Ancient Egyptian Art: Osiris Statue


This paper will discuss how the New Kingdom Egyptian statuette “Osiris” typifies traditional Egyptian funerary art, specifically statuary. The first aspect discussed will be the materials typically used in Egyptian funerary statuary, and why those materials were used. Secondly, a look will be taken at the specific pose the statuette takes, and how that specific pose relates to other funerary statuary. Finally, the god Osiris himself and why he was such a popular choice for pharonic funerary statuary will be discussed

At the height of their power and influence, no society in the ancient world came close to the Egyptians in the production of grandiose works of art, whether they be the frescos adorning the walls of pharonic tombs, the monumental Great Pyramids at Giza, or a meticulously carved votive statuette of a worshipper. In the fifth century B.C.E., the Greek historian Herodotus wrote “Concerning Egypt itself, I shall extend my remarks to a great length, because there is no country that possess neither so many wonders, nor any that has such a great number of works that defy description”(Kleiner / Mamya, 41). One would be hard pressed to find any respected art historian who would disagree with Herodotus; even today the Egyptians are regarded as some of the earliest masters of art, and their myriad of influences shaped the future of the artistic world. Egyptian statuary and sculpture was reserved for important figures, such as gods, lesser deities, kings and queens (Pharaoh), certain members of the royal court, and almost always adhered to a strict guideline of proportions called a canon (Legon, 62-70). Aside from a brief break in tradition during the Middle Kingdom and another during the reign on Akhenaton in the New Kingdom (Kleiner / Mamya, 41), Egyptian statuary remained fairly similar throughout the 3000+ years of Egyptian society, retaining roughly the same elements throughout this period.

The statuette was found buried in a tomb of one of the most well-known Pharoahs, Ramses II, also known as Ramses the Great (LACMA, Museum Plaque). Like all Egyptian burial grounds, tombs, cemeteries, and mausoleums, the tomb of Ramses II is found in the Valley of the Kings on the West bank of the Nile. Tombs were ALWAYS found west of the Nile because of the Egyptian belief that because the sun set in the west, anything westward was associated with death and the afterlife (Colman, 63). In addition, all cities and settlements were located East of the Nile, because that was where the sun rose and was thus associated with life and birth. Like almost all the tombs in the Valley of the Kings, the tomb of Ramses II had been sacked by grave robbers. Due to the pristine condition Egyptian funerary pieces remained in, they were popular spots for thieves of the time. Thankfully, the statuettes, along with the death mask of Ramses II, were untouched and are currently on display at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

The Osiris statuette was not carved to be an icon of worship, but as a funerary piece to be used in a tomb ritual. Normally, funerary and worship statues of gods and pharaohs would be carved from stone, and more specifically (For the most important figures), granite or diorite (Osgood, 161-166). Figures were carved from stone to emphasize their timeless nature; to show they were going to live in the afterlife forever (Kleiner / Mamya, 51). Although the statuette is carved from wood, this should in no way distract from its magnificence, for the statuette itself is gilded, or covered with a thin layer of gold. In Egyptian statuary, gold leaf and sheet were applied to statues to give them the visual appearance or the symbolic value of gold, which was a very rare resource and was thus reserved for statues and sculptures of great importance (Schorsch, 62). It is fortunate that the wooden statuette was crafted and kept in Egypt because wood —as an organic once-living substance— degrades very quickly (Compared to stone).

Thanks to the dry and arid climate of the Egyptian desert, wood is much more easily preserved and takes a much longer time to decay (Blanchette, Haight, Koestler, Hatchfield, Arnold, 65-67).

Due to Egypt’s isolation from the rest of the ancient world for most if its existence, Egyptian culture and art developed nearly on its own. “With centuries of almost uninterrupted rise, Egypt grew into one of the most powerful and influential cultures of the ancient world, with art unlike anything seen before it” (Eckenstein, 165). If Greek sculpture attempted to create a realistic portrait of the human body during the Classical and Hellenistic periods, Egyptian statuary is (mostly) reflected in the hieroglyphic-like portrayal of the human body in a generalized / stylized, rather than a naturalistic way (Arnold / Hill, 6-7) (See Fig. 1). Rather than seeing what is natural as more creative and what is unnatural as less artistic, it is important instead to consider the function and purpose of this style of Egyptian design.

