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Art Historical Musing: Egyptian Portraiture

The Tomb of Ipuy:
Monument as Self-Portrait

With something like awe, the scientists gazed at the still figure from the past, while in turn the little biped stared back at them with its characteristic expression of arrogant bad temper.

For the rest of time it would symbolize the human race. The psychologists of Venus would analyze its actions and watch its every movement until they could reconstruct its mind. Thousands of books would be written about it. Intricate philosophies would be contrived to account for its behavior…

Its secret would be safe as long as the universe endured, for no one now would ever read the lost language of Earth. Millions of times in the ages to come those last few words would flash across the screen, and none could ever guess their meaning:

“A Walt Disney Production.”

[Conclusion from “History Lesson” by Arthur C. Clark in The Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke, Volume 1: History Lesson (Originally written in 1949).  Cited in Patrick F. Houlihan, Wit & Humour in Ancient Egypt (London: The Rubicon Press, 2001).]

[To view the slide show in a separate tab while reading the text, place the mouse pointer over the first slide, right click, select <This Frame>, then <Open Frame in New Tab>.]

Ipuy & deir el medina for slide share [1] from DFeller2 [2]


Mention Ancient Egypt and most likely images come to mind of the four colossal statues carved out of the cliffs at Abu Simbel, the towering lotus-topped columns of the Temple of Karnak, the rock-cut tombs in the Valley of the Kings, and/or King Tut’s dazzling tomb furnishings, among the many other examples of imposing monuments built to aggrandize their sponsors.

[Image 1: Edifice as Self-Image Enhancement vs. “Man Behind the Curtain.”]

To believe that these structures represent the total character of the Egyptian people would be like imagining that the National Mall in Washington, DC, depicted everything there was to know about the inhabitants of the United States.

[Image 2: Presentation title slide: Ipuy’s tomb as cleared and repaired by the exhibition.]
[Image 3: Map of Thebes.]

A corrective to that lopsided view of early Egyptian life can be found tucked away between the cliffs overlooking the mortuary structures of the New Kingdom and the tilled land on the west bank of the Nile–opposite modern Luxor–

[Image 4: Village of Deir el-Medina.]

where ruins of a workers’ settlement lie exposed under the relentless Egyptian sun.  Known today as Deir el-Medina, the village probably began its life during the reign of Thutmose I (c. 1506-1493 BCE) as a collection of mud-brick houses surrounded by a wall of bricks in a small valley, reaching its maximize size and population during the long tenure of Ramesses II (19th dynasty, 1290-1224 BCE).1

[Image 5: Map of the Village of Deir el-Medina.]

Not representative of ordinary Egyptians, the residents belonged to a special class of artists, artisans, administrators and others employed to construct the tombs and chapels for the royal family and its close associates in the Valleys of the Kings and Queens.  Of sufficient means, many of these “servant[s] in the Beautiful Place of the mighty king” (their official job title)2 could afford to build respectably sized tombs of their own.

[Image 6: Tomb of Ipuy, Lower Part of North Wall-Workers Crafting Structures for a Tomb & Tomb of Ipuy, Upper Part of North Wall-Preparation of the Funeral Equipment of Ipuy.]

One among those was that of the sculptor Ipuy, whose long-buried funerary structure was originally unearthed in the late 1800s and further explored in 1911.3   Its painted walls contain many scenes of daily life and, of special interest, several showing workers building and decorating structures, furniture and other objects destined for the royal tombs.  In much the same way that the king and his cohorts sought to portray themselves as models of maat (truth, balance and order) with images of their divine authority, unimpeachable devotion and exemplary living, a craftsman like Ipuy would naturally choose to represent himself engaged in his own life’s work.

In that way he wasn’t all that different from later-day artists whose self-portraits show them either among their creations,

[Image 7: Nicolas Poussin, Self-portrait.]

as in Nicolas Poussin’s Self-portrait (1650, oil on canvas),

[Image 8: Deborah Feller, Reflections on Self.]

or in the act of painting, like this writer’s Reflections on Self (2003, oil on linen).

[Image 9: Artemisia Gentileschi, Self-portrait as the Allegory of Painting.]

Artemisia Gentileschi, in her Self-portrait as the Allegory of Painting (1638-9, oil on canvas) made a bold statement by picturing herself as painting personified, a role only a woman could play.

[Image 10: Gustave Courbet, The Painter’s Studio (L’Atelier du peintre): A Real Allegory of a Seven Year Phase in my Artistic and Moral Life.]

