Category

Egyptian

Trip to London: New Discoveries

My family and I just got back from a vacation to England. About three-and-a-half of those days were spent in London, and we were able to cram eight museum visits into those few days! We visited Sir John Soane’s Museum, the Tate Modern, the Victoria & Albert Museum, the Wallace Collection, the Design Museum, the National Gallery, the Tate Britain, and the British Museum. I especially loved the elegance of the Wallace Collection, the quirkiness of the Soane Museum, and the grandeur of the British Collection.

I got to see a lot of beloved works of art on this trip, including relief carvings of Ashurbanipal’s lion hunt, the Parthenon Marbles, the hunting scene from the Tomb of Nebamun, and Holbein’s The Ambassadors. I also was really glad that I saw the “Vermeer and Music” show at the National Gallery (even though it meant that I had to sacrifice seeing The Arnolfini Portrait in another section of the museum, due to time constraints!). I also became familiar with new artists and/or works of art during this trip, and I thought I would share them here.

Emilie Charmy, Woman in a Japanese Dressing Gown, 1907. Oil on canvas, 81 x 68 cm. Image from StudyBlue

This isn’t a work of art that I saw in London, but I was introduced to the work of Emilie Charmy on the plane ride to England. Several of her paintings (including Woman in a Japanese Dressing Gown, shown above) are included in Gender and Art, a book that I read while on my trip. In 1921, the critic Roland Dorgelés wrote that that Charmy “sees like a woman and paints like a man.”1 An online gallery of Charmy’s work can be found HERE.

Lee Ufan, "From Line," 1978. Oil paint and glue on canvas. Tate Modern.

Ufan’s From Line is one of the works of art that I saw in the Tate Modern. I love this painting for several reasons, partly because the aesthetic perfectly matches the things that my husband loves about Abstract Expressionism. Ufan wrote this about his method: “Load the brush and draw a line. At the beginning it will appear dark and thick, then it will get gradually thinner and finally disappear . . . A line must have a beginning and an end. Space appears within the passage of time, and when the process of creating space comes to an end, time also vanishes.”2

Fred Wilson, "Grey Area (Black Version)," 1993. Five painted plaster busts, five painted plaster wooden shelves.

I am mostly familiar with Fred Wilson’s interesting exhibition work in Mining the Museum, so I found his piece Grey Area (Black Version) to be a welcome surprise. Plus, I love the Egyptian bust of Nefertiti. Wilson’s piece draws attention to “the claims for Nefertiti, and ancient Egypt generally, as positive examplars of blackness within African American culture, but also on the debates around Nefertiti’s actual racial identity and obscured histories of African peoples, alluded to in the title ‘Grey Area.'”3

Carolingian Ceremonial Comb with Astrological Symbols, c. 875. Victoria and Albert Museum

I was excited to see this liturgical comb in the V&A, largely because my friend Shelley had piqued my interest in liturgical combs with her post earlier this summer. The museum text panel for this Carolingian comb explained, “Combs like this were used to part the hair of the priest before celebrating Mass, and in other ceremonies. This combing symbolically ordered the mind, as well as reducing the risk of falling hair contaminating the wine.”4 The museum website also explains (in a blurb about a 12th century comb) that liturgical combs symbolized “a concentration of thoughts toward the liturgy.”

Cast of the Hildesheim doors (center) in the Cast Courts at the Victoria & Albert Museum.

Plaster casts of Trajan's Column, from the Cast Courts at the Victoria & Albert Museum

I was really looking forward to seeing the casts in the Cast Courts at the Victoria & Albert Museum. To my great disappointment, I found that the Cast Courts were closed, and only one of the courts could be seen by looking from a second-story balcony. I was most looking forward to seeing minute details in the casts of the Hildesheim Doors, but I had to try and be content with seeing those doors from a distance. I did feel like I had a new perspective though, on the sheer size of Trajan’s column after seeing the cast placed in an indoor space. Both my husband and I exclaimed in surprise when we stumbled upon the balcony which afforded a view of the column (so large that it is displayed in two pieces!). More information on the plaster casts of Trajan’s Column can be found HERE.

Fragonard's "The Swing" (second from right) and Boucher's "Cupid á Captive" (right) in the Wallace Collection

One of the Dutch Rooms in the Wallace Collection

I wanted to include two images of the Wallace Collection interior, since I felt like the setting for this museum was a work of art in-and-of-itself. If I had to choose, I think that this museum was my very favorite one that we visited on this trip. I wanted to visit this museum and the Soane Museum ever since I began to compile my Collection Museum list, and the Wallace Collection did not disappoint! It was also really fun to see Fragonard’s The Swing, since the first art history paper I ever wrote in college was on that painting. It was a lot smaller than I expected! I also thought it was neat that The Swing and Cupid á Captive hang side by side, since those are two popular works of art that often feature in art history survey courses.

