Art of Portraiture – From Ancient Egypt to Medieval England


Is a portrait an actual likeness of someone?

If we know the person portrayed is a general, a King or a Queen will it change what we think about it, and them?

What is a portrait’s function?  Does it show the sitter at their most characteristic? Or is it merely a symbol of status reflecting what the sitter liked to believe about themselves?

Glory is fleeting, but obscurity is forever*

Queen Nefertiti

Queen Nefertiti

The debate that the bust of the ancient Egyptian Queen Nefertiti, found in 1912 at Tell el-Amarna the short lived capital of her husband the monotheist Pharaoh Akhenaten looked different to all the known representations of her gained new impetus in 2009. German scientists discovered the sculpture had an inner face, with less prominent cheekbones, a bump on her nose and wrinkles around her mouth! Poor Nefertiti. Had she been given a second face to adhere to ideals of beauty, or was her portrait only meant to satisfy the husband who loved her? Like many in the past who posed for a portrait, Nefertiti more than likely believed she was being portrayed by the artist as she looked in real life.

Judging purely from the representations we have of her, all similar, she does appear to have been one of the most harmoniously beautiful of women.

KoraiEgyptian portraiture was basically functional, its purpose mainly religious.

Unimportant details generally followed a pattern, the posture, hands, feet and legs. However is it reasonable to assume the face needed to record some of the features of the departed to assure recognition in the afterlife, which was the most important aspect of their religion.

Unlike the Egyptians, the Greeks did not have the need for the soul to recognize its former body. Greek sculptural grave reliefs, or stella were stamped with faces of great beauty that are often just a little too stereotyped and less individualized to be considered as real likenesses.

The Korai, or marble statues of women appeared six centuries BCE (before the Christ event) and achieved an anatomical accuracy far beyond the grasp of Egyptian sculptures. A “smile” is visible only at the very corners of the lips, bestowing the statue with a sense of mystery.

Artemis, Greek Godess of the forests and hills, child birth, virginity, fertility, and the hunt by Leochares c325 BCE courtesy Louvre, Paris

Artemis, Greek Godess of the forests and hills, child birth, virginity, fertility, and the hunt by Leochares c325 BCE courtesy Louvre, Paris

Their static appearance did not change until the first half of the fifth century before the Christ event when they attained movement. They put one foot forward, both metaphorically and physically towards the future.

This was the first step on the path towards a tradition we now regard as the classical statuary tradition, which began in the second half of the fifth century before the Christ event.

Few original examples of Greek sculpture survive and the only way we know anything at all about Greek portraiture, which usually represented the whole figure, was because the Romans admired it.

They made great copies for us to find.

Statues were placed in sanctuaries and on tombs by the state in grateful recognition of services rendered, or by individuals who sought to honour a relative or friend. The ‘personality’ of the sitter or of the deity represented, their features, stance, gestures and drapery were all extended as an expression of individuality.

Doryphoros by Polykleitos ca. 450-40 B.C. from Pompeii Naples, Museo Archaeologico

After the Greek philosopher Plato (427-347 BC) published his dialogue, which immortalized the life and death in 399BCE of his noble friend and mentor Socrates, the soul took on a new significance and held to be the vital centre of human personality.

He argued that a personal immortality, the spiritual side of a human being, made him a particular entity, which continued after his body perished.

Taken as a whole, Plato’s philosophy had an incalculable influence on almost every period and tradition and was rivalled only by that of his pupil Aristotle.

Socrates, Plato and their ideas infused and motivated Greek playwrights, who increased their interest in the individual persona.

Greek drama is filled with wonderful characters all carefully drawn, delineated and displaying a psychological insight not equaled until the days of Will Shakespeare in Merrie England.

Dionysus and Silenus by LysippusSculptors from the fourth century BCE onward began to render emotions more strongly than the gentle sorrow of earlier grave reliefs and, although generalization was not fully discarded, it was gradually put aside for more explicit and detailed representation.

This happened following the conquests of Alexander the Great during the second half of the fourth century BCE.

Alexander of Pergamom

Alexander the Great commissioned Lysippus who is considered one of the greatest of the Greek sculptors, to portray him…however the work has long since vanished.

We do have literary descriptions of his appearance; his physical beauty, clean shaven cheeks, masses of hair and melting eyes and one can only muse at what the man, whose heroic deeds inspired men for countless centuries, may have really looked like.

