Artwork of the month


January 2020 Archaeology

A female fertility figure

Sculpted from a single block of limestone, the object depicts a figure of a woman in raised, bold relief set off from a round-topped background. The female figure appears to be completely nude but wears a full wig, painted black, falling over her shoulders and reaching the tops of her breasts, which is secured on either side by a red ribbon. Her accessories include bangle-like bracelets painted black. The round-topped background against which the figure emerges recalls stelae of similar design but its red and black ornamentation suggest  that these are to be understood as a bed. The red, diagonal lines on either side of the figure represent the lattice work of the “springs/mattress” of the bed (figure 2). Indeed, the foot end is designed at a ninety degree angle to the tall back and its black, reticulated design is in imitation of a wooden foot board characteristic of ancient Egyptian beds in general.

 

A Female Fertiliy Figure
Provenance not known
Egypt, New Kingdom, Dynasty XVIII-XIX, ca, 1550-1291 BC
Limestone, painted
16 x 6.4 x 2.6 cm
FGA-ARCH-0303

Provenance
Galerie François Antonovich, Paris, 02.11.2007

 
Fig. 1 – Female Fertility Figure, ca, 1550-1291 BC.
Fig. 2 – Vignette from Theban Tomb. The mummy of Senedjem lying on a funerary bed.

The design of ancient Egyptian beds differ from that of modern beds in that the head-end of the bed is elevated above the foot-end (figure 2).

 

Instead of pillows, the ancient Egyptians employed headrests of varying designs such as these two examples in the collections of the Fondation (figures 3 and 4).

Fig. 3 – A wooden headrest, ca. 1550 – 1185 avant J.-C.
Fig. 4 – An amulet in the form of a headrest, ca. 664 – 342 BC.

The wig is surmounted by a conically-shaped object which is to be interpreted as a stylization of the so-called ointment cone (figure 5). Current research suggests that these ointment cones are symbolic representations of the aura of the deceased symbolic of their resurrected state in the hereafter. 1   As such these attributes are precursors of Christian haloes.

Fig. 5. Vignette of figures, with so-called funerary cones on their heads, attending a banquet from an as yet to be identified Theban tombs.
Fig. 6 – Detail. Female Fertility Figure, ca, 1550-1291 BC.

 A mirror, with its disc represented by a red circle which is supported by a black handle, rests on the proper left side of the figure (figure 6). The mirror, 2 although regarded as an objet de toilette of daily life, is designed so that its handle is in the form of a floral motif from which the disc appears to be emerging. Ancient Egyptian mirrors so designed  (figure 7) symbolically represent the sun emerging from the primeval waters of the  swampy abyss on the first day of creation. As such the mirror’s disc was symbolically regarded as a celestial symbol, standing for either the sun or the moon 3 . Each of these celestial bodies served as symbols of recurring cosmic cycles because of the diurnal rising and setting of the sun and the transformations of the moon during its monthly cycle.

Fig. 7 – Detail of a simian beneath the chair of its owners on a stele in Baltimore, Walters Art Museum 22.92 holding a mirror with a floral formed handle.

Ancient Egyptian religion maintained that the sun rose accompanied by the “secret language” of the baboons, which were observed in nature to “speak” by making a great deal of noise in the morning as the sun rose.

Fig. 8 – Détail. Fertility Feminine Figure, ca, 1550-1291 BC.

All of these symbols of resurrection are sited within the context of the principal nude female figure lying on her back on a bed. The inherent erotic overtones of her nudity are intentional, because ancient Egyptian theological discourse on resurrection is based upon the principles of human procreation, the model being provided by the posthumous intercourse of Isis with her re-animated husband-brother Osiris. Those overtones are reinforced by the erotic overtones of the elaborate wig 4 worn by this female figure.

