Arch Segment with Acanthus Scroll and Two Birds
2.5 x 11.25 x 7 inches
Probably from Egypt 200-500 CE
Picker Art Gallery, Colgate University, Hamilton, NY

Carved in deep relief, two birds, perhaps chukar partridges or parrots (see Iconography), perch upon an undulating vine beneath a bead-and-reel molding. A dramatic break in the upper molding of the limestone leaves three rounded ‘beads’ intact. On the left edge of the relief, a plumed bird clasps a small round form, perhaps a berry, in its beak. Beneath the curving acanthus scroll in the center of the composition, a piece of foliage with lobed trefoil leaves projects from the underside of the vine and curves around organically to the left. A small bird rests alongside the foliage, its head slightly bowed to accommodate the curling vine above. The deep and regular perforations in the surface of the limestone, evident in the birds’ eyes, trefoil foliage, and bead-and-reel molding, suggest use of a running drill.

The bowed shape of the limestone relief, ornamental molding, angled breaks on the flanks and curved nature of the surface indicate this relief was most likely an architectural form, possibly part of an arch. As arches were commonly located above eye level, the curved surface of the relief would have produced a more dynamic perspective for the viewer. The deeply carved relief produces a dynamic chiaroscuro that would allow the forms to be more visible in dark, candlelit settings. Most arch-fragments similar to this example have been associated with tombs. Perhaps the bird and foliage iconography can be seen though an eschatological lens, evoking ideas of bounty and prosperity in the afterlife.

Intriguingly, four small fragmented gypsum plaster casts accompanied this sculpture upon its accession to the Picker in 1982. Their relation to the relief is a bit of a mystery. Three of the four are fluted trough-shaped cylinders. The breaks in these pieces convincingly align to suggest they once formed a single object. The fourth plaster object is an outlier; it slightly resembles the ‘bead’ shapes on the molding but is too small to have been part of the sculpture. The shapes and sizes of these casts do not seem to relate to this relief; when, why and by whom they were grouped together remains uncertain.

Kathryn Widing, Class of 2012. Concentration in Art & Art History.