In Focus

Egyptian Funerary Relief

The following essay is from the 1996 publication Gods, Men, and Heroes: Ancient Art at the Dallas Museum of Art_._

This relief is one of almost sixty surviving examples that come from the tomb of Ny-Ankh-Nesut at Saqqara. These reliefs may be found in a number of museums and collections. The Cleveland Museum of Art currently has several on display, including portraits of Ny-Ankh-Nesut. The low carving on the DMA work suggests a date in the late Fifth or early Sixth Dynasty. Edward Brovarski of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, associates the names inscribed beside several of the subsidiary figures on the reliefs with the use of names compounded from king names of the Sixth Dynasty. He speculates that Ny-Ankh-Nesut, who was clearly an important court official, may have been a High Priest of Re at Heliopolis. The style of the tomb sculptures seems related to important contemporary tombs, such as those of Mereruka and Kagemeni.

The DMA relief consists of a group of servant figures who move in procession from left to right, bearing offerings. There are eight male figures, evenly spaced across the plane. The servants' feet rest on a common register line, the stone frame of the relief, on which they appear to be walking. Each person wears a short kilt and has a similar short, rounded wig. They are depicted in the customary Egyptian convention for walking figures, with a combination of profile and frontal views of the body.

The hindquarters of an animal, perhaps a sheep, precede the first man, who carries in his left hand a tray with loaves, and in his right, a cloth roll. The next man carries a live goose in both hands, his left hand holding the beak closed. The third man carries a tray of food in his left hand and a vessel in his right hand. Lotus flowers hang over his left arm, and there are traces of an object, perhaps a bag or basket, below his right arm. The fourth man carries a tray with loaves in his left hand and an ox leg in his right. A bag hangs over the right arm. The fifth man has pairs of ducks in each hand. The sixth man holds a tray with a calf head and other foods in his left hand and a small cage with a hedgehog in the right. The seventh man has a carinated bowl with flowers and buds in his left hand and a bag-shaped vessel slung over his right arm, as well as flower stems over his left arm. The last man carries a tray with loaves in the left hand, a basket or creel over the left arm, and a roll of cloth, as well as a bird, in the right hand.

Offering scenes like this one derive from the Egyptian concept of life after death. Since the dead person was presumed to live after death much as a priest or noble would in life, Egyptian funerary art, as an essential aspect of the funerary cult, served a magical function to ensure that the dead person was fully equipped for life in the afterworld. First in importance was the person's physical body, which was preserved in several different ways. The actual mummified corpse was placed in the tomb, but there were also images, statues, and relief depiction, accompanied by hieroglyphic inscriptions with the person's name, in case the mummy should come to grief. Next in importance was food for the person in the afterlife. Relatives of the deceased might leave actual food offerings for some time after the burial, but representations in the tomb were believed to magically assure a luxurious food supply. This relief ensures that bread, beer, ducks and geese, beef, flowers, cloth, and live animals are supplied for Ny-Ankh-Nesut's use at a kind of immortal banquet or picnic. In life, the dead person was an official who lived in luxury; after death, he wished to enjoy the same lifestyle.

Excerpt from

Anne R. Bromberg and Karl Kilinski II, Gods, Men, and Heroes: Ancient Art at the Dallas Museum of Art. (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1996), 17-19.

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