In the statuette itself, Osiris is shown in a pose befitting an eternal god. He is standing with his arms across his chest and midsection, with an expressionless face calmly gazing outward toward the infinite unknown. Statues in Egypt —specifically pharonic statues— were usually not carved to show the portrait features of the individual represented or the shapes of their specific bodies, but rather to capture the essence of the individual and to render them as timeless. Osiris himself is not shown as a normal man would look, but as an ideal form set to proclaim his godly nature and encapsulate the essence of eternity. While he is not holding the crook and flail of pharonic power, the timeless position he is portrayed in still emanates a sense of divinity and pharonic might. The god radiates serenity, faced with the impossible task of facing the unknown eternities, he stands rigid, expressionless, and still, as if to say “Bring it on”. This was the standard portrayal of the most important Egyptian figures (Usually reserved for the higher deities and pharaoh himself) for most of Egyptian reign.

Like most Egyptian statues, the Osiris statuette is meant to be viewed from the front. Most stone Egyptian statues were set against a solid slab of whatever type of stone they were carved out of, with the majority (If not all of) the detailing of the statue being placed on the front(Kleiner / Mamya, 51-53). Further emphasis was placed on the front of statues during the Middle Kingdom and through the New Kingdom with the advent of Egyptian “block statues”. Block statues usually consisted of a person squatting with their knees drawn up to their chest with their arms folded, while wearing a wide cloak that reduced their body to a simple block-like shape to conform to the common rectilinear forms Egyptian statuary took (Kleiner / Mamya, 62). While the Osiris statuette is not a complete block statue, it keeps with the Egyptian tradition of strong frontal emphasis most characterized in the block statues of the middle and New Kingdoms based on the fact that the majority of its details are on the front of the statuette, while staying in the rectilinear “box” form of Egyptian sculpture and portraiture. The most important details carved into the statuette are those of its arms and face. Once again the face is shown as calm and expressionless to bestow a sense of timelessness while still maintaining the perfect face the Egyptians would use to represent their gods and kings. In this sense, the statuette is not meant to be a portrait of the god-king, but meant to capture his eternal spirit. The arms are drawn in close to the chest with no protruding limbs, further placing the statuette in its “box”. This was done to prevent breakage of statuary in case of a fall (Alon, et al, N.P.). If a statue is carved with an arm reaching out to grab something, the first time the statue topples over, that arm is going to break off. Another reason Egyptian sculptures were confined to their rectilinear “box” forms was simply in the fact that the sculptors were more interested in proclaiming the grand or divine
nature of the figures they represented, rather than showing motion or action(Kleiner / Mamya, 51).

In order to fully understand the purpose behind the artist's rendition of Osiris, it is vital to understand his importance in the culture of the ancient Egyptians. Osiris is one of the earliest gods of whom historical records have been found, and was widely worshipped until the Christians suppressed what they called “paganism” (Booth, N.P.). Osiris was the eldest son of the Earth god Geb and sky goddess Nut, children of the sun god Re (Also known as Ra). He began his divine life as the god of order, and is the pharaoh credited with bringing civilization to Egypt. His evil brother Seth, the god of chaos, grew jealous of the reverence and veneration Osiris received and eventually killed his brother, cut him into pieces, then scattered the pieces across Egypt. Osiris’ wife (And sister), Isis, with the help of Seth’s wife Nephthys, reclaimed the scattered pieces of Osiris’ body and resurrected him with a spell. The newly reborn Osiris then fathered the god Horus through Isis, who would eventually avenge his father by killing Seth and taking his place as king of Egypt(Kleiner / Mamya, 43). Osiris would then become not only the god of the underworld — the merciful god of the dead — but also the underworld presence that granted all life, including causing vegetation to grow and the flooding of the Nile itself (Brandon, 2087-88). In life, the pharaoh would associate himself with the image of Horus, and in death associated himself with Osiris, where he believed he would be reborn and join the first and greatest pharaoh in the heavens (Brandon, 209).

