ART FROM ANCIENT LANDS

Egyptian Painted Limestone Relief of a Young Lady - X.0011
Origin: Egypt
Circa: 2040 BC to 1842 BC
Dimensions: 14.125" (35.9cm) high
Collection: Egyptian
Style: 11th-12th Dynasties
Medium: Limestone

This painted, rectangular panel preserves two registers of figural decoration in raised relief typical of the Middle Kingdom. The upper register contains a large scale depiction of what was certainly a portrait of the tomb owner seated on a magnificent chair, of which only the lion’s paw leg resting on a bolster is preserved. This detail is interesting because the ancient Egyptians were the first to employ animals as furniture, thereby creating visual puns, the legs of this chair equated with the legs of a lion.

This detail is separated from a more complete register below by a raised line, beneath which appears a row of hieroglyphs oriented toward the right. This fragmentary inscriptions appears to translate, in part, “his beloved [daughter?], whom he loves…”, referring to one of the young women’s parents who is in all likelihood the tomb owner.

Beneath this inscription is a train of three partially preserved female figures advancing to the right, each identically depicted. Only the very edge of the figure to the far left and a bit more of the figure to the far right are discernable, but the figure in the center is the best preserved. In keeping with ancient Egyptian artistic tenets, her face is shown in profile with the eye, designed like the hieroglyph, rendered in front view. She wears a tri-partite wig, painted black, one of the lappets of which falls over her shoulder on to her chest. She wears a tight, form-fitting linen garment, the straps of which meet in the center of the bodice in a V-shaped configuration which serves as a dating criterion. The artistic tenets governing this scene mandate that her breast is exposed and depicted, as is her eye, in profile view. There is a single column of imperfectly preserved hieroglyphs beneath the elbow of her bent near arm. Its hand holds an enlarged lotus flower to her nose. Whereas it is true that the ancient Egyptians loved the scent of freshly cut flowers and used them as a key ingredient in their perfumes and unguents, the coded symbols of the ancient Egyptian elite also equated the lotus flower with the sign of life because the nouns for both were homonyms, or like-sounding. This well-proportioned young lady is, therefore, appropriating for herself the time-honored convention of bestowing to her own image “the eternal breath of life,” which in more traditional images could only be conferred upon pharaoh by one of the deities of the Egyptian pantheon.

Such relief depictions represent a high-water mark of ancient Egyptian art and are rarely encountered in public collections. The bold relief is at once minimal, conforming to a very contemporary aesthetic taste, and possessed of a commanding, monumental presence which belies its small scale.

Mohamed Saleh and Hourig Sourouzian, Official Catalogue. The Egyptian Museum Cairo (Mainz 1987), catalogue number 74, for a painted, wooden statue providing a good idea of the appearance of the dress depicted on this relief; and catalogue numbers 85 and 99, for trains of similarly attired women in relief holding lotus blossoms to their noses which they sniff which are dated to approximately the same period.

- (X.0011)

 

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