ART FROM ANCIENT LANDS

New Kingdom Portrait of an elite official - X.0310
Origin: Egypt
Circa: 1539 BC to 1186 BC
Dimensions: 7.25" (18.4cm) high x 10.5" (26.7cm) wide
Collection: Egyptian
Style: 18th-19th Dynasty


This fragment of a wall painting depicts the head and shoulders of an elite official in the service of pharaoh’s administration. In keeping with ancient Egyptian artistic conventions, the face is rendered in strict profile with the eye, here hieroglyphically rendered, depicted in front view. The eyebrow, in black, is a delicate example of such a so-called cosmetic brow. He is wearing a wig, painted black, but coiffed in such a way that its small, tight curls lap his check. He is wearing a tunic, woven from gossamer thin linen, its hem fringed, as is evident from the detail along one shoulder. His accessories include a broad collar worn high up on the neck. In keeping with color conventions, the elite official is depicted with reddish brown skin tones. This distinguishes men from women who are generally painted yellow so that one is confident that the delicately painted hand resting on his right shoulder is that of his wife. This small detail is sufficient to insure the reconstruction of the scene as the elite official and his wife seated before an offering table accompanied by male and female banqueters in separate rows, a scene sequence which is well-attested in tombs of Dynasty XVIII at Thebes, from which this example doubtless originates.
The elite official is shown holding a lotus blossom to his nose. Within the repertoire of coded symbols in ancient Egyptian art, the lotus is often substituted for the ankh, or life-sign, because both words were homonyms, that is they sounded alike when pronounced in ancient Egyptian. Because only the gods could be visually represented presenting the ankh-sign to the nose of pharaoh, elite officials took the artistic liberty of “granting life to their nose” by portraying themselves sniffing the lotus.

Many of today’s adherents of aromatherapy look beyond this coded message in such scenes and suggest as well that the ancient Egyptian elite were aware of the powers inherent in natural fragrances. As a result, they theorize that the ancient Egyptians were truly pioneers in aromatherapy.

Charles K. Wilkinson, Egyptian Wall Paintings. The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Collection of Facsimiles (catalogue by Marsha Hill) (New York 1983), page 100, accession number 15.5.8, a scene from the Theban Tomb (45) of Djehuty, who served under Amenhotep II of Dynasty XVIII, which shows Djehuty wearing the same broad collar and sniffing the lotus in exactly the same way with his wife to the left, her hand identically resting on his shoulder. Both are seated before a table piled high with offerings. Ibid, page 128, accession numbers 34.4.104, 106, and 107, vignettes from the Theban Tomb of Nebamun and Ipuky who served under Amenhotep III and his son and successor, Amenhotep IV, the monotheist pharaoh better known as Akhenaten, for the curly wig. It is to this period that our wall painting is to be dated.

Lise Mannich, Sacred Luxuries. Fragrance, Aromatherapy, and Cosmetics in Ancient Egypt (Ithaca 1999), for a critical assessment of the Egyptian contribution to aromatherapy, with a extended passages spanning virtually the entire volume devoted to the lotus (pages 12, 22, 49, 62, 76, 78, passim)

A. Lhote, Les chefs d'oeuvre de la peinture egyptienne, 1954; and A. Mekhitarian, La peinture egyptienne, Skira, 1978. - (X.0310)


 

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