A Message from Father Nick 64
Alexandria (II) Facing Eternity
In 1997, the British Museum hosted an exhibition entitled Ancient faces: mummy portraits from Roman Egypt. It was both astonishingly beautiful and deeply moving. The many paintings looked anything but ancient. They might have been made today, yet they preserved the likeness of people who lived and died at Fayum in the region of Alexandria roughly between 200 BC and 200 A D: some of them must have lived at the time of Christ. They are often referred to as the Fayum Faces.
As we have noted, Alexandria was the most important city in the Hellenistic world, but it was also a place where cultures met and mingled. Egyptian mortuary practices had long fascinated the Greeks, and the encounter with death is shared by all humanity. In a coming together of Greek and Egyptian influences, each painted picture is a portrait made from life and attached to the dead person’s mummy case, allowing us to glimpse something of a unique individual’s hopes and fears.
Of course, such paintings suggested a kind of immortality by keeping the image of a loved one close to those who loved him or her (there seem to be equal numbers of male and female likenesses). Gradually, Christianity discouraged the practice of mummification, but the portraits which remain serve almost as clues to eternity. Gathered together for exhibition, the faces seem to be alive, looking back at us like members of a real community.
Indeed, one of the reasons for the portraits’ power is precisely the impression they give of looking back at us. There is a sense that they are looking forward too, (to what idea of eternity?), but as they face us, they seem to gaze into our very souls. Their eyes confront us, large and searching. Whatever other brilliant detail the painting might contain, it is the eyes that dominate each portrait. They always look directly at us.
The Fayum way of painting is known as encaustic (from the Greek encaio – to burn in), incorporating beeswax (hot and cold), pigment, egg and oil. It is worked quickly and that adds to the sense of vividness in each face.
And in a way, the paintings tell us something about the transition from pagan to Christian art in the Roman world. “Fayum portraits and the first Christian icons must have existed side by side until the final extinction of portrait mummies. Icons dating from the 6th-7th century preserved in St Catherine’s monastery, Mount Sinai, bear a striking resemblance to the portraits… There can be no doubt that portraits like those found in the Fayum are the forebears of icons.”
[A 2nd century text, The Acts of the Apostle John, even describes St John’s puzzlement when shown a portrait of himself, adorned with flowers and candles!]
As Euphrosyne Doxiadis has observed, it must have been relatively easy for the early Christians in Roman Egypt to switch from honouring painted portraits of gods and emperors and of men and women to honouring painted portraits of Christ, his mother and the saints. “The new icons were a way of bringing religion into the home, particularly at a time when public worship was forbidden.”