The Puzzle of Egyptian Art. Dismembering an Iconography to Understand it.

Iconopgraphy in the Clay Coffin of Men.

As we have seen in a previous post, the iconography of this coffin contains traditional images of Egyptian art to guarantee the resurrection of the deceased.

In addition, in the previous post we exposed that the decoration was perfectly distributed on the surface. So, we can distinguish three parts: body (lower part), shoulders and neck (middle part) and head (upper part).

The inscriptions.

On the other hand, the inscriptions are also a very important aspect in Egyptian Art. In the coffin of Men they are concise, but very useful in the composition. The hieroglyphs not just identify the deities and the dead, but serve to delimit each of the images.

That was a very typical feature of Egyptian art: to use the text to frame and organize scenes. The inscriptions also served to provide balance to the whole. Because each sentence appears inscribed in line with the orientation of the image to which it belongs.

The inscription related to Men is the middle of the coffin and in line with the face of the dead.

The clearest example is the text that occupies the entire length of the coffin. On the one hand it separates the images to the left (Udjat Eye, Amset, Anubis and Duamutef) and right (Udjat Eye, Hapy, Anubis and Qebehsenuef). On the other hand, the inscription (which mentions the city of Mendes and contains the grip) belongs to Men, identifies him and therefore it is written frontally, in line with the face of the deceased.

With that said, let’s analyse each of the parts.

Body.

In the lower part, the images are the Four Sons of Horus and Anubis. The first ones are the deities, which protect the viscera of the corpse (the four canopic jars containing the organs). Therefore, they are directly in connexion with the mummification.

Anubis’ depiction is not that of the anthropoid god of the mummification, but the jackal or dog alert and recumbent over the shrine. He is Anubis, as guardian of the tomb, the Lord of the Necropolis. (You can read a review about it in a post about the Treasury of Tutankhamun)

What evoke these two iconographies is “embalming” and “graveyard”. The two elements that belong to the earthly sphere. Therefore, they allude to “mummification” and “burial”, both things happening in the world of the living.

To finish, it is important to remark that they are looking up to the head of Men.

Head.

Here we have Isis and Nephthys at each side of the face of Men. They are the two goddesses, which in the myth helped to find the remains of the Osiris’ mummy. However, their most important action was to perform a mourning rite, whose practices restored Osiris to his vital functions, and which took place during the Opening of the Mouth Ceremony.

In the coffin of Men, Isis and Nephthys does not appear in a passive, but active attitude. They are not kneeling, nor crying, nor showing just a lament gesture. Both goddesses are standing and “making something”. Isis is holding a shen ring with each hand and Nephthys is pouring liquid from vases nw which she holds.

The shen ring is in Egyptian belief a symbol of eternity and life that was the goal of the mourning rite made by the two mourners of Osiris. For that reason is so common in Egyptian art the image of Isis and Nephthys next to the corpse and holding shen rings.

The nw vases are also related to the mourning rite in Ancient Egypt. Egyptian art is plenty of scenes where the two professional mourners (that is, Isis and Nephthys) are offering these globular vases as part of the funerary ritual. In addition, the libation is a common gesture in any religious ceremony. In funerals of Ancient Egypt, it was an important step in the Opening of the Mouth Ceremony, concretely to purify the corpse.

The composition structure follows a logic.

Summing up, Isis and Nephthys are two active characters in the iconography of the coffin. In a very concise way (standing and making a concrete gesture), they are depicted performing a rite. It is about the mourning ritual, which in the mythological context served to restore vital powers to Osiris.

It is important also to remark that they are located at each side of the face of Men, that is, at the head. In Egyptian though the head was the centre of the life, the head has vital faculties as breathing, seeing, hearing, tasting. Therefore, death (blindness, lack of breath…) and life (vision, vital breath…) get into the corpse through the head. Isis and Nephthys give back those faculties to the dead; that makes sense that their presence next to the head.

Here we are facing the regeneration of the corpse not in the physical frame (what happened in the lower part), but in the mythological one. It is the part of the myth of Osiris in which Isis and Nephthys assist Osiris as his both mourners. They perform the mourning rite, where the dead, assimilated to the dead god, recover his vital faculties.

Finally, the two goddesses are oriented looking down at the body of the coffin.

Shoulders/Neck.

Just in the middle of the coffin, we find a very simple iconography. It is just the Udjat Eye at left and right. Accompanying the images of both Udjat eyes, we read an inscription that mention Osiris.

The Udjat Eye in the Egyptian art symbolises the resurrection of the dead. It was in the myth of Osiris the recovered eye of Horus after the battle against Seth (murder of Osiris). The Udjat eye is an image of the full moon ad in the funerary sphere evokes the total resurrection of Osiris that is the dead.

This area of the coffin belongs to the final moment of the funeral: the resurrection of the dead. It is what happens after the practices made for the benefit of the deceased in two main spheres:

  • The burial and the mummification in the earthly dimension.
  • The mourning rite in the mythological dimension.

The existence of these two dimensions would explain the orientation to up and down of the characters (The Four Sons of Horus, Anubis, Isis and Nephthys). All of them would be facing the Udjat Eye.

The resurrection takes place in two dimensions: an earthly one on the lower part (evoking the mummification and the necropolis) and a mythological one next to the head (the mourning rite made by Isis and Nephthys in the myth of Osiris). In addition, both converge in the central part of the coffin, where the Udjat Eye symbolizes the resurrection of the deceased.

The conclusion of we have exposed is that we have to watch at Egyptian art as a whole. An iconography is a set of images connected to each other. It is obviously very important to identify what is depicted. However, to find the deepest meaning of an Egyptian iconography it is crucial to see where and how are the images depicted. Because Egyptian art left few loose ends and just thinking of it as a puzzle, we can find the sense of a decoration on a surface.

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