If you’d asked me just one year ago to draw a timeline of ‘Painting’, the major eras would’ve been in order. Except. There would’ve been a gaping vortex full of tumbleweed and black holes between gothic painting and paleolithic cave painting. I mean what was going on then in terms of painting? Do YOU know? Perhaps, but I didn’t, until I had the pleasure of meeting artist, art historian and author of ‘The Mysterious Fayum Portraits’, Euphrosyne Doxiadis at the Aegean Center in Paros, Greece. Euphrosyne and my teachers at the school, Jane Morris Pack and Jun-Pierre Shiozawa, introduced me to Graeco Roman portraiture.
Not a lot of this precious stuff survives due to the wear and tear that comes with being buried for thousands of years but we have special insight into these works because of one particular site where they were preserved well due to the climate. The site is an area of Egypt called Fayum and it was principally excavated by a Brit called Petrie in 1888. What he found at the site were mummified men, women and children from between 40-250 AD when Egypt was under the Roman Empire. Each ‘mummy’ had a portrait of the deceased resting on the head of the body.
The portraits are naturalistic and vary a bit in style but overall I’m struck by the arresting beauty and humanity of each one. They serve to commemorate the person and were painted either while the subject lived or once they’d died. As Euphrosyne pointed out, they wouldn’t look out of place in the impressionist era. Or now. They’re timeless.
Ok, so it doesn’t explain painting right back to the cave painting era-I ain’t no Sister Wendy Beckett. But at least it draws our attention to a little known but highly valuable period in painting; A precursor to Byzantine art and inspiration for many artists including Picasso and I!