Caspar Netscher, The Lace-Maker, 1664

One of the paintings that was a very nice discovery in the Wallace Collection was Netscher’s The Lace Maker. I feel like this has a really strong composition, but also exhibits some interesting interest in texture (for example, with the intricate cap, the plastered wall, and the paper on the wall). This morning I have been thinking about how the turned body and red clothes of the figure remind me a little bit of the centrally-placed woman in Courbet’s The Wheat Sifters (1854) from the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Nantes collection. In some ways, it’s interesting to compare these paintings and see how Courbet was heir of the Dutch genre painting tradition.

Detail from Peter de Hooch, "Woman Peeling Apples," c. 1663.

Another great painting in the Wallace Collection that is hung near The Lace Maker is Peter de Hooch’s Woman Peeling Apples (c. 1663). I use this painting when I lecture on 17th century Dutch art, but I never had seen this painting before in person. The light streaming through the windows is quite lovely, and I like a lot of things about the color and details of this whole painting.

Colossal scarab, perhaps 305-30 BC (possibly earlier)

A colossal scarab! Who knew that such a thing existed?!? This scarab was brought by Lord Elgin (of “Parthenon Marbles” fame) to Britain in the 19th century. I like this scarab for a couple of reasons, including that the scarab was found in Istanbul, although it probably decorated an Egyptian temple. I wonder why the scarab ended up in Istanbul. Scarabs are also interesting to me because of their symbolic associations with rebirth and the sun. Egyptians thought that the scarab was seemingly miraculously hatch out of the dung. In addition, the scarab pushes dung into small balls, much like the god Khepri pushes the sun through the sky.

I took lots of other photos of museums and works of art on this trip, but I think that these are the main “new” (for me, at least) works of art and spaces which will stick out to me the most. Even though we got to visit eight museums, there are still many more things that I wish I could have seen. I already feel the pull go to back, especially since it seems like Millais’s Ophelia is not currently on view at the Tate Britain! I couldn’t find it anywhere. Could that painting have been taken down (or sent off for travel) with the recent rehanging of the Tate’s permanent collection?

What are your favorite works of art and museums in London? Why?

1 Gill Perry, “The Parisian Avant-Garde and ‘Feminine’ Art in the Early Twentieth Century” in Gender and Art by Gill Perry, ed., (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), 220.

2 Museum label for Lee Ufan, From Line, London, Tate Modern, August 11, 2013.

3 Museum label for Fred Wilson, Grey Area (Black Version), London, Tate Modern, August 11, 2013.

4 Museum label for Ceremonial Comb with Astrological Symbols, London, Victoria & Albert Museum, August 11, 2013.

— 8 Comments

King Tut: Nesting Shrines, a Sarcophagus, and Coffins

 

King Tut Funerary Mask, c. 1327 BC

Last weekend I had the opportunity to visit an amazing exhibit on King Tutankhamun (see some images from the show here). I’ve always been interested in King Tut (I’ve blogged about him before), and I’ve been anticipating the opening of this exhibition for a long time. Upon entering the exhibit space, I was really pleased to see that the show wasn’t limited to objects found in King Tut’s tomb, but included sculptures and artifacts from the Old Kingdom and New Kingdom. In fact, one of the colossal statues of Ankhenaten also was there, which was neat to see.

One of the things that I found particularly interesting was a short video clip by National Geographic. The clip recreated how all the different nesting shrines, sarcophagus, and coffins covered King Tut’s body.

I already knew that several coffins covered King Tut’s body, but I wasn’t aware of how many shrines were used to cover the sarcophagus. All together, the shrines, sarcophagus and coffins totaled the number nine: the Egyptian number which symbolized infinity. I’ve recreated a list of the different shrines, sarcophagus and coffins below, going in order from the outermost shrine. (On a side note: You would be surprised to know how many conflicting stories exist online about King Tut’s shrines, sarcophagus and coffins! It has taken me forever to sort out the correct information.)

Cross-section diagram of shrines, sarcophagus, and nesting coffins for King Tutankhamun's mummy. Courtesy Hotepibre via Wikipedia.

