an extremely diverse civilization. The population
consisted of Roman citizens and citizens of Greek cities such as
Alexandria (both of these groups made up of peoples of many different
ethnicities) and native Egyptians. The subjects of the mummy portraits
clearly were dressed and coiffed like Romans, and many of them bore
Greek names or names that were Greek versions of Egyptian names.
However, they and their families found consolation in the ancient
Egyptian beliefs about the afterlife.
Metropolitan Museum of Art.