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Late style
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 19 - 04 - 2012

A new exhibition is turning the spotlight on the lateness of late ancient Egyptian art, writes David Tresilian in Paris
Following the end of the ancient Egyptian New Kingdom in around 1000 BCE, Egypt entered a long "late period," book-ended by the arrival of Alexander the Great in 332 BCE, during which dynasties rose and fell with bewildering frequency. Political fragmentation and various foreign invasions only exacerbated centuries of decline.
Few of the sort of magnificent temples that had marked the apogee of ancient Egyptian civilisation during the previous New Kingdom were built, and while the country's characteristic political and religious organisation was in the main preserved, the pharaohs that ruled Egypt during the centuries of its decline are on the whole rather anonymous figures, not leaving painted tombs behind them like those on the West Bank of the Nile at Luxor and often ruling for short periods and over only parts of the country.
However, as a current exhibition at the musée Jacquemart-André in Paris reveals, the thousand years or so of ancient Egypt's late period also gave rise to a late style, notably of characteristic ancient Egyptian forms of art such as sculpture, which introduced many intriguing new innovations while continuing in the traditions laid down by the ancestors of the period's artists and artisans.
The exhibition, entitled crépuscule des pharaons, or sunset of the pharaohs, shows that though ancient Egypt came under foreign domination during this period -- notably Persian, from 525 to 404 BCE, and then again from 342 to 332, before eventually coming under Greek (Ptolemaic) and then Roman rule -- it nevertheless managed to preserve its characteristic native culture and religion, these being adopted by the country's foreign rulers as a way of legitimating their rule.
The exhibition starts by looking at the sculpture that was produced during this late period, chiefly representations of the human figure produced for religious or mortuary purposes. Much of this was commissioned by private individuals or their families, eager that their sculpted images should serve as reminders of them to others after their deaths, with the sculptures themselves being placed in temple areas in the hope of catching the attention of passing worshippers and priests.
Characteristic forms of such sculptures include cube statues, in which an individual, always a man, is represented as being seated on the ground, his knees drawn up beneath his chin with his arms folded across them to form a self-contained cube. Other characteristic forms include kneeling figures, as well as, in a posture that echoes older ancient Egyptian forms of sculpture, statues in which the figure is represented standing with one leg in front of the other, as if walking forwards, with the arms held tightly to the sides.
According to Olivier Perdu, the curator of the exhibition and an egyptologist at the Collège de France in Paris, these different postures were designed to introduce variety into the sculptures crowded into temple annexes. Inscriptions on the cube statues and elsewhere, for example on the cube statue of Peftjaouaiset, once a priest at the temple of the goddess Neith in Sais in the north-west Nile delta during the 26th dynasty (664 -- 525 BCE), indicate the original function of the sculptures.
"To every priest that enters the temple of the goddess of Sais, who loves life and hates death, and who will pass on your office to your children and will be buried in the necropolis after your death," the inscription reads. Think of Peftjaouaiset whose statue sits before you "every day after you have given up your offerings, and once the god is satisfied with them."
A NEW REALISM: for reasons that are not fully explained in the exhibition, the vast majority of these statues of private individuals, most of them temple priests or important officials, are of men, and very few of them are of women. Presumably the elevated social standing of those depicted has something to do with this. When they are depicted in such temple statues, women are represented according to a reduced repertoire of postures, being shown neither cubically nor kneeling down and generally represented as standing with one leg slightly in front of the other.
However, the real contrast between the male and female figures comes in the treatment of their respective heads, and it is here that certain new features of these late works begin to emerge. Unlike earlier examples of ancient Egyptian sculpture, which idealise and standardise their human subjects, showing them as eternally young and beautiful, sculptures made during the last centuries of ancient Egyptian civilisation show a new concern for realism, at least as far as the male figures are concerned, often showing them as middle-aged and suffering from wrinkles, skin folds and double chins.