There is a bust in the archaeological museum at Istanbul found at Pergamum late in the nineteenth century that is said to align well with the written word. Is it his likeness though?  Will he forever remain an enigma to history? Roman writer, Pliny the Elder wrote of Greek sculpture. ‘In this art, noble men were made to appear more noble.

Julius Ceasar

At first Roman portraiture was tied up in with the commemoration of ancestors and it was considered pious to preserve, in the atrium or central vestibule of a Roman house, a collection of family likenesses; death masks, busts and statues which were revered and respected.

The portrait as a record of an individual’s personal appearance is one of the most successful and enduring genres of ancient Roman art.

Romans liked to surround themselves with the images of Greek sages, whom they admired and they placed them in their homes.

Today we would have no difficulty recognizing Julius Caesar from his surviving portraits because their statuary was replicated in the hundreds and placed throughout the main forums of the Empire in what we would today regard as a superb marketing and promotional strategy, one that immortalized his looks from that day to this.

Death MaskIn the republican period (509 BCE – 27 BCE) it became customary, immediately after death, to cover the face of the deceased with soft wax and then make a mould from the resulting impression.

Additional casts could be made and then distributed to other members of the family. For Romans the portrait also had a sociological role. It was a proof of aristocracy and evidence that the descendants of the deceased were of senatorial rank.

Part of the Procession on the Ara Pacis

During the reign of ‘the revered one’ Augustus 63 BC – AD 14), Greek sculptors rendered their aristocratic patrons with an elegance and cool distinction, and this aspect characterizes much Augustan sculpture.

Ara Pacis Augustae, or Altar of Augustan Peace at Rome

Ara Pacis Augustae, or Altar of Augustan Peace at Rome

The Ara Pacis Augustae, known as the Ara Pacis was an altar to honour the peace commissioned by the Roman senate in 13 BCE . It was to celebrate the Pax Augusta or that period of peace, and prosperity,  that came after the military victories of Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus who became Emperor. It is a visual reminder of the Julio -Claudian dynasty, to which he belonged, and consequently it was surrounded by images of them all.

The figures fall into four categories, bodyguards, priests, women and children and attendants.  It is unique in that today scholars have been able to identify all the members of the family from their portraits.

Augustus was Julius Caeser’s adopted son so he honoured the family, who took him into their circle and without their support he would simply not have gained the connections needed at different times in his career. He also knew the value of an excellent image and what it could convey.

In our example Augustus is depicted in this role of “Imperator”, commander of the army. This statue, called The Prima Porta, was found buried in the grounds of his wife Livia’s house.

It marks a conscious reversal to a Greek classical model when youth and strength were signs of leadership. The statue is equally renowned for its iconographic breastplate, which reflects his deeds.

While the image is confident it is still accessible, the stance is not powerful but rather has a certain vulnerability as he hesitates with one foot behind him and points the way forward to a peaceful and prosperous future.

Augustus had a high need for uniqueness,  but did he sacrifice the truth of how he really looked in order to gain a reputation?

He is meant to be a hero, worthy of being raised to divine status on Olympus with the Gods, and therefore proving he is the best man to govern Rome.

Augustus as Pontifex Maximus

Augustus as Pontifex Maximus

That he thought of himself as divine is in no doubt.

The Res Gestae divi Augustus a text written before his death historians believe is more propaganda than truth, listing the deeds he performed so it is useful as an account of his rule.

Livia, wife of Emperor Augustus

Under later Roman emperors naturalism became more compelling for sculptors as they experimented how to display emotion in stone and their works display great movement with soft planes and rounder modeling. When they were modeling a woman they would generally complete the body first and her head last, fitting it into place. This had a practical application because if a man decided to divorce his wife, he replaced her head on the first wife’s body.

Jewellery-Girl-HawaraSaved on cost,  practical, for him, perfect!

Funerary portraits during the Roman republic were generally restricted to the nobility, or families of serving magistrates.

However this specific function fell into disuse and it eventually became one means of expressing loyalty to the reigning emperor and his family, with private citizens aping even the imperial physiognomy.

It is this latter type of Roman portrait that found its way to Egypt, appearing in the middle of the first century remaining in use for some two hundred years.

The direct gaze of Sir Flinders Petrie’s portrait gallery from Hawara in the Fayum in Egypt can be disturbing for many viewing them for the first time.

