Egyptian bronze statuette of a Nile Perch
Period: Egyptian, New Kingdom, 18th-20th Dynasty, ca. 1550-1077 B.C.
Dimensions: Length: 17.8 cm
Formerly with M. Courier, USA ; ex-Mathias Komor, New York ; Sotheby’s New York, 23th June 1989, lot 85; ex-US private collection, 1989.
Gold inlay partially missing. Inlay missing from the left eye. Various ancient surface damage and hole as per visible on the photographies
This statuette is a most remarkable piece of ancient Egyptian animalistic art. It combines the naturalistic look of carefully represented fish anatomy with a striking decorative effect. All scales and fins were deeply incised and inlaid with a thick layer of gold; many inlays have survived. The head was also covered with gold; some foil is still visible above the right eye, which is made of a black polished stone.
The body of the fish is connected to the rectangular base by the tip of the caudal fin and a support set in front of the pelvic fins. The double waves incised and filled with gold on both long sides of the base symbolize the aquatic environment; the fish appears to be swimming in the water. The piece might have been a votive offering; more probably, it may have been part of a composite object, made of different materials, such as a priest’s scepter or cult statue; alternatively, it could have been part of the elaborate crown of the statue of a deity associated with fish. The base is hollow, indicating that it was in all likelihood fixed to the top of another composition. In addition, the strut in front of the dorsal fin could connect the head of the fish with some other decorative element.
Several representations of aquatic creatures exist in ancient Egyptian art, illustrating the importance of the source of life provided by the Nile River. In the Predynastic period, dating back to the 4th millennium B.C., Egyptian craftsmen created fish-shaped stone palettes. Later, amulets, seals and small vessels featured fish shapes. Painted terracotta vases and glass flasks were used as containers for cosmetic oil, while bowls made of wood or stone, with or without a lid, served for the preparation of cosmetics; such bowls present a remarkable design, as the entire body of the fish was hollowed out to become an ample container. Carved images of fish appear on inscribed weights, with the inscription Weight for fresh fish, which were used to weigh the fish distributed to workers as partial payment of their wages.
A great number of images of fish are to be found on the frescoes and reliefs of tombs and temples. They depict Nilotic landscapes, with floating pleasure boats and fishing scenes in the Nile’s abundant waters, with plentiful fish seen among the aquatic plants, water birds and animals. Garden pools surrounded by fruit trees are shown filled with water birds and fish. Market scenes include fish whose anatomy is rendered in detail so that the species can be easily identified. All such scenes clearly allude to the fertility and abundance of nature. The repertory of fish images is enriched in the New Kingdom by introducing genre scenes showing a domesticated cat picking at a fish.
The present statuette made of bronze and decorated with gold differs significantly from utilitarian objects, though beautifully designed and elegant. As indicated, it could well belong to a ritual object in the cult of a deity associated with fish. The ancient Egyptians recognized few such deities; their role was less considerable in the hierarchy of the Egyptian pantheon. However, certain local cults offered them a much more important status. The fish-goddess Hatmehit was worshipped in the Delta city of Mendes; her name means Foremost of fish. The cult of the goddess Neith in Esna associated her with the Nile perch; our statuette may thus represent her because, according to myth, she turned herself into a Nile perch to swim in the primeval waters.
ARNOLD D., An Egyptian Bestiary, in The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, 4, New York, 1995, pp. 36-37.
ARNOLD D. and ZIEGLER C. (eds.), Egyptian Art in the Age of the Pyramids, New York, 1999, pp. 404-405, no. 150a; pp. 468-471, no. 193.
BREWER D.J. and FRIEDMAN R.F., Fish and Fishing in Ancient Egypt, in The Natural History of Egypt, Vol. 2, Warminster, 1989.
Egypt’s Golden Age: The Art of Living in the New Kingdom, 1558-1085 B.C., Boston, 1982, p. 38, fig. 16; p. 62, no. 35; pp. 103-104, no. 86; pp. 142-143, nos. 138-140; p. 150, no. 155; p.165, no. 179; pp. 213-214, no. 259; pp. 237-238, no. 312; p. 251, no. 352; p. 273, fig. 67.
PATCH D.C., Dawn of Egyptian Art, New York, 2011, p. 36, figs. 9-10.
WILKINSON R.H., The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt, London, 2003, pp. 156-159 and 228-229.