A couple of years ago, wandering around the Louvre, I was brought up short by a remarkable portrait. Not the ugly, overrated Mona Lisa, smirking at the hordes who come to see her, and little else. This picture was stumbled upon by a happy accident at the corner of a virtually empty room. Originally from Roman Egypt, it was a naturalistic, modern-seeming depiction of a young woman with large, dark eyes. It was these eyes which made the picture extraordinary to me. Looking at them, I was struck by the fact that this was a real person. The gulf of time which separated us was utterly unimportant – she could almost have been someone I knew.
It was only recently that I realised this was probably a Fayum mummy portrait, paintings which were made on wooden boards and attached to mummies from the first to third century AD. Certainly, I am not the only person to have been charmed by these pictures. The historian Mike Dash comments on the ‘liveliness of character’ suggested by one image, and the poignancy conveyed by that of a child who had clearly been gravely ill before his death. While, as Dash notes, certain historians have argued that it is misguided to imagine a connection to these images, on the grounds that they may simply have been the easily modified productions of a busy artists’ studio, their power – which apparently convinced early grave-robbers that the corpses had come to life – is undeniable.
A similar window onto the past is found in the mosaic of the Emperor Justinian I at the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna. For all his halo and elaborate crown, Justinian’s appearance is natural and unidealised. His face is remarkable only for its sheer ordinariness, with nothing in it to distinguish him from someone we might pass everyday on the street. Again, though, it is possible to be astonished and moved by this portrait, to realise that we are looking, well over a millennium later, on the face of the peasant’s son who ruled the Byzantine Empire. Perhaps, as some may argue, feeling ‘empathy for long-dead individuals says more about ourselves than it does about the ancient society or individual in question’. What we perceive about the past, however, may also be important in developing a sense of connection to historical figures, even if our realisation of their humanity is simply based on sentimentality or an artist’s clever technical tricks.
Dalrymple, William, From the Holy Mountain: A Journey in the Shadow of Byzantium (HarperCollins Publishers, 1997)
Dash, Mike, ‘The Fayum mummy portraits’ on https://mikedashhistory.com/ ‘A Blast from the Past’ (16 December, 2014) https://mikedashhistory.com/2014/12/16/the-fayum-mummy-portraits/
Klimzcak, Natasha, ‘Fayum Mummy Portraits Expose Information About Precise Painting Techniques and Possible Neurological Disorders’ on Ancient Origins (15 February 2016) http://www.ancient-origins.net/news-history-archaeology/fayum-mummy-portraits-expose-information-about-precise-painting-techniques-020744
Riggs, Christina, ‘Facing the dead: recent research on the funerary art of Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt’ in American Journal of Archaeology 106
 Dalrymple, From the Holy Mountain, p. 390. See also p. 392 for the title quote taken from André Malraux.