Some of the first significant portraits in the history of mankind are those found in the Egyptian necropolis of Fayyum; the dead’s portrait painted on wood the size of a hand palm was placed in each burial chamber. It is surprising how young, lively and bright is the look in those huge eyes that remind us of the portraits painted by Picasso and Matisse. This is because those people had their portraits done while they were still alive, their life expectancy being around 35 years at that time.
As part of the funeral rites of the kings of France, the dead had to be exhibited for 40 days. Since putrefaction was faster than the culmination of the ceremonies, the use of a wax effigy dressed in all his finery and symbols of power was adopted. Such an image took on the role of an immortal substitute for the dead, the effigy presiding over every court feast until a new king came to the throne.
The French custom returns to an Imperial Rome tradition and there is a striking feature in such a custom which is peculiar to the Christian culture: there is a soul transfer between the depicted person and his depiction. The reason is that western man believes that his image is his best quality. If there was no anguish over man’s own fragility, there would be no need for commemorative monuments; immortals would not take pictures of one another. Only who is mortal and knows it wants to remain alive. There are many more pictures taken of and documentaries filmed on those things threatened with extinction, such as flora, fauna and old neighborhoods, than on anything else; the documentary craze is strengthened by the anxiety of those whose days are numbered.
Just as a child groups his limbs together for the first time when looking at himself in a mirror, we contrast death decomposition with image composition.
John Berger - The Shape of a Pocket