Reliefs in some of the pagan tombs included images of gods and mythic figures, which were apparently meant to remind visitors of the deceased. Nymphs could suggest young women. Heroes like Hercules, here shown slaying his enemy, Acheloos, who was disguised as a bull, would have suggested powerful or authoritative men. As on most of these reliefs, all the empty spaces are filled with intertwining plants.
The halo around the head of this bearded man identifies him as a saint. His arms were both bent upward, and in one hand, now lost, he held a cross. With his other hand, he appears to be blessing his viewers. The deeper carving of the figure’s face and of his cross emphasizes their importance in this composition, which was probably made for a church rather than a tomb.
A figure of the deceased was often placed in front of the tomb, or inside it. This life-sized image of a woman was once a full-length figure carved almost in the round against a back slab. She wears the draped garments and jewelry then in fashion throughout the Greco-Roman world. The small vessel for Nile water in her left hand shows that she was a priestess of Isis.
This stela, by far the oldest in this exhibition, was made for the tomb of a three-year-old boy, whose father was a Roman soldier stationed in Egypt. Thus the child wears a Roman-style garments and stands beside a griffin, which represents the Roman goddess Fortuna. From his Egyptian mother, he inherited the sidelock of hair, traditionally worn by Egyptian children, and the Egyptian gods shown on either side: the jackal god Anubis and Horus, a crowned falcon.
Unearthing the Truth: Egypt’s Pagan and Coptic Sculpture
February 13–May 10, 2009
This exhibition presents the Brooklyn Museum’s permanent collection of Late Antique stone sculptures (C.E. 395–642), including several reworked or repainted objects and some that appear to be modern forgeries. The ancient reliefs were made for use in pagan and Coptic Christian cemeteries as well as in Christian churches and monasteries. In addition to mythological and Christian motifs, these works include plant and animal designs that were apparently used by both religious groups. Sculpture of this type was little known when it began to appear on the market shortly after World War II and remained virtually unstudied even into the 1960s and 1970s, when most of the Brooklyn examples were acquired. Gradually, some scholars began to realize that the many examples now in museums in both Europe and the United States included many modern impostors, but a comprehensive study has yet to be undertaken. For a review of the Brooklyn Museum’s pieces, a curator of Egyptian Art joined the Museum’s objects conservators, and they also consulted outside authorities on Coptic art and on the sources of Egyptian stone; much of that work is still ongoing. This exhibition focuses on the work done so far, and especially on the stylistic characteristics of the works, both ancient and modern.
This exhibition is organized by Edna R. Russmann, Curator of Egyptian, Classical, and Ancient Middle Eastern Art, Brooklyn Museum.