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The Mysterious Fayum Portraits

DECEMBER 3, 2009

Some weeks ago, in response to a comment, I wrote that I had long been inspired by the mysterious portraits of the Fayum School. This wasn't the first time I had mentioned these extraordinary pictures. In 2001, I gave a little talk that ended with a few words about them. The following text is taken from the transcript of the last few minutes of that speech.

I want to end by showing a couple of paintings that are among my favorites of all time. These are portraits done 2,000 years ago in a little village west of Cairo called the Fayum Oasis. They were painted in encaustic – hot wax on wood – and they were painted by anonymous artists.

These people were Coptic Christians. They lived at a crossroads of the Hellenic world, and they embodied all the cross currents that were part of the imperial Mediterranean era.

They were Roman citizens, so they wanted their portraits painted like Roman citizens. But they were also the inheritors of that entire Hellenistic culture that had spread in the wake of Alexander’s conquests. They were Christians, so they believed in the resurrection of the body. But they were also the descendants of pharaohs, so they believed that their bodies should be preserved as mummies for the Resurrection.

These anonymous portraits are almost the only examples we have of easel paintings from the Roman era. That’s because the destruction of the Roman Empire was so complete that everything that was considered important enough to be preserved was destroyed. And these paintings were preserved because they were buried with the dead and were never meant to be seen again on earth – one of history’s little jokes on immortality.

Now as I said, Coptic Christians believed in the resurrection of the body. So these portraits were painted because they anticipated a Second Coming, when God would return and reunite their souls with their bodies. Since this is also what the pharaohs had believed, tradition led them to use these portraits as I.D. photos – or to put it another way as a poor-man’s version of King Tut’s golden mask.

The idea was that in the afterlife, God, like the Egyptian “Ka,” would return to earth and visit the charnel house, where He would sort out all the souls and bodies and reunite them. So the portraits were a way for God to tell who was who. You wouldn’t want to get the wrong body with your soul.

Now, it’s noteworthy that these paintings usually show people in the prime of their lives. That means that either they died relatively young, or else they lived to a much older age, but had paintings of themselves at a younger age sewn onto their shrouds.

Thirty is about the age most people would pick as a permanent age, an ideal age to last for eternity. So it shouldn’t be surprising that most of the people in these portraits appear to be about that age. It’s human nature, after all, to want to stay in the prime of your life. So using paintings like this on your mummy would be sort of like taking a movie star’s picture to a plastic surgeon and saying “I want to look like this. You might package your mummy with a portrait of your young self, as if to say “God, please, when you bring me back, don’t bring me back like this dried-up mummy. Bring me back the way I looked when I was 30. Maybe that was the logic here – the belief behind these portraits.

I first saw these pictures in a book when I was a teenager. I didn’t know their history, but I found them inspiring. There’s very little vanity in these paintings. Very little ego. It’s almost inconceivable that the artists who painted them were painting to shock anybody. Or to break any rules. Or to be regarded as the last person in the history of art.

We don’t know if the soulfulness in their paintings came from their faith in God, or faith in their own craftsmanship. But either way, it came because they believed in something bigger than themselves. And this is what I found so inspiring when I was young – when all around me famous artists like Ad Reinhardt were claiming they had taken art as far as it could go – or knuckleheads like my friend Waynesville sincerely believed that art was nothing more than a spontaneous assertion of the ego.

There was a modesty in these paintings that was missing from the modern era. They were painted by craftsmen who considered painting a job – just a job. And they did it as a job. But they also believed that in doing their job, they were speaking to God.

And that’s not a bad idea for an artist to have in the back of his head: To think that if you do your job well enough, often enough, with enough seriousness of purpose, with enough playfulness and with enough faith in what you’re doing, that on your very best day, you might be talking to God – or to the next best thing: to that ethereal spark of life that comes from somewhere and inhabits all of us for however long we’re allowed to be inhabited.

And that communion with others is what makes us want to become artists in the first place. Think back to when you first wanted to draw or paint. Did you want to be an artist so you could shock somebody? Or fill a niche in the art history books? These are all social viruses that can infect art – can infect your soul. The truth is, you became an artist because you wanted to speak to people, even if you wanted to speak to people without words.

I've mentioned these paintings because we've been talking about the history of art - not history the way it's taught in the art history books, but art the way it's been created by artists throughout history.

The history of art is what it is because the art of the past was created by people who lived in particular societies – and all those societies are now gone. The aristocratic societies that produced El Greco and Velasquez are gone. And so are the tribal societies that produced those incredible African masks and South Sea Island nail fetishes – all gone. All around the world they’ve been replaced by modern mass democracies, which, however imperfectly realized, have improved the quality of life for millions of people who otherwise would be living lives little better than animals. But this change, which is global, has created a problem for us as artists – because how do you do anything of true value in a culture where the chief virtues are speed, economy, popularity, celebrity, wealth? How do you do anything transcendent in a relentlessly material world? We don’t really know.

All we can say for sure is that the old dispute about what’s art and what’s illustration is a meaningless one, a thing of the past, an artifact of a curious detour in the long history of art. It was a period that lasted some couple hundred years, during which some people tried to enclose art and define it as a tool of the zeitgeist, whatever the zeitgeist happened to mean to them. But none of that matters now. In any work of art, what matters is not what you call it, but how much authority it conveys. And in art, authority is never conveyed by definition.

To be a modern artist, you only need to live in modern times and record the comfort or discomfort you feel with what goes on around you. How that all adds up, how each of us does his job every day will define what becomes of art. That will be its real definition. You, me - all of us - we’re all experiments.

Excerpted from the keynote speech, the Illustrators Conference (ICON), Santa Fe, June 24, 2001 © Brad Holland 2001

All reproductions –unless otherwise noted – are from The Mysterious Fayum Portraits "Faces From Ancient Egypt," by Euphrosyne Doxiadis/Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers © 1995