The art of Ancient Egypt has a very big interest from the esthetical point of view. But its composition, its scenes, its colors… have always a specific meaning.
Before getting into the art of a moment of the history, we should mention some theoretical matters about art and history. Because any artistic expression needs to be understood in space and in time. Ancient Egypt is not an exception.
Pyramid of Meidum. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo
In every artistic production there are two main components: esthetic (the appearance the artist wants to give to the work) and the technique (the work procedures). But the art is closely united to the human feeling, his conception of the world, his religious and/or spiritual beliefs. At the same time the artwork is integrated into a country, a region, a city…
Marx and Engels. Berlin. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo.
Many statues spread in our nowadays cities are a good proof of it. For instance, the monument of Marx and Engels in Berlin is a result of some techniques, but there is also in it an intention of political propaganda. This artwork of the sculptor Ludwig Engelhart would not have existed out of the Marxist historical moment.
Isis and Nephthys overlaped behind Osiris in a Papyrus from Turin.
The artists of Ancient Egypt had a particular conception of perspective, which affected in the way they depicted groups of living beings and amounts of things.
In our last posts we saw how in Ancient Egypt the funerary scene of Osiris being flanked by Isis and Nephthys was usually depicted with the two mourners of Osiris juxtaposed. It allowed to draw Isis always preceding her sister Nephthys and to make both images complete, so effective for the dead’s resurrection.
Isis and Nephthys juxtaposed behind Osiris. Book of the Dead of Khonsumes.
But the ancient Egyptian artisan could also use the technique of superposition for drawing collectives of people (troops, groups of workers…), of animals (for instance flocks) or amounts of objects (offerings, vases…).
The superposition was also applied to the scene of Isis and Nephthys behind the resurrected Osiris on his throne. We can see it for instance in the famous Papyrus of Ani from the XIX Dynasty and in many others.
During the New Kingdom the dead was buried with rolls of papyrus containing passages of “The Book of the Dead”. That meant that the artist of the Ancient Egypt applied over this new surfaces a decoration took from the general corpus of images they had.
One of the most common scenes in those papyrus was the one with Osiris resurrected over his throne and followed by the images of Isis and Nephthys. Our focus is on how these two professional mourners were depicted.
The artists of Ancient Egypt drew on papyrus with the same techniques they used in other surfaces. Very usual were the superposition and the juxtaposition for depicting pairs, groups (of people, animals…), and amounts of things…. The first one consisted in drawing every single image just besides to another, this way we can see clearly all shapes; the second one consisted in making every image one over another, so just the one on first sight is completely drawn while the artist made just some contours of the rest.
In Ancient Egypt groups of common mourners walked during funerary processions making many gestures of lament: raising arms, beating their arms…One of the most typical gestures of these mourners was to pull from their lock of hair.
We can watch this typical mourning movement in two dimensional depictions, as for instance the mastaba of Mereruka (Saqqara) or the tomb of Ramses IX (KV6).
The religious texts of Ancient Egypt mention the fact of pulling from the lock of hair with the locution nwn m.
Mourners in the tomb of Mereruka at Saqqara. VI Dynasty. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo Martín
We usually considered this gesture as “pulling the front lock of hair”, due to the act that the artists of Ancient Egypt depicted the mourners always pulling from a lock of hair that hanged from their front.
However, there is an exception. The wooden anthropoid coffin of Amenemipet, from the XXI Dynasty, presents in its outer decoration a group of common mourners crying, bending their bodies, raising their arms… It is interesting to notice how the artist of Ancient Egypt introduced here the frontal perspective for depicting one mourner in the center of the group, so she raises her two arms at each side.
Common mourners in the coffin of Amenemipet. XXI Dynasty. British Museum.
At left of the image in a smaller scale a mourning woman pulls with both hands not from a front lock of hair, but from a lateral lock of hair.
In Ancient Egypt the lateral lock of hair was a distinctive of childhood.
For the ancient Egyptian artist of the Old Kingdom, the lateral lock of hair pending from the scalp was, joint with nudity, an iconographical resource applied mainly to boys. Many familiar statues from the Memphite cemetery show how the male was the one with that hairstyle.
Also the two dimensional art presents many images of young boys with the side lock of hair, as for instance in the reliefs from the tomb of Ptahhotep.
But, was this ancient Egyptian rule always like that? No.
The group statue of Nikare with his wife and his daughter is one good exception. This statue comes from Saqqara (?) and is dated in the V Dynasty. Nikare’s daughter is represented in an unusual way for the rules of Ancient Egypt.
The two Drty (two kites), offering nw vases to the four pools. Relief from the tomb of Pahery in el-Kab. XVIII Dynasty. Photo: http://www.osirisnet.net
In Ancient Egypt a couple of two professional women in the role of Isis and Nephthys were actively involved in the dead’s resurrection. They appear usually at both ends of the coffin, during the Opening of the Mouth Ceremony or, from the New Kingdom, kneeling and offering two globular vases nw at the end of that funerary ceremony.