Sculpted heads of this sort are gathered together in the exhibition's second section. As well as showing a certain archaising tendency in the early pieces, possibly out of a desire to imitate the aesthetic codes of earlier periods, these perhaps demonstrate attempts to portray their subjects as they really were in life, something in the manner of later Roman sculpture, in what may be a conscious effort towards realism.
The prize pieces here are the so-called "green head" sculptures from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts in the US and the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, which, probably dating from the Ptolemaic period (2nd century BCE), portray anonymous middle-aged men, the Berlin head showing signs of the "sagging of the eyelids, a certain softness around the mouth, pockets under the eyes and a double chin," according to Perdu.
These heads, the first found near Memphis, the second of unknown origin, might be thought to show ancient Egyptian sculptors incorporating realistic traits from elsewhere in the Mediterranean into their work. Whatever the case may be, the original religious function of the sculptures seems to be unchanged, with the Boston piece bearing the name of the god Ptah-Sokar.
Elsewhere in this section of the exhibition there is a set of equally fascinating "egg-heads" -- idealised male heads with exaggerated, shaven skulls and apparently dating from the last native dynasties before the Ptolemaic period (4th century BCE). "The different materials employed in carving the heads and their varying dimensions are not sufficient to explain them" Perdu writes.
"Variations in the way in which the volumes are rendered and in the ways the details of the face are done indicate how far the artisans were able to innovate, while at the same time remaining within the framework of an exercise that aimed to idealise the subject of the sculpture in accordance with a set of strict rules."
CONTINUITY OF PHARAONIC RULE: the late ancient Egyptian pharaohs, often ruling over only part of a politically fragmented country and having few economic resources to spare, were apparently unable to afford the kind of splendid tombs and other monuments put up by their more powerful forebears, and in most cases it is impossible even to assign a name to the few sculptural representations of them that have survived from antiquity.
However, the political role and religious responsibilities of the pharaoh seem to have remained much the same as they were in earlier periods, and the standardisation of the pharoah's image, generally following closely the inherited codes, means that many of the surviving heads and other fragments of sculptures of the late Egyptian pharaohs cannot be identified with certainty.
Yet, the fact that Egypt came under foreign rule during the late ancient Egyptian period, with originally Libyan, Kouchite, Persian and finally Macedonian Greek dynasties ruling over the country from at least the 9th century BCE onwards, meant that representations of the pharaoh from the period tend to reflect the physiognomic character of the country's foreign rulers.
The exhibition includes the "head of a Libyan king," for example, its royal origin being marked by a small uraeus, a sculpted female cobra, which works its way up from the forehead of the sculpture towards its crown. This sculpture, showing a king with a rounded face and wearing unusual headgear, is quite unlike the usual representations of ancient Egyptian kings.
Another sculpture represents the head of a Kouchite king, one of a dynasty of ancient Egyptian pharaohs, the 25th, that ruled Egypt from what is now Sudan between 722 and 655 BCE. This sculpture, thought to be that of Chabaka (reigned 722 -- 707 BCE), the first Kouchite king, shows the pharaoh as wearing typical Kouchite headgear, a sort of flattened bonnet, and having "a round face, full cheeks and a little pointed chin."
However, despite these innovations that depart from the standard sculptural representation of the pharaoh, the strength of the underlying codes seems to have been unaffected by such temporary foreign domination, as is shown in the exhibition by a sculpted head thought to be that of Ptolemy II (282 -- 246 BCE), lent by the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. This shows Ptolemy, the descendant of a Greek-speaking Macedonian general, in regular pharaonic guise and indistinguishable from the images of the previous native pharaohs.
Following the argument of the exhibition through, visitors are able to appreciate what the accompanying notes call the "long tradition of pharaonic art, which served as a source of continuity and prestige for the country's new foreign rulers." Far from being a period of artistic decadence, the notes add, the late ancient Egyptian period saw a brilliant artistic renaissance, notably during the Saite period (672 -- 525 BCE), when the country was unified and enjoying a period of economic prosperity.
