Egyptian Faience Statuette of a Hippopotamus
Period: Middle Kingdom (Dynasty 11–13, ca. 2040–1650 B.C.)
Dimensions: L: 18 cm
Ex-Swiss collection; acquired in 1992.
Conditions: The gray paste shows a superfi cial white layer just under the glaze, which perfectly retains its intense blue shade with many decorations painted in black lines. The head and the left hind leg are lost; the other three legs have been reglued and are partially chipped. The statuette is larger than average for its type.
The animal, whose head was certainly directed forward, stands firmly on its short, squat legs. Enlivening the surface of its skin are vegetal patterns that imitate Nilotic plants—lilies and papyrus here, while insects, frogs, or birds appear on other examples. The direction of movement is suggested by the arrangement of the legs (the animal is walking) and by the plant elements that seem to float on the skin, as if the hippopotamus were moving on the bottom of the river or preparing to leave the swamp, among the rich vegetation of a thicket. The potter’s sharp sense of observation is also refl ected in the extremely accurate and proportionate rendering of the body’s volumes, which correspond closely to the anatomy of the species: rounded croup, delineated shoulders and thighs, bulging abdomen, thickness of the skin highlighted by rolls of fat, and small triangular tail. An animal both familiar and feared, the hippopotamus, which appears frequently and from earliest times in Egyptian iconography, caused extensive damage to agriculture in devastating the crops; because of its size and aggressiveness, it was dangerous for men and for navigation. Discovered mostly in undecorated tombs, these statuettes could be substitutes for painted scenes, according to some scholars: their origin, although often uncertain, usually indicates a date between the late First Intermediate Period and Dynasty12. To the Egyptians, hippopotamuses had an ambivalent meaning: the male was generally associated with Seth, the god of evil, while the female, known as Hedjet, the white, had a positive image related to childbirth and infancy, which she protected in the form of Taweret, a fertility and mother goddess. Hunting hippopotamuses was also synonymous with achieving victory over evil and maintaining order in the universe.
BOURRIAU J., Pharaohs and Mortals, Egyptians Art in the Middle Kingdom, exh. cat. (Cambridge, 1988), pp. 119–21.
FRIEDMAN F.D. (ed.), Gifts of the Nile, Ancient Egyptian Faience, exh. cat. (London, 1998), p. 238, nos. 142–145.
PAGE-GASSER M. – WIESE A.B., Egypte, Moments d’éternité, Art égyptien dans les collections privées, Suisse, (Mainz am Rhine, 1997), pp. 91–93, nos. 55, 56.