Striking Power: Iconoclasm in Ancient Egypt

Nectanebo I, Late Period, Dynasty 30, reign of Nectanebo I, circa 381–362 B.C.E., from Egypt. Schist, 9 1/2 × 5 1/2 × 7 1/2 in. (24.1 × 14 × 19.1 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 74.99.1. (Photo: Brooklyn Museum).

“Why are the noses broken?”

That question, a frequent one asked by visitors of the Brooklyn Museum’s Senior Curator of Egyptian, Classical, and Ancient Near Eastern Art Edward Bleiberg, inspired the Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens’ newest exhibition, Striking Power: Iconoclasm in Ancient Egypt. By focusing on two historical periods between approximately the 25th century BCE to the 1st century CE – the ancient world of the pharaohs and the period when Egyptians first began converting to Christianity – the exhibition seeks to uncover “the long history of an Egyptian sculpture, through changing cultures and beliefs,” says Bleiberg. “There are, in fact, discoverable patterns to the damage inflicted on images in antiquity, and these reflect specific political, religious, personal, and even criminal motivations.” This ritualized damage of images and objects in order to subvert their continuing power is known as iconoclasm.

Statue of a Family Group, circa 2371–2298 B.C.E. Limestone, 28 15/16 x 9 1/16 x 9 13/16 in. (73.5 x 23 x 25 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.17E.

In order to understand their subsequent destruction, it is important to first examine the significance of images and hieroglyphs within ancient Egyptian culture. Egyptian civilization began in farming settlements during the Neolithic period (c. 5000 – 4400 BCE). Mummification and the subsequent damage of mummies in attempts to harm the individual in the afterlife can be traced to the Pre-Dynastic period (c. 4000 – 3000 BCE). Between 3000 – 2675 BCE, power became consolidated under various kings, and a unique form of writing, hieroglyphs, was developed. Elaborate architectural structures were built with complex imagery and written text. More than just pictorial depictions, objects that reflected human forms were a central part of Egyptian politics and religion. They were believed to embody supernatural powers of deities or specific deceased individuals, like a pharaoh. Ancient Egyptian texts point to the unmistakable relationship between deity and image. In one account, the god Osiris sees “his figure engraved on the wall; /he enters into his mysterious form,/alights on his image.”  Powers could be activated by physical or verbal ritual, thereby allowing the deity or person represented to have continuing influence across time. Egyptians believed these images had access to all their senses and abilities – that they could hear, see, breathe, speak, and walk.

Understanding the destruction of images is far more complex than the relationship between objects and power and requires a nuanced understanding of the image’s original location or function. Egyptian sculptures from temples were seen as vehicles through which one could make an offering to the gods or the king, or conversely to receive an offering from the deity. Many were probably damaged when the whole temple was deactivated, likely by Christian monks wanting to obscure Egyptian religion. However, contemporary political and religious rivalry should also be considered a likely reason for the destruction of images. Since these sculptures were thought to have control of their senses and mobility, damage that would affect these abilities became ritualized. Heads and feet were removed from sculpted bodies, noses were damaged to prevent breathing, hands and arms were removed to prevent giving or receiving offerings. Likewise, symbols of political power, which were thought to convey protection to the wearer, also were damaged ritually. The uraeus-cobra, striped nemes-headdress, and royal beard were all physical symbols of this power and protection, and often suffered at the hands of vandals and rivals.    

Upper Part of a False Door of Sethew, circa 2500–2350 B.C.E. Limestone, pigment, 22 1/16 x 20 1/2 x 4 15/16 in. (56 x 52 x 12.5 cm). Brooklyn Museum; Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.34E. (Photo: Brooklyn Museum).

Tomb images could be also damaged for political reasons if the deceased individual was later disgraced. However, tomb robbers might destroy images as an attempt to avoid the tomb owner’s revenge. This type of destruction is thought to have occurred prior to the 1st century C.E. when traditional Egyptian religion was still strong. Damage to tomb images continued under Christianity, often by monks who used tombs as monastic cells and feared the “demons” they believed inhabited them. The destruction of tomb hieroglyphs, on the other hand, likely occurred before the Christian era – the official use of hieroglyphs ended in 312 C.E. when the Roman emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, and the last known hieroglyphic inscription was made in 394 C.E. Vandals would have needed to understand hieroglyphs in order to identify the individual’s name within a string of text, and as use of this written language died out, so too did the understanding of its meaning. 

Damage that occurred under the Christian period was likely to be partial and isolated in nature, more of a general attempt to void the implied power of the statue or engraving. It was common practice to leave temples and tombs in place to show Christianity’s triumph. During Muslim rule, however, many Egyptian statues were reduced to block forms in order to be reused for new building projects.  

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By Holly Keris

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