Proportion and personality in the Fayum Portraits

A.J.N.W Prag

On first study the mummy portraits of the Roman period give us a series of likenesses that appear to be carefully worked representations of particular people, but closer analysis has shown that the 'individual' traits are generally simply the quirks of a workshop or painter, emphasised by the repetitive and formulaic use of proportion but often concealed by fashions in hairstyles and beards. What is lacking is the detailed observation of the underlying proportions of the individual skull which gives each face its own personality.

However, a few portraits stand out by their sheer quality: the acid test of their fidelity would be a reconstruction based on the skull, a test which was carried out in Manchester on two portraits from Hawara now in the British Museum (EA 74713, EA 74718) in the wake of the "Ancient Faces" exhibition. The one proved to be a reasonable likeness as far as detail is concerned but failed in representing the overall proportions of the face, showing that the painter had merely adapted a standard workshop type; the other, although superficially also a standard type, comes much nearer the truth because the artist has rendered the proportions of his subject's face correctly.

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To reference this article we suggest
Prag, A.J.N.W. 'Proportion and personality in the Fayum Portraits', BMSAES 3 (2002), 55-63 http://www.thebritishmuseum.ac.uk/bmsaes/issue3/prag.html

Contact the author

john.prag@man.ac.uk