Artists and theologist of Ancient Egypt worked together in the emergence of iconographies and they combined different planes of meaning: images and words.
That is why reading the Egyptian art requires an iconographic and textual analysis.
The Egyptian art: a language of signs.
The Egyptian art is a language of signs and just like the Egyptian language, it uses word games; that is decoration often plays games of images.
Writing of the verb TO CREATE (left) with the substantive EYE (right) in Ancient Egypt.
In the Egyptian language, we find a very graphic example when comparing the verb “to do” or “to create” with the substantive “eye”:
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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.
The image in Ancient Egypt had a power in itself.
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.
Egyptian artists did not think of a spectator,..
The king in Ancient Egypt, despite his solar nature, was also a human being. After dying, the pharaoh became also a corpse, so a mummy.
Therefore it was inevitable to asimilate the dead souvereign with Osiris. And he required also a resurection following the belief of Ancient Egypt. Even Akhenaten needed it.
Sarcophagi of Hatshepsut and Amenhotep II.
Royal sarcophagi in Ancient Egypt needed also protection for the Pharaoh in the same way particular coffins did. For that reason, Isis and Nephthys, as the mourners of the dead Osiris, were present also at both ends of sarcophagi of kings of the XVIII dynasty.
But what happenend during the Amarna Period?
Isis, Nephthys and later on also Serket and Neith were essential in the regeneration sphere. They, as women/goddessees, played a crucial role in the process of resurrection in Ancient Egypt.
Canopic chest of priest of Montu Pady-Imenet. Neith pouring water on Qebehsenuef, the son of Horus who protected the intestines. XXII Dynasty.Luxor Museum.
For that reason, ancient Egyptian artist included their images in every funerary artefact related with the mummy (at both ends of coffins and sarcophagi, in canopic shrines, ushabti boxes…).
Nevertheless, what happened under the reign of Akhenaton? During the Amarna Period the official religion changed into a kind of monotheism. The only officialy worshipped divinity was the sun disk Aten and every old divinity disappeared, included the goddesses.
How did they managed the matter of the resurrection and the women/goddesses involved in it?
The most important female figure in that period of the history of Ancient Egypt was Nefertiti. She had a higher status than former royal wives did, even in religion.
Sarcophagus of Akhenaten. Cairo Museum. Photo Mª Rosa Valdesogo.
Not only she had her own role in the cult to the Aten, iconography shows how it was considered that Nefertiti had a reviving power in herself.
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Let’s start with that: women were crucial in Ancient Egypt for the dead’s resurrection.
The rite of the professional mourning ritual in ancient Egyptian funerals was based on the Osirian theology.
That happened becasue in the belief of Ancient Egypt the dead (Osiris) was regenerated thanks to aid of his wife/sister Isis (and by extension of his sister/sister in law Nephthys).
She was able to recover many vital functions to the corpse: breath, movement, virility…Not for nothing the image of Isis (and of Nephthys) was present in funerary artefacts (coffins, sarcophagi, caponic chests…)
Goddess Nephthys from a coffin in Brooklyn Museum
We also know that in some moment of the history of Ancient Egyp that regenerating role was responsibility also of Serket and Neith. They formed with Isis and Nephthys a group of four goddesses who contributed actively to the dead’s resurrection. That is why, their images were present in funerary furniture (sarcophagi, ushabti boxes, canopic shrine…).
hat shows how important were women/goddesses for the dead’s resurrection from a professional and official point of view. Their status in this sphere was high enough to become indispensable.
What happened in the Egyptian thought in this regard during the Amarna Period? Under the reign of Akhenaton these divinities disappeared from the pantheon. However, the need of a resurrection did not disappear.
Funerals, mummification, tombs… still existed. But what happened with the concept/image of women/goddesses, who performed a role in the resurrection?