Wed, Jan 07, 2009 - Page 15 News List

[ART JOURNAL] Egypt’s greatest tomb paintings

A tale of exquisite craftsmanship and a 3,500-year-old tabby cat surrounds ancient Egypt’s greatest tomb paintings — yet they were created for a middle-ranking official by an unknown artist

By Robin McKie  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

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Enter the British Museum’s new Egyptian gallery and you will be struck by a line of painted panels of unexpectedly rich coloring and extravagant composition. On one panel, a pair of naked female dancers, their fingers interlaced, glide sinuously before a crowd at a banquet. Beside them, a flute player stares out from the painting, her hair shimmering as if she is swaying to the music. Each figure is distinct, individual and freely drawn, their proportions and detail captured perfectly.

Wander further along the main wall and you will find other exuberant depictions of everyday life in 18th Dynasty Egypt: a boy driving cattle along a road; geese, stored in baskets, ready for the market; a farmer, stooped and balding, checking his fields; and a hunt through reed beds that burst with creatures — shrike, wagtails and pintail ducks — easily identifiable still.

These are the tomb paintings that once belonged to Nebamun, a court official who lived almost 3,500 years ago, and they are the greatest surviving paintings we have from ancient Egypt. Each was created for Nebamun by a painter as gifted as any of the Renaissance’s finest artists, and they will be revealed to the public this month when the British Museum opens a special gallery dedicated to them, a 10-year project that has cost US$1.38 million to complete. It will be a striking addition to the museum.

Yet for all the effort that has gone into the gallery’s construction and the studies of its paintings, mystery still shrouds the Nebamun panels. For a start, archaeologists have no idea about the identity of the artist who created them and are equally puzzled why a painter of such talent was involved with a relatively minor clerk like Nebamun.

Nor do historians have any record of the original tomb’s location. The man who discovered them was a Greek grave robber called Giovanni D’Athanasi, who dug them up in Thebes, as Luxor was then known, and then passed them on, via a collector, to the British Museum. However, in 1835 D’Athanasi fell out with curators over his finder’s fee and refused to divulge the precise position of the tomb. He took his secret to the grave, dying a pauper in 1854 in Howland Street, a few minutes’ walk from the museum. Ever since, archaeologists have searched in vain for the tomb of Nebamun and any treasures that it may still contain.

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The Nebamun paintings have — to say the least — a colorful history, and the task of unraveling it, and for caring for these remarkable works, has been handled by Egyptologist Richard Parkinson. He showed me the panels in November, when they were cased in wood and glass, ready for removal to their new gallery. They were stacked in a museum basement store that held other Egyptian artifacts, including a series of panels dedicated to a chief treasurer, Sobekhotep. Think of him as the 18th Dynasty’s answer to a modern-day finance minister, a politician who controlled the nation’s wealth and economic destiny. Yet the panels commemorating him are thin, lifeless and provide little feeling for the man’s life or times.

By contrast, the artwork that celebrates Nebamun’s life bursts with energy. In one panel, he stands on a papyrus skiff at the head of a hunting trip into reed-covered marshes filled with tilapia and puffer fish, Egyptian red geese, tiger butterflies, black and white wagtails and an exquisitely painted tawny cat that is helping itself to the birds being brought down by Nebamun. The cat is a product of particularly grand draftsmanship, in which stripes and dots have been delicately assembled to produce a magnificently whiskered tabby. Scales on fish, feathers on ducks and soft folds in the clothes of the Nebamun retinue have also been created this way. It is an extraordinary evocation of Egyptian life. As for Nebamun, in the hunting panel he towers over proceedings, his wife Hatshepsut beside him and their daughter at his feet. Wearing a black wig and a great collar of beads, he strikes a pose that is assured and proud, almost regal.

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