Retrenchment nevertheless seems to have been the order of the day, and not only for late period pharaohs who were apparently unable to build the kind of gorgeous tombs and temples erected by their Old and New Kingdom forebears. While their aspirations do not seem to have changed, with late period religion continuing to emphasise the need to prepare for the afterlife through the mummification of the body and the provision of elaborate tomb furniture, late period pharaohs did not construct richly decorated and provisioned tombs, and even high officials contented themselves with a simple grave chamber in a communal cemetery, such as those excavated from necropolises at Memphis or from Hibeh south of Fayoum.
RELIGION AND TOMBS: writing in the catalogue accompanying the exhibition, Perdu says that "the vast majority of late period tombs restrict themselves to the essentials, in other words a closed space containing the body of the deceased and a set of tomb furniture." While the closed spaces are usually unpainted, and may even be shared, those who could afford it apparently continued to invest in suitable furnishings, preferring a few fine pieces to an elaborate set of items.
In order to provide an idea of what an important man from the ancient Egyptian late period could look forward to having in his tomb, the exhibition includes a complete set of items from the tomb of Ankhemmaat, a local notable who also carried out religious functions in the town of Heracleopolis Magna located in southern Fayoum, who died during the early Ptolemaic period (4th century BCE). Ankhemmaat was buried in his local necropolis, 20 km north of Heracleopolis and near the later settlement of Abousir el-Melek, and the items from his tomb, now apparently in a private collection, have been brought together for the exhibition.
They include a painted and gilded mummy case or coffin, gilded face mask, painted canoptic boxes and set of ouchebti figurines, the latter serving to represent the workers that Ankhemmaat would need to serve him in the afterlife. According to the exhibition catalogue, these materials are good examples of what a provincial notable could have expected to take with him to the afterlife at the beginning of the Ptolemaic period.
However, there was one area in which those living during these years did not stint themselves, and this was in the development and pursuit of new religious cults, particularly those involving animals. As the exhibition reveals, some of the most peculiar aspects of ancient Egyptian religion flourished during this late period, notably the construction of vast underground catacombs containing the mummified remains of tens of thousands of animals, including cats, snakes, bulls and baboons.
As Perdu explains, the idea was to make an offering to the relevant god, whose earthly representation was that of the animal concerned. Having placed a mummy of the animal in the catacombs, worshippers might then place a votive statue in the nearby shrine in the hope of attracting the favour of the god. Some of these votive statues, often made of bronze but occasionally also of other materials, are included in the exhibition, among them images of the god Thot in the form of an ibis and of a baboon and of the goddess Bastet in the form of a cat -- the famous "Gayer-Anderson Cat" now kept in the British Museum.
This cat, once owned by the British collector John Gayer-Anderson, whose former house is today a museum next to the Ibn Tulun Mosque in Cairo, shows the way in which ancient Egyptians of the late period introduced religious symbolism into otherwise naturalistic representations, notably by decorating the animal concerned with jewelry.
According to egyptologist Laurent Coulon writing in the exhibition catalogue, the rise of the 22nd Libyan dynasty from 943 BCE onwards, associated with the town of Bubastis in the Egyptian delta, gave a new energy to the cult of the local goddess Bastet, with the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, a later observer, commenting that the goddess' annual festival was among the most important in the whole of ancient Egypt.
"Vast cemeteries full of mummified cats have been discovered at Bubastis," Coulon writes. "A bubasteion has also been discovered at Saqqara containing the mummies of thousands of cats."
During the festivals, worshippers would place a votive statue and mummified cat in the catacombs in the hope of attracting the favour of the goddess, "with hundreds of thousands of mummified cats eventually being placed in the catacombs. Temple staff who bred the cats for mummification would kill and mummify them [before selling them on to the worshippers], in the process raising considerable revenues."
Crépuscule des pharaons, chefs d'oeuvre des dernières dynasties égyptiennes, musée Jacquemart-André, Paris, until 23 July 2012.
A new exhibition is turning the spotlight on the lateness of late ancient Egyptian art, writes David Tresilian
in Paris


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