Located some one hundred kilometers south of Cairo, Fayyum is a green and fertile region in a vast circular
depression. Its diameter from east to west is approximately 60 kilometers, northwest of the lake of Birket
The ancient Egyptians called this region Mer-our (The Great Lake). Fayyum played a significant role during the 12th Dynasty, and later under the Ptolemies.
The Fayyum portraits conflict in an intriguing manner, scattered as they are around the world in museums and collections and, which, here, bring together the image to be viewed as a whole. An ideal museum, which may be visited city by city, to which we soon become attached, to the extent that, during the visit, already familiar traits await us, as one of this art's truly ambiguous features is its ability to multiply effigies which, at first sight, quickly, even too quickly, elicit a feeling of déjà-vu.
Coming to grips with the Fayyum portraits does not just involve learning about a little-known art form - it is also an experience which rarely leaves one unscathed. The portrait is generally reassuring, either because it borrows sufficiently distinctive features, allowing it to be immediately identified, or it presents a secret resemblance which renders it instantly familiar. What a difference between our relationship with ancient paintings! They barely tolerate a one on one relationship: from the very first glimpse, we are attracted both by their singularity and what must be called their transparency trap. An unavoidable, troubling emotion.
Would it be excessive to speculate that these deceased have passed on some hypnotic power to their effigies which, once life has gone, manifests itself through a thin coat of paint by a sort of call, perhaps even a challenge, inviting us, demanding us to watch and be watched?
Fayyum is situated at the crossroads of the great axes of the Ancient world.
For more than three thousand years, Egypt has given man this gaze, which goes beyond death to rise to Osiris' inviolable light. Khafre, Akhenaten, Ramesses, but also the farmer, the butcher, the shepherd or the harvester draw from the same sources of eternity. Like the architecture, the sculptures and paintings are also hieroglyphs, sacred signs: they have to power to suspend time or more precisely, to bring it to a degree of incandescence which the flame constantly renews, like the sun which relentlessly pursuing its course.
All this was brought down by Rome's intractable legions, preceded by Greek hoplites. The Imperial Armies cast a gigantic shadow across the world, conceiving a new era, that of modern history. Triumphs, defeats, victories and tribulations were more than mere events, they become the framework of a civilization leaving eternity behind to conquer it by force of arms. The seasons are sharpened by sword blows; the hours are written in blood in the sand. Between the eternal body of the Egyptian and the vulnerable flesh of the Roman, the Fayyum portrait offers up a double confession: nostalgia for a world which was unaware of the separation of life and death and the coming of another world which, despite the clangor of battle and the clamor of the Gods, knows that history has numbered its days, and the inescapable figure of destiny answers in numbered days. The Gods still emanate from these portraits, but they are little more than a fading vision, while there is already a spark in their widened eyes, not so much that of Christian hope, but of the stupor brought on by He who shall conquer history through Redemption.
Byzantine icons are very similar, exalting eternal life through the immensity of the gaze, in the same way as the Christ Pantocrator, whose eyes embrace the universe. This has less to do with relationships and influences than with deep analogies. The features depicted in the Fayyum portraits attest to the person of the deceased, but the way it which it is done sparks a transcendency, which is open to, if not favorable to, Incarnation. Byzantine art accomplishes this through its incorruptible gold.
But there is another question which remains unanswered. Starting in the Roman era, and later, during the Renaissance, Western portraits have been linked to life on earth; they use social status, they deploy the full array of power; they are associated with signs of wealth and prosperity, all the while surrendering to the tribulations of age and sickness. The film of our life on earth thus unwinds, summed up by the portraits of the Great - François I, Henry VIII, Charles V, Louis XIV, Napoleon - whom nobles and the middle classes shall take it turn to resemble. In comparison to this celebration of the terrestrial existence, the Fayyum portraits, linked like Egyptian art to death and funerary rites, remain an enigma. While the Sphinx questions us about our condition, the Fayyum portraits ask us sharp questions about the problematics of our identity. Their strange power, which may well be called their topicality, perhaps comes down to forcing us to becoming aware that our effigies are immune to the opposition between life and death, just as they are immune to the distinction between sign and symbol. By doing this, by breaking with classes, they show us how, at close range, the effigy becomes coincidence. Beyond functions, beliefs and meanings, the portrait doubly exorcizes time to restore us to the stream of ambivalence, to that which never ends, threatening all the while to end.