The Story of the Fayum Four Seasons

You never know where you’ll end up when you wander down the Internet garden path, letting one link lead to another until you have no idea how you got there. That’s what happened to me one day as I was looking at — who knows what — and ended up on an image page of arresting portraits.

They certainly looked old. There was something very Roman about them. They reminded me strongly of art from Pompeii and old Roman wall murals. I’m going through a portrait phase right now in my art, so I was intrigued. I researched further.

I discovered that these portraits are often called the Fayum mummy portraits. This is because they were created as part of the wrappings of mummies discovered mostly in the area of Fayum, Egypt, during a period of Greco-Roman rule of Egypt. Painted on wooden boards using pigments and wax, it is unclear whether the portraits were painted from life. Most likely they were painted after death from a selection of standard types with additional specific details. They were then incorporated into the mummy wrappings. Although painted approximately 2,000 years ago, they are as beautiful and vivid now as when painted, and certainly feel very individual, with a sense of personality as the subjects gaze outward.

I was fascinated by the timelessness of the portraits, and my thoughts wandered to the concept of the timelessness of our earth and the cycle of the seasons. I also felt a connection with the idea that these portraits were painted in a pigment and wax combination, mediums I am still using today.

Fayum Four Seasons

In the beginning, just a pale first version.

Fayum Four Seasons

More defined now, I’m starting to think about the collage materials for the portraits.

My Fayum portraits are not based on any real person. I did use specific images of Fayum portraits as a jumping off point for my own portraits, but changed them in features and colouring to make them my own. Collage elements were used in each case to create the seasonal effects, from flowers to snowflakes in their hair, mimicking the wreaths of gold leaves often portrayed in the Fayum portraits.

Fayum Four Seasons

Collaged elements in place, the aging process is taking place with darker shadows being added in the gold leaf areas.

Finally, I added a patina of age, a sense of wabi-sabi (a Japanese term suggesting beauty in imperfection and the loveliness of aged, worn objects) to evoke an ancient, fragile beauty in the portraits.

Fayum Four Seasons

The completed Fayum Four Seasons portraits.

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