Osiris himself was usually represented in sculpture as he is in the gilt wooden statuette; a half-mummified pharaoh wearing the Atef crown, which was formed by a combination of the bowling-pin Hedjet crown of Upper Egypt with the red ostrich feather of the cult of Osiris (Egyptian Crowns, N.P.), sometimes holding the shepherds crook and grain flail of pharonic authority, originally unique to Osiris. The crook represents the bringing of animal husbandry to Egypt, and the grain flail represents the origins of Egyptian agriculture (Newberry, 84-94). However, unlike in the statuette, his skin would sometimes be painted green (Green being the color of rebirth and vegetation), whereas the statuette is golden plated wood.

The New Kingdom gilded wooden statuette of the god Osiris typifies Egyptian funerary statuary through the materials used in its production and the specific pose it takes. The craftsmen of ancient Egypt adhered to a strict canon of proportions of how both human and divine figures should be represented, and stood by this cannon from its earliest inception to the end of Egyptian society with very few deviations (Iversen, 215-218). The canon —along with Egyptian tradition— dictated that divine and pharonic figures should be shown as perfect, idealized, timeless figures ready to calmly face eternity, rather than how the individual would actually have looked in life. Ancient Egyptians also focused on giving their art a primarily frontal perspective viewing angle, and kept with the tradition through the entirety of Egyptian reign. Without the artistic foundations laid down by the Egyptians or the contribution of not just physical art, but the ideals used to create such magnificent pieces, art history would be drastically different. The modern would will never know how much different however, because thankfully it has been graced by the glorious works the ancient Egyptians that are held in such high reverence today.

Works Cited

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*Report on the 1994-1995 Excavations” , Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, No. 307 (Aug., 1997) (N.P.)

Arnold, Dorothea and Marsha Hill. “Egyptian Art”, The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin. (pp. 6-7, 65-67)

Blanchette, Robert A, et al. “Assessment of Deterioration in Archaeological Wood from Ancient Egypt”, Journal of the American Institute for Conservation, Vol. 33, No. 1 (Spring, 1994) (p. 55-57)

*Booth, Gregory. “World Religion Through the Ages”, The Historical Library of Diodorus Siculus. Trans. Gregory Booth (1814) (N.P.)
Colman, Penny. Corpses, Coffins, and Crypts: A History of Burial. New York, New York: Henry Holt and Company, Inc., 1997. (p. 63)
Dunn, Jimmy. Egyptian Crowns, Part II < http://www.touregypt.net/featurestories/crowns2.htm > (N.P.)

Eckenstein, Lina. “The Purpose and Value of Ancient Egyptian Art”, The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs, Vol. 8, No. 33 (Dec., 1905) (p. 165)

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Kleiner, Fred S. and Christin, Mamiya J. Gardner's Art through the Ages, 12th Edition. Belmont: Wadsworth, 2000. Print. (pp. 41, 43, 51-53, 62)

Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Osiris, New Kingdom (1550 - 1070 BCE) Ahmanson Building 3rd Floor. Mr. and Mrs. Allan C. Balch Fund.
Newberry, Percy. “The Shepherd's Crook and the So-Called "Flail" or "Scourge" of Osiris”, The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, Vol. 15, (May, 1929) (p. 84-94)

Osgood, Howard. “Egypt before B. C. 2000”. The Old Testament Student, Vol. 5, No. 4 (Dec., 1885) (p. 161-166)

S.G.F Brandon, Man, Myth and Magic, Osiris, Volume Five, BPC Publishing, (1971) (pp. 209, 2087-88)

*Schorsch, Deborah. “Precious-Metal Polychromy in Egypt in the Time of Tutankhamen”, The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, Vol. 87, (2001) (p. 62)

* Asterisk denotes online article found through the JSTOR.com database. I was unable to copy the stable links to the articles due to direct linking requiring an actual sign in (Which costs money), not just a routing through the SMC library (Which is free).

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