Along the lower part of the north wall of Ipuy’s tomb, the scenes of “Workers Crafting Structures for a Tomb” bring to mind Gustave Courbet’s The Painter’s Studio (L’Atelier du peintre): A Real Allegory of a Seven Year Phase in my Artistic and Moral Life (1865, oil on canvas), a cross-section of the artist’s milieu.

Before they were self-representations, however, the images in Ipuy’s tomb were part of an overall program that served the critical function of ensuring safe passage to the good part of the netherworld and guaranteeing a heavenly afterlife through the establishment of an ongoing cult of worship and offerings.

[Image 11: Village of Deir el-Medina & Necropolis.]

Cut into the cliffs overlooking the large swath of real estate that was the village necropolis,

[Image 12: Deir el-Medina Necropolis, Showing Pyramidion.]

Ipuy’s tomb was originally topped by a pyramidion, standard fair for the mortuary structures he and his fellow non-elites could well afford to build.

[Image 13: Approach to Ipuy’s Tomb Entrance.]

Visitors would first enter the courtyard,

[Image 14: Plan and Section of Ipuy’s Tomb (detail-left half).]

encountering a garden and perhaps an adjoining pool (1), and notice–abutting the tomb’s façade to the left of the entrance–a bench for offerings and a stela identifying the owner, either painted on the wall behind it or erected nearby.  They would see the pyramidion, now missing along with its surrounding cliff rock that long ago collapsed.

Stepping inside, they then would walk through a dark, narrow, vaulted, brick passageway and come upon a white contour painting of Ipuy on his way out of the tomb.

[Image 15: Interior of Ipuy’s Tomb, Southwest Corner of Chapel.]

As they continued, they would enter the vaulted chapel–the only decorated room in the tomb–with its mud-coated brick walls covered in yellow pigment, the ground over which all images would be painted.

In the chapel, on either side of the opening that led beyond through another vaulted passageway, they would notice on two low pedestals, statues of Ipuy and his wife Dowesmiset.  Attached to the wall, each was crafted from brick and mud, then covered with layers of linen, white stucco and paint.  The one of Ipuy included the standard prayer for “all the offerings on the altar [of the god].”4

[Image 16:  Plan and Section of Ipuy’s Tomb (detail-right half).]

Passing the statues and entering the hallway between them led first to a slightly higher and wider vaulted corridor (II) and then to a flat-roofed continuation of it (III) at the end of which a brick wall belied the presence of the undecorated rooms behind it, reachable via a five-foot deep pit in the floor.  The rooms beyond were little more than cavities dug out of the cliff.

Unearthed during the excavations, stoneware and various objects hint at the contents and functions of the tomb, but the paintings that covered the walls of the chapel reveal the most about the life of its owner, providing a portrait of not just him but also of the community to which he belonged.

Ipuy lived with about 47 other men and their families, occupying about seventy houses within the original town plus another forty or fifty outside its wall.  Arranged on a grid, the homes opened onto the main thoroughfare and were all similar in layout, variations reflecting the wealth and social status of the inhabitants.  Paralleling the larger Egyptian society, the “men of the gang”5 had clearly defined positions that by Ipuy’s time had become largely hereditary, excepting the occasional usurpation of the choicest ones through bribery and intrigue.

[Image 17: Workforce Division at Deir el-Medina.]

Men were assigned to either the left or right side of the tomb under construction, with a foreman (“chief of the gang in the Place of Truth”6) overseeing each half.  Of equal clout, “the scribe of the Tomb”7 (appointed directly by the vizier) was the bean counter, tracking workers’ attendance, accounting for all items leaving or entering the royal storehouses, and disbursing wages mostly in the form of emmer wheat (for grinding into flour) and barley (for making home brew).

Foreman and scribe served as captains of the village, links between the community and the central government’s vizier and its overseer of the treasury.  In addition to their usual responsibilities, they could make recommendations when vacancies opened in the workforce, providing additional opportunities to generate income.  Because of their power, they could also draft crew members for work on their own tombs and accept private commissions from outside the village.  Wealthy as they were, they remained integral parts of the community, with their families living among and intermarrying with ordinary workers.

Nonetheless, nepotism was standard fare.  The foreman’s deputy was selected from among his own family, usually his oldest son or another close relative, and was generally next in line for the highly lucrative position of chief.  Till then, however, he was paid just like other workers.

One step down in the hierarchy, the “guardian of the Tomb”8 controlled the royal storehouses, under close scrutiny of the foreman and scribe.  Other jobs included the three guards at the entrance to the royal tomb (“door-keeper[s] of the Tomb”9)–musclemen who also did the village dirty work as bailiffs and debt-collectors.  The police (Mediay) kept order and also had a hand in safeguarding the royal tombs, with the two chiefs participating on local courts and involved commercially with workers.