  • Outermost Golden Shrine: This shrine, which housed all of the remaining shrines, sarcophagus, coffins and mummy, almost filled the entire room of King Tut’s tomb. It is about nine feet high and sixteen feet long. The shrine is decorated with the double-tiered knot of Isis and the djed (the backbone of Osiris, representing stability). There also are hieroglyphs of Osiris on the case. This shrine is on display in the Cairo Museum. A virtual tour of this shrine (and the second and third shrines) is found HERE.
  • The Pall Frame: This is a nine-piece gabled framework. It is made out of wood and gold. On top of the framework was a fabric that was decorated with large marguerites (daisy-like flowers) of gilded bronze. One commenter described the fabric as “like a night sky spangled with stars.” Unfortunately, the fabric was ruined when it was left out in the open, during a period when Carter’s American team was prevented from working in the tomb and laboratory.
  • The Second Shrine (also see drawing here): This second shrine is made out of gold and is decorated with funerary texts from the book of the dead. This particular shrine has a sloping roof and is thought to be in the shape of the Per-Wer, the ancient shrine of Upper Egypt that once housed a cult image of the tutelary goddess Nekhbet. This shrine was constructed by sixteen separate pieces, which allowed the shrine to be assembled on-site in the burial chamber (a process likely confirmed by the assembling directions written in black ink on several individual pieces). Domestic, magical, and ornate objects were placed in the available space between this shrine, the third shrine, and the fourth shrine.
  • The Third Shrine: This shrine is very similar to the second shrine, only with smaller dimensions. This shrine is also made out of gold and has a sloping roof. Likewise, the third shrine also is decorated with funerary texts from the Book of the Dead.
  • The Fourth (Innermost) Shrine: The sides of the shrine depict a procession of various gods, including Anubis and Horus. The sky goddess Nut was depicted on the top of the ceiling, embracing the sarcophagus with her wings. The interior walls depict Spell 17 from the Book of the Dead.
  • Sarcophagus: This  sarcophagus was made out of quartzite (for the body of the sarcophagus) and was supported by a block of alabaster. The lid was made out of red granite. The lid doesn’t quite match the sarcophagus (and furthermore, was cracked and then repaired with gypsum!), which might suggest that the intended lid was not created in time for the hurried burial. The whole sarcophagus itself weighed over a ton.
  • Outermost Coffin (see detail image HERE): Like the other two coffins, this coffin was wrapped in linen. This anthropoid coffin depicted an image of the king. The coffin was made out of gilded wood and cut stones. Four silver handles were created to lower the coffin into the sarcophagus. When containing the other nested coffins, this outermost coffin weighed 1.36 metric tons (3,000 pounds).
  • Second (Middle) Coffin (see detail image HERE): This anthropoid coffin is made out of gilded wood. Small pieces of colored glass were affixed to practically the whole body of the coffin. It was protected by a red linen shroud when it was discovered by Howard Carter. Additionally, the red linen shroud was covered with floral garlands. The flowers, although far dead and dry, suggest that the king was buried during the spring time when the flowers would have been available. No handles exist on this middle coffin, which made the excavation difficult.
  • Innermost Coffin (see detail image HERE): This anthropoid coffin was made of pure gold, inlaid with glass and semi-precious stones. When it was discovered, this coffin originally was covered in a sticky black residue, made from a perfume. The coffin is just over six feet tall and weighs nearly 243 pounds. Gold handles are located on this innermost coffin.
  • The mummy of King Tut, with the head protected by a funerary mask of gold, lapis lazuli, glass, and semi-precious stones (see reconstruction HERE). The mask weighs 24 pounds (11 kg). Gold sandals were placed on the mummy’s feet, along with various other decorative objects on the body. The king’s fingers were lined with hollow gold finger tips.

Inner Coffin of Tutankhamun's Sarcophagus, c. 1332-1322 BCE

On a side note, apart from these nested shrines, sarcophagus, and coffins, there also was another separate shrine located in King Tut’s tomb: the canopic shrine. You can watch a video about King Tut’s canopic shrine HERE. Inside the shrine there was a canopic chest and small canopic “coffinettes” which contained some of King Tut’s vital organs. (THIS ONE contained King Tut’s liver.)

Although ancient thieves entered King Tut’s tomb relatively soon after the pharaoh’s burial, afterward the tomb remained undisturbed for several centuries. And since thieves never touched King Tut’s actual sarcophagus (the seal on the second and third shrines were intact upon discovery), we have been able to better understand the burial process and some of the funerary objects for Egyptian pharaohs. However, it blows my mind to think about what luxurious coffins and objects were placed inside the tombs of more prestigious kings. As a relatively insignificant pharaoh who died at a young age, King Tut apparently received a more modest burial than other Egyptian rulers. One can only imagine what riches were taken by the ancient thieves that disturbed some of the other tombs!

