When you look at Ancient Egyptian art in museum collections or temporary exhibitions, you probably aren’t surprised to find that oftentimes these objects aren’t in perfect shape. It’s perfectly logical to assume that these sculptures, paintings, and carvings, many of which are thousands of years old, bear their cracks and scars from having been buried in the sand or knocked about over the centuries. What you may not have considered before now however, is whether that broken or missing nose was damaged intentionally, rather than accidentally.
An exhibition that just opened at the Cummer Museum in Jacksonville explores this subject, by comparing Egyptian objects that were intentionally damaged with those that were not. “Striking Power: Iconoclasm in Ancient Egypt” looks at the reigns of two of Ancient Egypt’s most famous and controversial rulers, the female king Hatshesput and the heretical quasi-monotheist Akhenaten, as well as the complicated waves of iconoclasm that swept over Egypt from the end of Antiquity and the arrival of Christianity, into the establishment of the Byzantine and Islamic Empires. Many of the objects in the show are on loan from the Brooklyn Museum, which has one of the best collections of Egyptian antiquities in the country, (but more on them in a moment.)
Iconoclasm is usually understood as being a form of violent attack on an art object that represents an idea, or an individual who is somehow closely associated with an idea. When communism collapsed in Eastern Europe for example, images of Lenin and Stalin started falling all over the place. In more recent years we witnessed Islamic groups such as the Taliban and Isis destroying buildings and art created by religions and cultures not their own. There are similar examples in the Cummer exhibition of political or religious revenge being carried out posthumously against a particularly hated pharaoh or their ideas. Yet for the Ancient Egyptians, destruction of these images often went much further than mere protest, or an attempt to eradicate the memory of a previous regime or mindset.
As pointed out in his recent (excellent and fascinating) lecture on the subject at Harvard’s Semitic Museum, archaeologist Dr. Edward Bleiberg of the Brooklyn Museum notes that the Ancient Egyptians didn’t have a word for “art”, at least as we understand that term. For them, the images of people, animals, and objects which they created were a necessary part of their religious belief system. While most people are aware that Egyptian mummies were created in order for the dead to be preserved for eternity, what we think of as “art” that the Egyptians surrounded themselves with in death, functioned as a kind of machine for ensuring their eternal life.
In Ancient Egypt, images of the deceased engaged in activities such as eating, hunting, dancing, or worshiping were not intended as simply pretty decorations. Rather, they were a way for the dead to be able to engage in such activities. In order to come back – and I am grossly oversimplifying here for the purpose of moving the conversation along – the souls of the dead would need objects to inhabit. Thus a statue, painting, or the like could provide a necessary tether to this world, in order for the spirits of the dead to leave the netherworld and return to our own. This concept that the dead were not really completely separated from the material world is why, for example, containers of food and beverages are often found in and around tombs, or in funerary temples nearby, because relatives or priests would leave these offerings for the dead to consume.
Based on the understanding that tomb objects served as something like, but a bit more than, avatars for the dead, the destruction or maiming of such objects in antiquity carried a far greater significance than what we might, at first, perceive. For example, if you intentionally break the nose on a statue, the individual depicted would not be able to breathe, should their soul return and try to inhabit that statue. Similarly, if you severed the representation of an arm and hand of a person depicted reclining at a table and reaching for a bowl of food, or engaged in battle raising a weapon, they would not be able to eat or defend themselves. The line which we we perceive today between artistic imagination and spiritual reality simply did not exist for the Ancient Egyptians.
Sometimes acts of iconoclasm were engaged in by the Ancient Egyptians for political and religious reasons. Akhenaten in particular was roundly hated by the establishment of his day for, inter alia, (mostly) abandoning polytheism, and moving the religious and political center of the country off to a newly-built city named after himself. Thus, after his death, images of him and even his name were often defaced or entirely obliterated. This had the dual effect of punishing the individual through defamation, while at the same time denying him what he would need to live eternally.
Interestingly however, sometimes the visible damage on what we think of as Ancient Egyptian art was not carried out by people trying to punish the deceased, but rather by those who did not want the dead to come after them. Tomb robbers operating in antiquity may have been desecrating sacred sites, but they still clung to the belief system described above, in which the art object was a kind of touch-point for the underworld. This made them view the art which surrounded them in the tombs that they were robbing as powerful defensive mechanisms, which needed to be neutralized in some way. Thus, sometimes we can’t know for certain whether an intentionally damaged object that we see in a museum was damaged for a higher or lower purpose: was the iconoclast making a political statement, or were they simply trying to steal some jewelry without suffering supernatural repercussions?
The next time then, that you visit an exhibition of Ancient Egyptian art, it’s worth keeping in mind that, for the people who created these objects, they were much more than just decorative or commemorative items. They were intended to act as channels for supernatural events, or if you like, as receptacles for a kind of magic which may seem entirely alien to our present understanding of the purpose of art. In addition, you should also be asking yourself whether the damage that you see on these objects came about merely as a result of the ravages of time and the perils of excavation, or whether it was caused by the deliberate intervention of human beings motivated by political, religious, or superstitious considerations.
“Striking Power: Iconoclasm in Ancient Egypt” is on view now at the Cummer Museum of Art in Jacksonville, Florida through April 26th.