Mummy portraits or Fayum mummy portraits is the modern term for a type of realistic painted portraits on wooden boards attached to mummies from Post Hellenistic/Roman Egypt. They belong to the tradition of panel painting, one of the most highly regarded forms of art in the Classical world. In fact, the Fayum portraits are the only large body of art from that tradition to have survived.
Mummy portraits have been found in all parts of Egypt, but are especially common in the Faiyum Basin, particularly from Hawara and Antinoopolis, hence the common name. "Fayum Portraits" is generally thought of as a stylistic, rather than a geographic, description. While painted mummy cases date back to pharaonic times, the Fayum mummy portraits were an innovation dating to the time of the Roman occupation of Egypt.
They date to the Roman period, from the late 1st century BC or the early 1st century AD onwards. It is not clear when their production ended but recent research suggests the middle of the 3rd century. They are the largest groups among the very few survivors of the highly prestigious panel painting tradition of the classical world, which was continued into Byzantine and Western traditions in the post-classical world, including the local tradition of Coptic iconography in Egypt.
The portraits were attached to burial mummies at the face, from which almost all have now been detached.They usually depict a single person (showing head, or head and upper chest) viewed frontally. The background is always monochrome, sometimes with decorative elements. In terms of artistic tradition, the images clearly derive more from Graeco-Roman traditions than Egyptian ones. The population of the Faiyum area was greatly enhanced by a wave of Greek immigrants during the Ptolemaic period, initially by veteran soldiers who settled in the area.
Two groups of portraits can be distinguished by technique: one of encaustic (wax) paintings, the other in tempera. The former are usually of higher quality.
About 900 mummy portraits are known at present.The majority were found in the necropolis of Faiyum. Due to the hot dry Egyptian climate, the paintings are frequently very well preserved, often retaining their brilliant colours unfaded by time.