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Egyptian Hands

Fragment of a royal hand from the Amarna period, c. 1349-1336 BC

When I introduce students to Egyptian art, I often show them a short clip from Nigel Spivey’s documentary series, How Art Made the World. I like this clip for a couple of reasons, particularly since it introduces some of the Egyptian conventions for representing the human form. One of the parts that I think it particularly interesting is seen at 4:36 in the clip below, when Nigel discusses how Egyptian hands were represented.

Nigel explains that Egyptians were depicted with two identical hands (with “palms facing outwards”) and with fingers that were a “nice uniform length.” In other words, there is no differentiation between right and left hands. And, if you look at Egyptian art, you will find lots of examples that fit with Nigel’s description (although not every palm is necessarily represented as “facing outwards”). Notice the identical hands of the woman on the right side of the Stele of Amenemhat (see below), and also how the hands of the men are interlocked in an awkward way.

Stele of Amenemhat, c. 2000 BCE

It must be difficult to play the harp with two right thumbs!

Detail of a musician, tomb of Rekhmire, ca. 1425 BCE

For a general audience, I think that Nigel’s description of identical hands is fine. However, there are lots of other examples that don’t perfectly fit this description. Several Egyptian artists took time to represent two different hands. In fact, some works of art will depict one figure with identical hands and another figure with distinct hands. For example, one representation of King Tut (shown below, seated) shows the ruler with two left hands, while Queen Ankhesenamon has both a right and left hand.

Detail of gold throne panel of King Tutankamun, 1332-1322 BC

The same thing can be observed with the identical hands of Hu Nefer (from a Book of the Dead), but the varied hands of the god Horus:

Detail of Judgment of Hu Nefer (Hunefer), c. 1285 BC

Here is another instance, where the artist has taken pains to represent two different hands:

Woman combing the hair of Queen Kawait, from Queen Kawait's sarcophagus, c. 1400 BC

Luckily for this carpenter, he is able to make his chair with both a right and a left hand:

Carpenter Making a Chair, Tomb of Rekhmire, ca. 1479-1400 BC

As of yet, I have not found any scholarship which addresses the different representations of hands in Egyptian art. Perhaps it is too much of a daunting task to undertake. (But if anyone knows of such scholarship, please let me know!) Are composition and description the primary two considerations in every single instance where hands are represented? Perhaps so. However, I wonder if identical hands and/or varied hands might have other significations, at least in certain contexts.

Any thoughts? Does anyone have a favorite depiction of identical (or non-identical) hands from Egyptian art?

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Snakes in Ancient Art Hiss-tory

Each of my classes this quarter has its own distinct personality. My ancient art students are especially curious, and I love the questions that they raise in class. And for some reason, a lot of our recent topics have meandered (or perhaps slithered?) toward a discussion of snakes. I suppose this shouldn’t be surprising, since snakes held symbolic significance in a lot of ancient cultures. Here are some of the works that we have been discussing at length (and some topics that we’ll be discussing in the next few weeks):

I can’t even express how much I love the Minoan Snake Goddess (shown left, c. 1700-1550 BCE, image courtesy Flickr via Xosé Castro). This was one of the first statues that I loved as an AP art history student in high school. A few weeks ago, my students and I discussed how the snake could have held multiple symbolic associations for the Minoans. Snakes are associated with rejuvenation in many ancient Mediterranean cultures, since snakes can rejuvenate themselves by shedding their skin. Snakes are also associated with resurrection, since they can move both above and beneath the ground.

Last week, when discussing Hellenistic art, a student asked why Alkyoneos (depicted in part of the Gigantomachy frieze at the Altar of Zeus, Pergamon, c. 175-150 BCE) was entwined with a snake. (We were also looking at another Hellenistic sculpture, the Laocoön (1st century BC), and the student noticed a visual similarity between the writhing snakes.) I had never paid attention to the Alkyoneos snake before, but discovered that the snake helps the viewer to identify that Alkyoneos is battling with the Olympian goddess Athena. The snake aids Athena in her victory, similar to how serpents aid the Olympian gods (specifically Athena, according to some accounts) in the killing of Laocoön, the Trojan priest.

Athena was often identified with snakes (I joked with my students that she might have been a Parselmouth). Not only was the snake associated with wisdom (which was one of Athena’s attributes), but snake also served as the symbol for Erectheus, the mythical king of Athens. As the patron goddess of Athens, it makes sense that Athena would also be associated Erectheus (and Athens) through the snake symbol. Athena was depicted with a snake in the monumental “Athena Parthenos” statue by Phidias (original dated 438 BC, see reconstruction from Royal Ontario Museum here).

