Leading Museums, Museum Leaders

Striking Power: Iconoclasm in Ancient Egypt

Akhenaten and His Daughter Offering to the Aten, (ca. 1353–1336 BCE) at the Brooklyn Museum; note the selective damage to Akhenaten’s face and the marks from the chisel used to remove the text (photo courtesy Brooklyn Museum).

Michael Press, What Centuries of Damage to Ancient Egyptian Artifacts Might Mean, Hyperallergic, 31 July 2019

The power relations presented in an exhibition at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation are selective. We get a discussion of ancient power — but what about the modern power to acquire these objects regardless of legal or ethical concerns?

St. LOUIS, Mo — “Brethren, I deem it more shameful for Hercules to have his beard shaved than to have his head taken off.” So runs one of St. Augustine’s sermons about breaking pagan statues, as quoted in material produced by the Pulitzer Arts Foundation for their current exhibition Striking Power: Iconoclasm in Ancient Egypt.

Iconoclasm is the purposeful destruction of images for religious or political reasons. The Pulitzer exhibition, organized in collaboration with the Brooklyn Museum, gathers together 40 ancient Egyptian objects, most of which appear to have been purposely damaged at different times in the ancient past.

Trained as an archaeologist, I am always a little disoriented when seeing ancient artifacts treated first and foremost as art objects. At the Metropolitan Museum of Art recently, I was startled to hear a security guard at the Temple of Dendur call out to visitors to keep a foot away from “the art.” At the Pulitzer, seeing Egyptian artifacts as works of art is encouraged even more. The galleries are sparsely filled — 40 is a small number of objects for a half-dozen galleries — and have no labels or other text. (Museum staff told me when I entered the exhibition that they thought the labels would detract from the art.) The result is that, against the blank white walls of the galleries, the Egyptian statues and reliefs are treated much like the contemporary art that usually graces the Pulitzer.

The Pulitzer doesn’t ignore the original ancient contexts of their art, though. Visitors are provided with a museum guide booklet that includes typical museum label information for each object, as well as additional information on iconoclasm, and on Egypt in the periods in question.

The 40 objects on display include material made throughout Egyptian antiquity (spanning some 2,500 years), but four distinct periods are emphasized: the reign of the female pharaoh Hatshepsut in the 15th century BCE; that of the pharaoh Akhenaten in the 14th century BCE; the fourth to sixth centuries CE; and the seventh century CE onward.

Minmose (ca. 1279-1213 BCE) pink granite, 13 7/8 × 9 1/4 × 13 in., 96 lb. (35.2 × 23.5 × 33 cm, 43.55kg) (photo courtesy Brooklyn Museum).

Why are these periods singled out? There are special circumstances in these periods that led to iconoclastic acts, and co-curator Edward Bleiberg of the Brooklyn Museum provides a model to identify when and under what conditions a specific statue was damaged.

The memory of the pharaohs Hatshepsut and Akhenaten were both targeted for erasure: Hatshepsut as stepmother of the succeeding pharaoh, in what may have been an attempt to legitimate the change in the line of succession; Akhenaten for his rejection of traditional gods — and their powerful priesthoods — in favor of worshipping the Aten, the sun disk, alone. (This means that their names and images in particular, as opposed to others alongside them, were specifically attacked.) Once Christians became ascendant in the Roman empire, they began to destroy “pagan” monuments. And with the Muslim conquest of Egypt in the seventh century and the rise of Islam as a major religion in the country, statues of the pharaonic past were no longer seen as having power (and their inscriptions were no longer understood), and were often reused as building blocks for new constructions.

Why are these periods singled out? There are special circumstances in these periods that led to iconoclastic acts, and co-curator Edward Bleiberg of the Brooklyn Museum provides a model to identify when and under what conditions a specific statue was damaged.

The memory of the pharaohs Hatshepsut and Akhenaten were both targeted for erasure: Hatshepsut as stepmother of the succeeding pharaoh, in what may have been an attempt to legitimate the change in the line of succession; Akhenaten for his rejection of traditional gods — and their powerful priesthoods — in favor of worshipping the Aten, the sun disk, alone. (This means that their names and images in particular, as opposed to others alongside them, were specifically attacked.) Once Christians became ascendant in the Roman empire, they began to destroy “pagan” monuments. And with the Muslim conquest of Egypt in the seventh century and the rise of Islam as a major religion in the country, statues of the pharaonic past were no longer seen as having power (and their inscriptions were no longer understood), and were often reused as building blocks for new constructions.

This categorization of iconoclasm makes much sense, and it is very helpful for thinking through the different reasons and the different ways that statues were damaged in the past. But the categories are perhaps too rigid.

How do we know that damage is intentional? In some cases the chisel marks leave no doubt. But in others it is less clear, and unfortunately neither the museum guide nor the accompanying catalogue go into great detail. Meanwhile, in a few cases it is suggested that statues were damaged by ancient tomb robbers. Could any damage be caused by modern looting or other activities?

The Christian destruction of Greek and Roman monuments came to the fore recently with the 2018 publication of journalist Catherine Nixey’s book The Darkening Age. Nixey rehashed the arguments of 18th-century historian Edward Gibbon, blaming Christians for the widespread destruction of classical antiquity — its monuments as well as its texts — and the fall of the Roman Empire. The reality, as scholars showed in reviews of Nixey’s book, is more complex. Above all, the reports of fourth- to sixth-century destruction of “pagan” monuments and statues, while having a basis in reality, are likely exaggerated. When looking at the exhibition’s easy (perhaps too easy) classification of Christian damage to sculptures, it’s worth keeping that in mind.

Read/view more

Council of Australasian Museum Directors, c/o Ms Daryl Karp, Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House PO Box 3934 Manuka, Australian Capital Territory 2603 Australia, © CAMD 2019
Disclaimer: The content of this website is provided for information purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for professional advice. No claim is made as to the accuracy or authenticity of the content of the website. The Council of Australasian Museum Directors does not accept any liability to any person for the information or advice (or the use of such information or advice) which is provided on this website. The information on our website is provided on the basis that all persons accessing the site undertake responsibility for assessing the relevance and accuracy of its content. No responsibility is taken for any information or services which may appear on any linked web sites. Hostgator.
.