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Egyptian Decorative Shrine Hanging

Egyptian Decorative Shrine Hanging

Three Egyptian Decorative Shrine Hangings Painted Upon Canvas and a Collection of Inscribed Mummy Bandages, Thebes, XVIII Dynasty, ca. 1500 B.C.

43 x 37.5 cm. Bound in full brown morocco leather with an Egyptian decorative motif on the front board, by Sangorski & Sutcliffe, London. Athenæum purchase, Fine Arts Fund, 1916.

Although the Boston Athenæum never had its own collection of Egyptian antiquities, it housed the founding collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, for almost three years until that institution moved into its own building on Copley Square in 1876. In the meantime, the Way Collection, donated by C. Granville Way in June 1872, was exhibited on the third floor of the Athenæum.

While the galleries at 10½ Beacon Street only temporarily displayed Egyptian objects, the Athenæum’s book selections throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries reflect Boston’s ongoing obsession with all things Egyptian. Although more an album of archaeological artifacts than a rare book in the traditional sense, the jewel of the Boston Athenæum’s collections pertaining to Egypt is a volume containing three Egyptian shrine hangings painted on canvas and a collection of inscribed mummy bandages from Thebes, dating to Dynasty XVIII. This extraordinary artifact was purchased by the Library in 1916 from Goodspeed’s Book Shop in Boston for $315.[1] The textiles in the album originally belonged to Robert de Rustafjaell (d. 1943), an archaeologist and collector of Egyptian antiquities, who acquired a number of paintings when they were discovered during the summer of 1905 at Deir el-Bahri near Thebes. He dated them to the Dynasty XVIII, ca. 1500 BC, when Hathor was the tutelary goddess of Thebes. They are believed to be the oldest known examples of painting on cloth in the world. The shrine hangings and mummy bandages were bound between 1913 and 1916 by Sangorski & Sutcliffe, a fine bindery established in London in 1901.[2]

Two of the three votive textiles in the Library’s collections are similar in theme, style, and material. Made from a rectangular piece of coarse linen, the larger scene is 27.5 cm tall and 24.5 cm wide, excluding the fringe on the top and sides.[3] In the top register, the goddess Hathor, in the form of a cow, emerges from the western mountains. She is identified as “Mistress of the West, Mistress of Heaven, Mistress of all the gods.” The three figures worshipping Hathor in the upper register were most likely the principal donors.

The second textile measures 27 cm tall and 22.5 cm wide and is fringed on the top and right side. It is made of coarse linen similar to that of the first. The scene is bordered by white lotus petals at the top and a red and black linear border at the sides and bottom. The same family from the upper register of the first textile, Hunure, Kharu, and Huy, are pictured adoring the goddess Hathor. Hathor’s image has been obliterated in this scene, as well as most of the inscription. Both textiles date to the end of the Eighteenth Dynasty, approximately 1295 B.C., based on the lotus petal frieze, the cow and mountain motif, and the style of the figures, particularly their dress and hair. A recent study of the first two textiles seems to suggest that they were originally joined together by the fringe, which must have been cut in order for them to be bound sometime between the printing of a 1913 catalogue of the Rustafjaell collection and their acquisition by the Athenæum in 1916.

The third textile is quite different in design and execution. It is 29.5 cm tall and 15 cm wide, excluding fringe, and the linen is of a much finer quality. The colors are still bright, but the cloth has sustained damage. According to Sue D’Auria, a former member of the Department of Ancient Egyptian, Nubian, and Near Eastern Art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the arrangement is unlike any other painted textile devoted to Hathor. On the left side of the image, the goddess Hathor, in cow form, stands on a papyrus barque in a papyrus thicket. She has a sun disk between her horns and lotus flowers around her neck. This textile is older than the other two paintings and dates from the earlier Eighteenth Dynasty, no later than Amenhotep II (1427 - 1392 B.C.).

Although the three votive textiles owned by the Athenæum have been studied in depth, until recently there has been little information pertaining to the mummy wrappings bound with them.[4] Approximately 115 bandage fragments, mounted on thirteen pages, vary in language, style of handwriting, age, size of fragment, quality of linen, and state of wear.[5] Most of the bandages now at the Athenæum are inscribed in black ink with short texts in Demotic or Greek and derive from the Roman period, probably around the second century A.D. These inscriptions identify the deceased and would have been visible on the outer wrappings of the mummy. The Demotic texts often include the deceased’s lineage and a short blessing. The Greek inscriptions occasionally include the age of the deceased, lineage, or valedictions, in addition to an identification of the departed. The second wrapping pictured is inscribed in Greek, and reads simply, “Farewell Besas, son of Peteesis.” A few mummy bandages in the album include a single inscribed line in Hieratic, at least two of which include sections from spells 145 and 146 of the Book of the Dead. The third wrapping pictured shows a section from Book of the Dead, spell 145, which deals with the gates of the Realm of the Dead and their guards. The text on the bandage contains the beginning of the passage regarding gate 16.” The wrappings inscribed in Hieratic are most likely older than those in Demotic and Greek and probably derive from the Ptolemaic era (305-30 BC).[6]

Nicole Leonard, from, Stanley Ellis Cushing and David B. Dearinger, eds., Acquired Tastes: 200 Years of Collecting for the Boston Athenæum (2006): 66. Copyright © The Boston Athenæum.

[1] Receipt, Goodspeed’s Book Shop, September 22, 1916, Acquisition Book, BA archives.

[2] Shepherd’s Bookbinders, incorporating Sangorski & Sutcliffe, est.1901, and Zaehnsdorf, est. 1842,

[3] According to the inscriptions, the man is the “draughtsman, Hunure,” the woman is the “mistress of the house, Kharu,” and the child is “her son, Huy.” In the worn bottom register a procession of four people also worship Hathor, although only two can be identified with certainty. The man is “the scribe, Khonsu-hotep,” and the woman behind him is the mistress of the house, Huy. The next woman incorporates Isis into her name, but the other signs are almost completely obliterated. General descriptions of the votive textiles are the author’s personal observations; detailed descriptions, analyses, and translations of the votive textiles are from Sue D’Auria, “Three Painted Textiles in the Collection of the Boston Athenæum,” in Studies in Honor of William Kelly Simpson (Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, 1996). For further information, see also Margaret A. Leveque, “Technical Analysis of Three Painted Textiles in the Collection of the Boston Athenæum,” in Studies in Honor of William Kelly Simpson, ed. Peter Der Manuelian (Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, 1996).

[4] Holger Kockelmann, a doctoral candidate with The Totenbuch-Projekt of the University of Bonn has been working with the staff of the Athenæum on translations as well as information regarding the dates and origins of the inscribed mummy bandages.

[5] The Boston Athenæum Report for the Year 1916 documents the purchase of three hundred mummy bandages; however, Holger Kockelmann and I counted only 115.  This discrepancy might result from the way in which the bandages are mounted.

[6] Letter, Holger Kockelmann to Stanley Cushing, July 28, 2004, and Holger Kockelmann, e-mail correspondence to Stanley Cushing, August 30, 2004, January 24, 2005, and May 17, 2005.