Then there were the actual tomb builders–stonemasons, carpenters and chief carpenters, sculptors and draftsmen–their apprentices, usually drawn from their own families–and their wives and children.  By Egyptian law, women were accorded rights equal to those of their husbands, including property rights that could sometimes be manipulated to their good advantage.

At the lower rung of the economic ladder were “servants of the Tomb,”10 support staff–woodcutters, watercarriers, fishermen, gardeners, washermen and sometimes potters–who commuted to work from down near the Nile and could hope to become full workmen if positions became available.  For additional assistance, the central government allocated to the workers the services of female slaves for grinding wheat into flour, any unused portion of which becoming another commodity that they could save, swap, share or sell.

During their free time, villagers found ways to entertain themselves.  They especially enjoyed a good party, celebrating religious and other occasions like weddings, births and anniversaries with home brew flowing and young men getting into mischief.

Artists, during break time or other idle moments, could reach for potsherds or small chips of limestone from the nearby cliffs on which they could doodle, practice their drawing,

[Image 18: Sketch from Life Ostracon.]

copy already existing images that moved them,

[Image 19: Animal Ostraca.]

devise compositions for current or future projects, and/or create amusing

[Image 20: Sex Ostraca.]

and sexual cartoons to delight their friends.

When Ipuy was ready to design, dig and decorate his tomb, he didn’t have far to go for a pool of skilled craftsmen well versed in the artistic trends of the times.  As the head sculptor, he could have called upon his fellow crew members to sculpt and carve the required images, yet other than the two portrait sculptures of his wife and himself, all the surviving decorations are paintings.

[Image 21: Nineteenth Dynasty Royal Tomb Painting.  Painting from Queen Nefertari’s Tomb, Wife of Ramesses II.]

Post-Amarna painting–about to slide into a steep decline–still had its exciting moments.  In the royal tombs of the early nineteenth dynasty, notably in the paintings of Ramesses II’s wife Queen Nefertari, painters had even begun to experiment with using darker pigments to indicate shading.11  In private tombs, the new emphasis on black-outlined, primary-colored forms against a bright yellow ground could produce either a garish display of images or the lively, expressive figures that scamper around the walls of Ipuy’s tomb.

Despite touches of humor, the chief sculptor’s tomb was serious business, designed to guarantee the transformation of his human essence into an akh being with full citizenship rights in the netherworld and the celestial realms of the cosmos.  An integral part of that process was the establishment of statue and offering cults, the practice of which ensured continuous rebirths and renewals into the infinite future.12

[Image 22: Ipuy & His Wife Adore Anubis & Ptah-Sokar.]

Upon entering the chapel, the worshiper saw opposite on either side of the entrance to the inner rooms, images of the tomb owner Ipuy and his wife Dowesmiset in the act of honoring several gods.  In the interest of maintaining a certain height and overall size for the figures, and to accommodate the resulting lack of sufficient space, the wife’s picture had to be painted on the adjacent walls.

On the left of the rear wall, Ipuy wears a leopard skin with the cartouche of the deified king, Amenhotep I, attesting to his function as a priest in the then popular cult.  The god immediately in front of Ipuy is Anubis and behind him, Ptah-Sokar.

[Image 23: Ipuy & His Wife Adore Osiris & Hathor.]

On the other side of the far opening, Ipuy makes an offering of flowers and fruit to Osiris and his eternal supporter Hathor, perhaps a comment on the relationship between Ipuy and Dowesmiset.  The mortal couple’s daughter is pictured standing beside her mother, tucked inside the older woman’s skirt.

[Image 24: Frieze of Relatives.]

A frieze of seated couples marches around the upper perimeter of the remaining three walls, originally topped by an accompanying band of text.  At the ends, dressed similarly and identified only by their names, tomb owner and wife lead the throng.  The theme of conjugal pairing finds expression in the grip each woman has on the arm of her man, though from the looks of the squawking bird and attentive cat under one woman’s chair, all might not be as harmonious as pictured.

[Image 25: Presentation of Food to the Dead Pair by Their Children.]

On the south wall to the left of the scenes of worship, Ipuy and Dowesmiset receive offerings of food and flowers from attendants who carry gifts, including painted jars capped with green vegetation.  Arrayed on the table, loaves of bread, a plate of fruit and a bouquet of flowers add to the colorfully festive quality of the scene.  In a nod to Egyptians’ affection for their pets, Ipuy’s lap hosts a kitten playing with the hanging fabric, and under Dowesmiset’s chair, an adult cat looks out at the viewer.

