In The Face of the Past I discussed how we are immediately confronted by the poignant reality of the past by photographs of human faces. Since photography is an historically recent technology, our ability to identify with the past through photographs is historically quite shallow. For a deeper immersion in the reality of the past, we need the next best thing to photographs of human faces, and that is realistic portraiture of human faces.
We all know that portraits are often unrealistic, whether they are flattering in order to please the subject (who is the source of the portraitist’s income) or whether they are surprisingly off-putting, as in the homely babies of medieval art, so portrayed for larger ideological reasons (on which cf. Why babies in medieval paintings look like ugly old men). Pascal once wrote, “Eloquence is a picture of thought ; and hence, those who, after having painted it, make additions to it, give us a fancy picture, instead of a portrait.”
Nevertheless, there have been epochs of naturalistic portraiture, both in painting and sculpture. While photo-realistic painting is an even more historically recent phenomenon than photography itself (being influenced by the technology it imitates), realistic portraiture has a long history. Among the most famous examples are the Fayum mummy portraits. There are two books about the Fayum mummy portraits, Ancient Faces: Mummy Portraits from Roman Egypt and British Museum Mummy Portraits from Roman Egypt (there are others as well, but I will cite these two), describing the historical context and circumstances of these striking portraits. Funerary portraits (whether in the form of sculpture or painting) were intended to be a likeness, and so represent the individual rather than the type or the ideal.
Ancient Greek portraiture aspired to idealization of the human body; later Byzantine portraiture presented individuals as tokens of a type. Between these two schematic approaches to representing the human face, Roman portraiture is among the most naturalistic. Despite the spectacular non-naturalism of most Byzantine art (which is an extension of Roman art), the individual sometimes comes through here as well. The gravitas and dignity of the portraits of Christ Pantocrator (Χριστὸς Παντοκράτωρ, ruler of the world), with a deeply lined face and the non-naturalistic colors, has its parallels in more human portraits in more human colors, as in the portrait below from the Basilica of Santa Maria Assunta, in Aquileia.
Though it is more difficult to see the past through the lens of portraiture as compared to photography, it is worthwhile to make the effort to seek the individual in the midst of idealization, archetypes, and ideology. Portraiture can take us deep into history, orders of magnitude more deeply into time than photography, and once we become accustomed to finding the individual even when represented in a distorted and non-naturalistic manner, one can penetrate yet more deeply into history, finding what is genuinely human in the earliest traces of human artifacts.