Mummy Portrait from Hawara

Artemidorus, Mummy Portrait from Hawara, Egypt

Fayum Mummy Portrait inserted into the wrappings 1st Century AD, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

There is a certain amount of literary evidence, notably on the materials and techniques employed in the writings of author, natural philosopher, naval and army commander Pliny the Elder, which is backed up by the existence of what are considered the first canvas style easel portrait paintings in history.

These were more than likely kept in the house during life and then inserted as a panel painting set into the mummy wrappings over the face of the deceased when the time came.

They are certainly among the most remarkable products of the ancient world and both historically and culturally of great importance.

They were a fusion of two traditions, that of the art from the exotic, Pharonic Egypt and that of the classical world of the Mediterranean.

Their style and technique derived from the latter, their inclusion as part of the trappings of an embalmed body belongs in the context of Egyptian funerary practices.

Artemidorus is in the British Museum at London and was found in 1888. It is easy to see the two cultures of Greece and Egypt coming together. The identity of the dead man is preserved in a short, mis-spelled Greek inscription across the breast, which reads: ‘Farewell, Artemidorus‘.

He was probably between 18 and 21 when he died, which is in keeping with the age suggested by the mummy’s portrait especially the lack of facial hair, a sign a youth had progressed into adulthood.

Artemidorus is facing the viewer and on his hair is a wreath of leaves, echoed by a second more complex wreath framing the portrait on the stucco case. The second wreath is composed of buds in flowers, which are separated by stems.

The elaborate gilded collar has terminals that represent the falcon headed god Horus who is bearing the crowns of Upper and Lower Egypt. The collar also incorporates a wreath motif and discs similar to those surrounding the portrait.

Jesus, the Christ, Mosaics at Ravenna

All the elements of the mosaics at Ravenna combine to dazzle and offer us what their creators intended, a vision of the majesty of God in a manner manifest to us by the munificence of an earthly monarch.

Many scholars of early Christian art have pointed out that ‘the unique feature of the Christian portrait is the expression of the eyes’.

This is a ‘new man’ one who is illuminated by his faith,  born again by the spirit, a man of ‘inner life’ his eyes, windows to the soul revealing his true and inner self.

When in 313 the Emperor Constantine made Christianity the established religion of the empire and his capital Byzantium, Church and State merged and became inseparable.

They required those recording depictions of Jesus, the Christ,or the stories surrounding his life and passion should became instantly recognisable. They established a set of ‘rules’ included prescribed colours; Christ was to wear blue and gold before the Crucifixion and purple and gold after the Resurrection.

They wanted the people of the western world to instantly recognize the figure of Jesus the Christ.

Jesus CrossTo produce an image of a God, who became a man, was a tall order. A paradox is easy to write about but it is very hard to produce as an image, whether in painting or mosaic.

Jesus himself was born into a tradition that allowed no portrayals or likenesses of someone considered divine. Therefore there is no contemporary accounts of his appearance. What he looked like was entirely open to debate and could reflect the spiritual world of the artist, or artisan who produced it, the desires of the patron who commissioned it, or the needs of the viewer.

The likeness of him that eventually emerged over the centuries is still recognisable by people from all creeds and faiths, as well as agnostics and atheists.

A formalised, almost rigid style, was adopted perhaps not so much to picture men and events but to inspire reverence, prayer and meditation and by the sixth century Jesus, the Christ was rendered as a living three dimensional man. These images were executed in a style now known as hieratic, meaning holy or sacred, and pressure to preserve rules of proportion were strong on the craftsman producing the image.

The mosaics at Ravenna are a glorious witness to a new symbolic style , which spread over the Western world from Constantinople during the reign of Justinian from 527 to 565. It reaffirmed the concept of a ruler for that of a person remote from the everyday world. It is an art form more sophisticated, more ostentatious and more liturgical than earlier images.

Would you guess by observing his portrait that he was, by birth considered a barbarian with a reputation for being unscrupulous,  crafty and even cruel?

On the other hand would you also guess she was a former actress, a notorious courtesan who surrounded herself with a ceremonious pomp that required all who approached her to prostrate themselves before her. This is what texts tell us, but not what their portraits reveal.

The portrait of Justinian and that of his Empress Theodora is a powerful statement of their sovereignty rather than of their personality. They are very clever propaganda statements. Few portraits survived the Middle Ages in Italy, which lay ravaged by the people from the north who swept through destroying all before them and they were people who do not really appear to have interested themselves in perpetuating their own appearance at all.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle 2011- 2013

*Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821)



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