At the beginning we thought that this scene of the professional mourners offering the vases nw was something exclusive of the New Kingdom and of the Theban area. However we were maybe wrong; Ancient Egypt reveals always something new.
In some tombs from the Old Kingdom and from the Memphite area the artists of Ancient Egypt included an iconography, which remembers that one from later periods and from the south.
That is the case of the tomb of Iasen in Gizah (G2196) from the Old Kingdom. In the funerary chapel, to the left of the niche with the statue of the deceased, there is an image of Iasen seated and facing the offering table. Underneath two unidentified kneeling men are facing the dead and offering nw vases. Their position clearly reminds the one of the two professional mourners at the end of the Opening of the Mouth Ceremony, which will become so common during the New Kingdom.
The iconography in Ancient Egypt was not gratuitous. Every image had a reason to be, but also every space.
From the Old Kingdom the two mourners in the role of Isis and Nephthys were accompanying the dead until the tomb at both ends of the mummy. The hieroglyphs of the wooden coffins from the Middle Kingdom tell how Isis was located at the feet and Nephthys at the head. This position could be due to a will of reproducing the moment of the rebirth of the deceased.
Later on the art of Ancient Egypt found in the coffin a new surface for including several icons, as the two professional mourners. From the XXI Dynasty became common to include these two female figures upside down in the in the external feet surface of the lid of the anthropoid coffin.
The inner part of the coffin offered also the artists of ancient Egypt a great surface for the sacred iconography. So, what was outside could also be drawn inside. At that point is emblematic the outer coffin of Nesykhonsu (XXI-XXII Dynasty), in whose interior…
Continue reading in www.mariarosavaldesogo.com
In Ancient Egypt the Legend of Osiris was so important that it was integrated into the solar theology. As a result Isis and Nephthys, the two mourners of Osiris, became an essential part of some solar iconography, so both from the New Kingdom were depicted flanking the solar disk in its daily rebirth.
Book of the Dead of Nespakashuty. XXI Dynasty. Photo: www.louvre.fr
It also had an effect in the holy conception of geography in Ancient Egypt. If the rising sun occupied the east and the sunset the west, the two mourning goddesses had to be also located somewhere, so they had to have also a geographical assignation: north and south. At that point the titles of the two goddesses are quite explicit. In Ancient Egypt, Isis was “The One of the South” and Nephthys “The One of the North”.
Cartonnages in Ancient Egypt were used over the wrapped mummy mainly for mummy masks and some important parts of the body.
The cartonnage of Irtirutja in the Metropolitan Museum of Art of New York dates from the Ptolemaic period. In it one can see how the artist of Ancient Egypt dedicated this technique for covering some special parts of the mummy.
The fact of choosing those parts of the anatomy could reveal an intention of including the essential elements in the belief of Ancient Egypt for the dead’s resurrection.
Obviously the mummy mask was obligated, since, among the many faculties the dead had to recover, there were the faculties of seeing and breathing.
The feet of the mummy were covered with two images of Anubis. It seems as if they were inverted, but they are actually dressed to the deceased’s eyesight.
Two images of the scarab with the solar disk were also a grant of the mummy’s rebirth. In Ancient Egypt, the Osiriac resurrection and the solar rebirth were united, in the iconography and in the religious texts.
Image of Nephthys mourning in the mummy of Irtirutja. Photo: Metropolitan Museum of Art of New York.
The four sons of Horus (two at each side of the body) were also included in the composition, They were a personification of the canopic jars, which contained the dead’s viscera, so they accompanied always the deceased.
Finally, the ancient Egyptian artist could not omit two of the most important figures in the dead’s resurrection: Isis and Nephthys, the two professional mourners, who making a mourning ritual gave the faculties back to the mummy…
It seems that in Ancient Egypt there were a relationship between the hair element and some rites of Heliopolis.
The funerary texts show that the hair, the lock of hair and the cut of this lock of hair were somehow connected with religious practices of this ancient Egyptian city.
In chapters 167 and 674 of the Coffin Texts the deceased receives the offers of bread for the snwt festivity and the bier for the dnit festivity in the moment when the two mourners prepare their hair for him. Both were important lunar celebrations in Heliopolis during the Old Kingdom.
Detail of the eye of Horus from the tomb of Roy. XIX Dynasty. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo
The festivity of snwt was celebrated in Ancient Egypt the 6th day of the month (Wb IV, 153, 4) and dnit was the festivity of the first and third crescent (Wb V, 465, 6 and 7). During these days ancient Egyptians celebrated in Heliopolis the process of recovery of the lunar eye, and the following day was called “day of Horus’ festivity” (Derchain, 1962, p. 30). So in Heliopolis, the lunar cycle was celebrated with the hair element as a process of rebirth, as it was in the funerals of Ancient Egypt.