Of particular interest in this painting, what looks like reddish-brown shading on the robes has been explained as staining from ointment that has run down from the celebrants’ heads where it had been poured as part of a pleasurable ritual.  The greater the area covered, the more generous the host had been with the provision of unguent.  Realizing the artistic potential inherent in adding lines of oil stain that would gather in the deeper folds of garments, artists exploited this effect to add color that delineated form where before only lines on white had been used.  Brown hatching follows the edge of the women’s robes all the way to the bottom hem even though the stains stop much further up.

Continuing the tour of the chapel, the visitor next encountered scenes from Ipuy’s life, though at the time of Davies’s excavation, the east wall south of the entrance had fallen into ruin except for certain remnants.  His reconstruction of the paintings was based on previous verbal descriptions, one particular drawing of officials in front of the palace window, and a color copy of Ipuy’s house and garden by the earlier explorer.

[Image 26: Ipuy Receives Award from King Ramesses II.]

In the upper register of the wall, a scene of the king reaching out from his palace’s window of appearance to interact with the sculptor Ipuy continues the defining Amarna practice of close contact between Akhenaten and his people.  Although the actuality ended with the fall from grace of the rebel pharaoh, the idea appeared sporadically in tomb images of this period.  Here the figure in front wears vizier attire while the one behind him, lifting his fan to the king’s face, sports that of a gentleman or official (presumably Ipuy).  The vizier, having recommended the chief sculptor for the reward, presents him to his ruler.  Fragments of text described the other recipients–shown wearing their newly gifted golden collars–as scribes, soldiers and temple servitors, a group to which the sculptor would certainly have belonged.

[Image 27: Burial of Ipuy.  His House & Garden.  His Functions as Priest of the Cult of a Dead King.]

Below the scene at the palace window were pictures that charted the progress of Ipuy’s coffin from embalmer’s workshop on the right to the transport of it on its bier to its final resting place in his tomb on the far left.  Across that register are pictured various rituals performed during funerals: mourners’ sprinkle sand over their heads (signaling their grief) and carry papyrus flowers (expressing hope for the dead), and women raise their arms (praising a deity).

Beneath the funeral narrative, servants draw water from a garden pond to irrigate the lush vegetation that surrounds a building resembling Amarna tomb images of houses, though not that city’s actual structures.

[Image 28: Ipuy’s House & Garden (Drawing Water from the Pond).]

In the Davies painting with one of the servants pictured, the original Egyptian artist detailed a variety of identifiable plant life, deploying cool greens and green-blues (assuming Davies’s fidelity to pieces with intact original color) to offset the warm red-browns and yellow ochers.  He also enlivened the action by turning the head of the servant, who looks behind him rather than to the task at hand.

[Image 29: Burial of Ipuy.  His House & Garden.  His Functions as Priest of the Cult of a Dead King.]

On the far right, in a fragment of a slaughterhouse a butcher weighs out portions of meat, perhaps payment to the workers for jobs well done, while beneath him in the laundry room others toil at cleaning the white robes indispensable for a feast.  Moving left from there, four figures (perhaps Ipuy’s family members) pray at an altar–piled high with offerings–to three barks decked out with images of the Amon-Ra ram’s head, each boat with its own small shrine, not unlike a burial catafalque.

[Image 30: Agriculture Operations with an Aquatic Scene.]

In preparation for that other-worldly journey, on the wall to the right of the entrance a full range of food-producing activities guarantees an eternal supply of provisions for the dearly departed.  In the top register on the left, Ipuy and Dowesmiset sow a field and harvest flax together, something they would not have done in their earthly lives.  The grain that grows is winnowed on the right, adjacent to a scene of date gathering.

Below, an offering ritual tops an open-air grain storehouse where a couple of youths fight a losing battle against marauding birds that include a marsh duck.  In the center of this very busy level, workers simultaneously load onto and empty from two boats, the portion of harvested grain destined to be exchanged in town for urban products.  On shore, market women sit before their enticing wares, ready to relieve sailors of their in-kind pay for wine, beer, treats and trinkets at seriously inflated prices.

Further afield, goats frolic

[Image 31: Goats Led to Pasture.]

and otherwise go about their pleasurable business of cleaning up behind the harvest, mowing down stubble, vacuuming up stray pieces of grain and chaff, and pruning the lower branches of trees.  One of the herd looks directly out at the visitor, another touch of the whimsy so prevalent throughout the chapel.