In about a week, I’ll be talking about snakes with my ancient art students again, this time in connection with the Etruscans. Scholar Kristen Lee Hostetler recently explored how snake imagery is found in depictions of Etruscan demons (such as the wall painting of the demon Tuchulcha, Tomba dell’Orco II, Tarquinia, last quarter of the 4th century BC; shown left). It appears that snakes (specifically the extremely poisonous adder) were feared by the Etruscans. Hostetler points out that the distinct adder markings are noticeable in the demon imagery1. In addition, some of these Etruscan demons have blue flesh (as seen in the “Tomb of the Blue Demons” in Tarquinia, late 5th – early 4th century BC), which is reminiscent to the skin discoloration caused by an adder snakebite.2

Earlier in the quarter, my students and I have discussed the significance of the enraged uraeus snake in Egyptian pharaonic imagery (as can be seen in the funerary mask of King Tutankhamun, c. 1327 BCE). The snake is a reference to the Wadjet, the cobra goddess of Lower Egypt. According to mythology, the pharaoh sat at coronation to receive his crown from this goddess.3 The cobra was one of the earliest of Egyptian royal insignia.

Do you have a favorite work of art which includes snake imagery? It’s interesting that snakes have obviously fascinated (and intimidated) the human race for so many centuries. I can think of many other examples, even extending outside the realm of ancient art. Biblical images of Eve with snakes have been popular in Christian art for centuries. Snakes can also appear in conjunction with the Virgin; my favorite Baroque example is Caravaggio’s Madonna with the Serpent (1606 CE).

1 Kristin Lee Hostetler, “Serpent Iconography,” in Etruscan Studies 10, no. 16 (2007): 203.

2 Ibid., 206.

3 Nancy Luomala, “Matrilineal Reinterpretation of some Egyptian Sacred Cows,” in Feminism and Art History: Questioning the Litany by Norma Broude and Mary D. Garrard, eds. (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1982), 27.

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"Masculine" vs. "Feminine" vs. "Androgynous"

This quarter I have been peppering my lectures with some discussion about women in the visual arts, following some of the ideas that Christine Havice presented in Women’s Studies Quarterly. 1 Although art historical practice and publications have changed since Havice published her article in 1987, I think that many of her suggestions are still appropriate in the classroom today.

Recently I’ve been talking with my students about Akhenaten and the Amarna period in Egyptian art (on the left is the colossal figure of Akhenaten, c. 1353-1336 BC). This topic easily segued into a discussion (prompted by Havice) about the problematic nature of the labeling an artistic style or work of art as “masculine” and “feminine.” We discussed how our 21st century idea (i.e. construct) of “masculine” and “feminine” differs greatly (or likely didn’t even exist) in prehistoric and ancient times, and by using those labels we are superimposing our cultural ideology on a work of art. All in all, using such adjectives in art historical discussions implies that a similar “masculine” or “feminine” construct existed at the time the art was created.

Sigh. And such is the challenge for art historians. I think it is often difficult to find correct (i.e. objective) adjectives and phrases to describe works of art, because we always interpret works of our through our own cultural lenses. I’d like to think that Michael Ann Holly would agree with me on this subject, since she has much lamented the melancholic separation between historians and the objects of their scholarly discussion.

So, what do we do? Search for different adjectives? Continue to describe works of art in the best way that we know how, yet recognizing the surrounding culture from whence our biases spring? We obviously can’t ditch adjectives altogether; the discipline of art history revolves around the limited translation of images to words.

I don’t know the answers to solve such conundrums regarding adjectives, but I have formed one opinion about adjectives for the Amarna style. I think it is just as problematic to try and neutralize ground between the “masculine” and “feminine” terms by saying that Akenaten’s colossal statue “suggest[s] androgyny” (sorry, Marilyn Stokstad).2 Do we know if Akhenaten was trying to appear androgynous in his art? No! Even without using the “masculine” or “feminine” label, Stokstad is trying to define this statue on sexual grounds, in this case suggesting the lack or combination of sexual characteristics as a definition. (Besides, do we even know if the concept of androgyny existed in ancient Egypt?) I think it would have been more appropriate for Stokstad to say that the sculpture may suggest androgyny to the modern viewer.

1 Christine Havice, “Teaching about Women in the Visual Arts: The Art History Survey Transfigured,” Women’s Studies Quarterly 15, no. 1/2 (Spring-Summer 1987): 17-20.

2 Marilyn Stokstad and Michael W. Cothren, Art History, 4th edition (Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2011), 71.

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.