The celestial imagery of the mirror is reinforced by the presence of the baboon (Fig. 8). Ancient Egyptian religion maintained that the sun rose accompanied by the “secret language” of the baboons, which were observed in nature to “speak” by making a great deal of noise in the morning as the sun rose. 5 Their secret language was accompanied by music, as seen in a faience amulet in Paris which depicts a crouching simian playing a lyre. 6

 

The interpretation of the complex imagery on this object presupposes an in-depth understanding of ancient Egyptian erotic symbolism used in a fecundity context which might apply in life or in death. The use of such objects is clearly cultic. They were either dedicated in sanctuaries by parents in expectation of or in thanks for a successful pregnancy or in funerary contexts for the aspired resurrection of the deceased.

 

Robert Steven Bianchi

Chief Curator
Curator Archaeology Collection

Notes and references

  1. MANNICHE 1999, p. 95-96; RAVEN 2012, p. 159-161; and MIATELLO 2019, p. 49-73, contra PADGHAM 2012.
  2. LILYQUIST 1979.
  3. BIANCHI 1985.
  4. DERCHAIN 1975.
  5. te VELDE 1988.
  6. Paris, Musée du Louvre E 7699:  http://cartelfr.louvre.fr/cartelfr/visite?srv=car_not_frame&idNotice=18777&langue=fr (viewed on 26.11.2019)

Bibliography

ALEA - Archive of Late Egyptian Art, a photographic and bibliographic archive maintained by Robert Steven Bianchi, Holiday, Florida

ENiM - Une Revue d'égyptologie sur internet - CNRS - Université Paul Valéry - Montpellier III - UMR 5140 Archéologie des Sociétés Méditerranéennes.

BIANCHI, R.S., “Reflexions in the sky’s eyes,” SOURCE—Notes in the History od Art 4, 1985, p. 10-18,

BIANCHI, R. S., Ancient Egyptian Art and Magic. Treasures from the Fondation Gandur pour l’Art, Geneva, Switzerland, exhibition catalogue [Saint Petersburg (FL), Museum of Fine Arts, 17.12.2011-20.0-4.2012], Saint Petersburg, FL., Museum of Fine Arts, 2011, p. 158-159, no. 57.

CHAPPAZ, J.-L. (ed.) with the collaboration of QUIRION, A., Corps et esprits. Regards croisés sur la Méditerranée antique, exhibition catalogue [Geneva, Musée d’art et d’histoire, 30.01-27.04.2014], Milan, 5 Continents Editions, 2014, p. 136, no. 108.

DERCHAIN, P. , “La perruque et le cristal,”Studien zur Altägyptischen Kultur 2, 1975, p. 55-74.

GANDIN, A. (dir.), Voyages en Égypt. Des Normands au pays des pharaons au XIXe siècle, exhibition catalogue [Musée de Normandie, Caen 23.06.2017-07.01.2018], Lyon, Face Editions, 2018, p. 112 and 200, no. 105.

LILYQUIST, C.,  Ancient Egyptian mirrors from the earliest times through the middle kingdom, Münchner Ägyptologische Studien 27, Münchener Universitätsschriften, Philosophische Faklutät. München, Berlin: Deutscher Kunstverlag, 1979.

MANNICHE, L., Sacred luxuries: fragrance, aromatherapy, and cosmetics in ancient Egypt. Photographs by Werner Forman, Ithaca, NY, Cornell University Press, 1999.

MIATELLO, L., “Dealing with problematic texts. A synoptic study of the hypocephalus Turin Cat. 2320,” ENiM 12 (2019), p. 49-73.

PADGHAM, J. A new interpretation of the cone on the head in New Kingdom Egyptian tomb scenes,  BAR International Series 2431, Oxford,  Archaeopress, 2012.

RAVEN, M. J., Egyptian magic: the quest for Thoth's Book of Secrets, New York, American University in Cairo Press, 2012.

te VELDE, H., “Some remarks on the mysterious language of the baboons,”  in Kamstra, J. H., H. Milde, and K. Wagtendonk (eds), Funerary symbols and religion: essays dedicated to Professor M. S. H. G. Heerma van Voss on the occasion of his retirement from the Chair of the History of Ancient Religions at the University of Amsterdam, Kampen, J. H. Kok, 1988, p. 129-137.

 

See also