[Image 32: Agriculture Operations with an Aquatic Scene.]

As other sources of nature’s bounty, the marshes provided aquatic fowl, and the river supplied food fish.  In the old style duck-hunting scene that takes up a large swath of wall, a cat rustles the reeds while a falcon intently eyes the proceedings.

Encapsulated by a thick frame of black, water fills the lowest level, background for two boats jointly engaged in netting a representative sample of each of the available species.

[Image 33: Vintage & Fishing.]

The cool blue-greens offset the warm tones in the register above where vintners gather and press grapes in the already time-worn ritual of making intoxicating beverages.

[Image 34: Agriculture Operations with an Aquatic Scene.]

Elsewhere on the same level, servants pluck and butcher geese, prepare fish and mend netting under the watchful eyes of the bird of prey perched above.  Animals–both pet and prey–pervaded every aspect of Egyptians’ lives, appearing everywhere in their art.

[Image 35: A Catch of Fish.]

Around the corner on the north wall, the lower register theme of fishing and other river views continues.  Young men haul in a netful of fish, load and carry baskets filled with their catch, and deposit them on a table, where preparations for their consumption are underway.

[Image 36: Preparation of Funeral Furnishings & Fishing.]

On the rest of that wall, sandwiched between the frieze of seated guests above and the water below,

[Image 37: Preparation of Funeral Furnishings.]

Ipuy’s crew chisels and paints the furniture and other paraphernalia their boss will install in his tomb.  As head sculptor, this tomb owner had a special interest in the quality of the items produced.  They would signal both his high-ranking status and the proper discharge of his duties in keeping with the principals of maat.

[Image 38: Workers Crafting Caskets, Funeral Craft & Tomb Furnishings.]

Devoted to work for Ipuy’s tomb, the narrower register above (reading from right to left) depicts the chief sculptor and one of his sons surrounded by an assortment of tomb furnishings.  The younger man is displaying the fine pectoral that will grace his father’s mummy.  To their left, work proceeds apace on the decoration of the coffin.  In the earlier stage, a sculptor carves the wood that has been chopped from the tree behind him.  Later, a painter will decorate the coffin’s surface with brushes made from the same plant.

Beneath the scene of an apprentice tending the fire under a large glue pot, Ipuy’s oldest son Any, a sculptor himself, practices reading “the service of the opening of the mouth,”13 standing before a table piled with the ritual objects he will need on the day he performs the rite.  On the far left, the funeral craft in which Ipuy’s remains will be carried to his tomb receives its finishing touches.

[Image 39: Workers Crafting Structures for a Tomb.]

Befitting his role as supervising sculptor in the Place of Truth, Ipuy devoted a significant portion of the north wall to images of his crew laboring in his workshop on a project for the refurbishing of the temple and/or tomb of the long-dead but deified necropolis patron, Amenhotep I.  On the left, sculptors defying gravity work diligently on a structure destined for the king’s mortuary temple shrine.

[Image 40: Workers Crafting Structure for a Tomb.]

On the right, the artist (perhaps with instructions–or at least approval–from the tomb owner) pictures not just the sanding, hammering and painting, but also the shenanigans that are part of any workplace.  On the roof of what appears to be a portable catafalque in the form of a canopied bedchamber, one man attempts to rouse his sleeping friend while another tired soul takes a break on the steps in the lower right.  Across from him on the other steps, a kohl-painter tests his eyeliner on a willing subject while above them a hammer is about to land on the foot of someone shouting directions.

Although difficult to discern, Ipuy strides onto the stage from the upper right, ready to exercise his god-given authority as chief sculptor by restoring order.  In so doing, he demonstrates for eternity the proper discharge of his duties in full compliance with the principles of maat, thus ensuring his safe passage through the duat, the Egyptian land of the dead.
1 Unless otherwise indicated, all information about Deir el-Medina comes from Morris Bierbrier, The Tomb-Builders of the Pharaohs (Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 1989).

2 Ibid., 27.

3 Unless otherwise indicated, all information about the tomb of Ipuy comes from Norman deGaris Davies, Two Ramesside Tombs at Thebes (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1927).

4 Davies, 37.

5 Ibid., 47.

6 Bierbrier, 27.

7 Ibid.

8 Ibid., 32.

9 Ibid., 38.

10 Ibid., 39.

11 Ibid.

12 W. Stevenson Smith, The Art and Architecture of Ancient Egypt, Revised Edition  (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), 213.

13 David O’Connor, “Society and individual in early Egypt” in Order, Legitimacy, and Wealth in Ancient States (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 25.

14 Davies, 71.