We have to watch at Egyptian art as a whole. An iconography is a set of images connected to each other. It is obviously very important to identify what is depicted. However, to find the deepest meaning of an Egyptian iconography it is crucial to see where and how are the images depicted. Because Egyptian art left few loose ends and just thinking of it as a puzzle, we can find the sense of a decoration on a surface.
This what happens for instance in the iconography of the clay coffin of Men. Dismembering the different elements of the conjunf, as if it was a pomegranate, we can understand why the artists (or Men) chosed every character and its location.
Moreover, the artist also had to choose their location on the surface for creating a coherent composition.
DISTRIBUTION OF THE IMAGES IN THE CLAY COFFIN OF MEN.
Few things are random in Egyptian art and in this coffin the artist took special care about the distribution and location of the iconography.
On the other had, the coffin of Men had barely texts. We just read some concise lines of hieroglyphs, which served to delimitate every scene or image. Thanks to it, we can see three well differentiated areas: body, shoulders and head.
Coffins in Ancient Egypt were not made just in wood, but also in ceramic. Although these kind of coffins are much more common in the Middle East, there are some examples coming from the northeast of Egyptian Delta.
Let us pay attention to the clay coffin of Men (Musées Royaux d’Art et d’Histoire de Bruxelles, E.04348), belonging to the Dynasty XVIII and from in Tell el-Yahoudiyeh (tomb 411), ca. thirty mile northeast of Cairo.
This clay coffin belongs to the called “group B”, that is, with cylindrical shape and the head and shoulder not defined
Its exterior decoration and inscriptions draws the attention of this coffin. Its iconography, altough typical of Ancient Egypt, makes this artefact very special; the wig, ending suddenly over the inscription, the lack of wesekh– collar, something that essential for a corpse.
Thanks to the numerous documents that has come down to us from Ancient Egypt, almost all related to their religious beliefs, we know about their gods, the ceremonies they practiced, their mythologies, and above all how they buried their dead and also how they did to resurrect them.
In the funerary sphere, we know that ancient Egyptians mummified to preserve the corpse and that they carried out rituals to promote the resurrection of the deceased and his rebirth in the Hereafter.
Funerary texts played a crucial role in the regeneration of the dead. Some helped him to overcome the difficulties that hindered his way to eternity and others evoked mythical situations that promoted his resurrection.
At this point, it is interesting to note how the ancient Egyptians, through words, knew how to turn everyday situations into moments with great symbolic potential.
For example, when a funerary text from Ancient Egypt alluded to “chicks inside the nest”, could that have a deeper meaning? The answer is yes.
In my last article we see how in Ancient Egypt banal moments of the world of the living, acquired great importance when they were introduced through the texts in the world of the gods.
Coffin of Artemidora from Meir (AD 90-100). Isis and Nephthys are a constant in the iconography. Photo: metmuseum.org
The funerary mask of Artemidora was the most decorated element of the whole set. In contrast to the body art the head appears as the selected support for a more complete composition. We can even distinguish an upper and lower register with their corresponding scenes.
he first thing that attracts attention is the background color: black.
Over this background at each end (left and right) appear a mourning woman. Both present interesting features:
Unidentified (no name and no symbol)
Half mane (or short hair) and a tape around the forehead.
Half naked. They are just wearing a simple skirt.
Funerary Mask of Artemidora. Right side with one of the mourners. Photo: metmuseum.org
Egyptian art had a magical-functional purpose and did not take into consideration the figure of the spectator.
For that reason, we cannot consider Egyptian art from just an aesthetic empiricism. Which makes art feel in a subjective way through sensations.
We must read the Egyptian Art from the technical realization, but also from its ideological-religious motivation, a motivation of a social group that gives the work a collective nature.
Egyptian Art is Objects and Texts.
In ancient Egypt written language and figurative language go together. Usually the images reach where the texts do not arrive and vice versa. For that reason, Objects in Egyptian art must be “read”, as if they were manuscripts or inscriptions.
The art of ancient Egypt is neither as transparent nor as natural as it seems at first sight. Egyptian Art is a figurative art that does not always present evidence and whose images often contain codified information.
Statue of Ramses II from Tanis.
We have a good example in a statue of Ramses II, from Tanis and now in the Cairo Museum At first glance, it is an image of Ramses II child protected by the figure of the god Huron.
However, this, which is pure iconography, has an iconology that turns this statue into a true cryptogram in three dimensions.
Ramses II from Tanis. Cairo Museum. Photo: Panoramio
Reading literally every part of this sculpture, we get the following:
• The solar disk that appears on the head of Ramses is “Ra” in Ancient Egyptian.
• The image of Ramses is that of a child and follows the protocol of the infantile effigies: the finger of the right hand to the mouth. We should read this part of the statue as “mes”, which means “child” in Egyptian.
Why? Because in addition to evoking a reality, they made it arise. In Ancient Egypt everything that was depicted was also happening.
The Power of Scenes on Walls.
The mural scenes that we observe in the mastabas of the Old Kingdom depict very realistically scenes of daily life. However, they did not consist in the memory of an earthly world that the deceased wanted to take to the Hereafter. In the belief of Ancient Egypt those scenes were moments and situations that happened perpetually.
Making Bread. Mastaba of Ty in Saqqara. V Dynasty. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo.
The depictions of bread manufacture or agricultural and livestock activities provided food for the dead eternally. The iconographic environment surrounding the deceased was an ideal reality in which he would live forever and which was in his best interest.
In the same way, the ancient Egyptian reliefs that invaded the walls and columns of the temples (whether funerary or state) immortalized the rituals that took place in them. It was the way to make the rite always happen.
The physical space in which an ancient Egyptian plastic production is located is essential to analyse it.
Reliefs, paintings and statues of ancient Egypt we know come mainly from temples and / or tombs, that is, from sacred spaces impregnated with spirituality.
Serdab with the statue of Ti. Mastaba of Ti in Saqqara. VI Dynasty. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo.
The art of Ancient Egypt was not “contemplated”.
The tombs were houses of eternity that remained closed in perpetuity (except for receiving the funerary cult) and the temples were sacred constructions to which only the royal house and the priesthood had access. Therefore, the mural scenes and sculptures of Ancient Egypt were not conceived for being contemplated.