Mummy dearest

Retired medical researcher Daphna Manor’s new exhibition focuses on Fayum mummy portraits, lifelike paintings that were buried with the departed in ancient times.

Daphna Manor compares art to scientific research. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Daphna Manor compares art to scientific research.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
About a couple of millennia before cameras were invented, people around these parts would commission a lifelike portrait of their dearly departed, painted while the ailing family member was still alive. After death, the generally complimentary, and realistic, painting would then be placed on top of the head area of the mummified body. The practice originates from the Fayum Basin area of Egypt, southwest of Cairo, during the Roman occupation in the first century BCE, hence the genre is known as Fayum mummy portraits.
Mevaseret Zion-based artist Daphna Manor has just opened an exhibition of 48 of her works at the Jerusalem Theater, entitled Shalhevet Nitzhit (Eternal Flame). All the exhibits draw on the spirit and aesthetics of the original Fayum paintings.
“I was attracted to these portraits by their nobility, their tranquility and their spark of life,” explains Manor when we met just prior to the opening. “They have such a penetrating look in the eyes.”
Despite the similarity of expression, in Manor’s small oil portraits, most of them painted on square blocks of sandwich board, the personalities of the subjects come through clearly. Most of the pictures are of female models who sat for Manor and the other members of the painting circle who meet for weekly sessions in a studio in Talpiot, with just one male subject and five interpretations of original Fayum portraits.
Paris-born Manor had to exercise her powers of imagination for the latter, as she had very little access to original works. “There aren’t many Fayum mummy portraits that are accessible. There are about 1,000 around the world, including in private collections, and there are two in the Bible Lands Museum, but they are not among the most beautiful portraits. I go to the Louvre [in Paris] four times a year, but the room with the Fayum portraits has been closed for restoration for several years. I did see a couple in the British Museum, but the rest is all from books.”
There was also a cross-cultural synergy to the originals that appealed to Manor. “The portraits are the result of a meeting of three cultures,” she explains. “There is the Egyptian philosophy, which treats life as a transitional stage and believes that everything is open. There is the Greek culture, which dictates the painting style and techniques, with the Hellenistic realism that comes through that. And there is the Roman style, which we can see in the jewelry and the clothes the subjects wore and their hairstyles. Respect for the head of the family also comes through in these paintings, which was very prevalent in Roman culture.”
Manor says that the Egyptians of the time also adhered to a curious (non)burial practice. “They’d keep the mummies at home and lived with them for several generations, until they accumulated too many mummies and then they buried some of them. They stayed in the ground undiscovered until the late 19th century. Most were unearthed in the 20th century.”
When the paintings were discovered during archeological excavations, they were not initially regarded as valuable works. “They were related to as just practical items, for burial purposes,” explains Manor. “It took quite a while before the portraits were considered artistically important.”
Manor’s creative process is a somewhat meandering and improvised affair, and she uses a different medium than that employed by the original Fayum painters. “The paintings were generally made with wax colors, with four pigments – black, white, red and yellow, the earth colors,” she explains. “Of course, I used oil paints, as I have no idea how to work with wax colors. I find the idea of working with wax paint appealing. Wax provides amazing effects of light, but that will have to wait a while before I can master that, if ever.”
After starting each painting in the Talpiot studio, the works go through a gestation phase. “I painted over a period of about two years. I put them in a strategic position at home, where I can see them all the time and consider how to go about progressing with them,” says Manor. “Then I complete them from memory.”
Manor devoted herself to painting full time after retiring from her work as a medical researcher at the School of Medicine at Hadassah-University Medical Center in Ein Kerem in 1997. Some might be surprised by the sharp transition from the seemingly clinical precision of the medical research field to the more free-flowing world of art, but Manor says there is a strong common denominator between the two areas. “There is an aesthetic to science as there is in art, and there is the search. When you come up with a scientific hypothesis, you start searching for evidence of its accuracy. Art is all about searching, including searching inwardly, inside myself.”
There is also an endearing quality to the base material Manor used for her works. “I found all these pieces of sandwich board lying around at construction sites. I took them home, and they lay around for some time until I finally came up with a use for them,” she says, adding that rather than bringing the pieces of wood into a “more presentable” form, she was happy to incorporate the flaws. “I like the cracks and scratches and indents. Some even have small traces of plaster on them. Sometimes a mark can become an earring in the portrait or some facial feature. I use some holes in the board, and I fill up others. It depends on the composition of the picture,” says the artist.
Some of the portraits in the exhibition were painted on canvas, and they have a different textural quality to them. This is the first showing of the Eternal Flame exhibition in Jerusalem. It follows the initial show at the Tova Osman Art Gallery in Tel Aviv in December. “Tova liked the flaws in the boards,” says Manor. “That was encouraging.”
The exhibition is clearly a labor of love for Manor, even if the impression one gets from the works is not exactly on the sunny side of the street. “The faces have sad expressions and, if they smile at all, it is very restrained,” she notes. “But they are alive. When I look at them, I am very moved. This show is a means for me to express my excitement from the people around me.”
Although the original Fayum portraits are strongly connected to death, Manor feels there is a basic natural vitality to them too. “The subjects of the [original] portraits are not gods, saints, heroes or even emperors. These are ordinary people, painted in a naturalistic style, with an intense expression that radiates tranquility, nobility and a pure burst of life.”
The Eternal Flame exhibition at the Jerusalem Theater runs until August 30. Info: