Hypotheses Regarding the Reliefs' Origins

Very little is known about the twenty figural reliefs bequeathed to the Picker Art Gallery by Herbert Mayer in 1966 and 1982. Due to the nature of their acquisition from dealers with unknown sources (rather than from archaeological excavations) the reliefs’ exact place of origin, use, time period, and even authenticity are unknown. Close examination of the reliefs’ physical characteristics can help us being to answer various questions about how the reliefs were created, how they might have been displayed, and where they may have come from.

How were the reliefs created?

During late antiquity in Egypt such sculptures would have passed through many sculptors’ hands before their installation in the walls of a structure. The Picker’s reliefs show evidence of the use of a variety of different tools. Many of the objects have raking marks running parallel to each other, probably made by a chisel as the blocks of limestone were cut down to size (Figure 1). Evidence of the use of a claw chisel or scraper can be found on the back of 1982.53 (Figure 2). Markings likely left by a rounded chisel can also be seen in the channels found on the top of 1982.64 (Figure 3). The back of 1982.57 is ridden with chisel marks that were not smoothed down (Figure 4).  A running drill was also used on a number of the reliefs to form eyes and hair, as well as to add decorative detail to foliage or borders. 

However, tool marks on the sides and backs of the objects could also have been made at the time of the reliefs’ modern extraction, or in even more recent alterations. As these particular reliefs were not archeologically excavated, their extraction likely lacked the trained handling of professionals. On the other hand, objects such as 1982.47 and 1982.64, whose backs are oddly smooth in comparison to the other reliefs, showing no evidence of breakage or tooling, seem suspicious (Figure 5). In his examination of a Coptic relief from the Brooklyn Museum’s collection, David Spanel notes, “Were this relief genuine, damage would be expected on the edges and on the rear surface because it would have been forcibly removed from a wall” (Spanel, 105). Breakages or cuts may also be the result of intentional alterations made to the reliefs after their extraction. Art dealers have been known to chop large reliefs into smaller segments to increase profits. Cutting up the sculptures increases the number of sellable objects and enables dealers to create more complete, picturesque compositions of manageable sizes.

Most late antique Egyptian sculpture was painted, following in the traditions of both its Pharaonic and Greco-Roman predecessors (Badawy, 117). Pigmentation was used to emphasize detail and make the reliefs more visible in dimly lit buildings, especially tombs (Thomas, 25). Two of the Picker reliefs show signs of polychromy—1966.1.882 is almost completely glazed in earth pigments, and the tongue of a small deer on 1982.64 has a pinkish color (Figure 6). Many of the reliefs have black pigment delineating tool marks or adding detail to the carvings. Object 1982.51, for example, has black pigmentation both accenting the outline of sculpted areas, as on the bird’s eye and the edge of the acanthus leaves, and also adding additional detail, as on the lower petals of the lotus flower. Again, like with tool marks, it is possible that the pigmentation on the reliefs is a modern addition.

How might the reliefs have been displayed?

The rectangular shapes of many of the Picker reliefs suggest that they were originally parts of friezes. Some, however, are not perfectly planar and likely comprised other architectural elements such as arches, pilasters, or niche decorations. The horizontal nature of their compositions, straight edges, and borders seem to indicate that reliefs such as 1982.47 were once part of friezes in funerary monuments or churches. Friezes ran at varying levels along such buildings’ walls, generally at or above eye level, which accounts for the skewed perspective of some of the reliefs (Badawy, 115). For example, the special attention paid to accentuating the three-dimensionality of the canine’s underbelly and rear legs in relief 1982.56 as well as the distorted perspective of the baskets suggest it was meant to be viewed from below.

Though the composition and borders of reliefs 1982.49 and 1982.64 resemble the frieze pieces, they are slightly curved, suggesting they are sections of arches. Comparison to similarly shaped late antique Egyptian reliefs from Harvard University’s collection that are part of a more complete group (such as 1975.41.64.A-I, Figure 7) provide further evidence that this may be the case. The shape of Picker relief 1982.51 is also un-frieze-like and comparison to another object in the Harvard collection (part of accession group 1975.41.65.A-U, Figure 8), suggests it may have been part of a voussoir arch.

Relief 1982.58 from the Picker’s collection is also oddly shaped, the right half of the relief slanting away from the other (Figure 9). The angular nature of the relief suggests it was meant to be seen from two angles. Comparison to two reliefs, one from Hermopolis Magna (Figure 477 in McKenzie, 286) and the other from Oxyrhynchus (Figure 41 in Thomas), indicates that the relief may have served as part of a niche decoration. 

Could some of the reliefs come from the same building or sculptor?

Reliefs 1982.56 and 1982.52 are surely broken halves of the same frieze fragment. Both reliefs portray stylistically similar canines alternated with baskets of fruit or bread. Their lower borders are also similar, featuring a straight horizontal line bottomed by a scalloped motif. Both the right side of 1982.56 and the left side of 1982.52, where the relief was broken, have remnants of a reddish resin that likely once served as an adhesive, holding the two pieces together. The dimensions of the reliefs also match with a height of 6 ¼ inches and a depth of 3 inches. The subject matter of relief 1966.1.882 is also very similar to 1982.56 and 1982.52, indicating it may have also originated from the same location. However, the very different stylizations of the animal and baskets make this unclear.

Though not originally directly attached, reliefs 1982.51 and 1982.53 are also probably from the same sculptural group. The subject of the two reliefs is birds amongst foliage. Though the birds are of a different type (one probably a Chukar Partridge and the other an Ibis), they share much in common stylistically, with similarly carved eyes accentuated by black pigment, and fluid lines forming their bodies and wings. The soft acanthus leaves are carved in a similar style as well, with incised lines and black outlining detailing the leaves. The reliefs also feature the same upper and lower borders. Interestingly, the bottom border of both reliefs is carved to turn the lower edge of the limestone block onto the fragments’ bases. The dimensions of the reliefs also match, measuring 6 inches tall, 11 inches long, and 3 inches deep.

While they were neither directly attached nor clearly part of the same architectural element, reliefs 1982.50 and 1982.58 share similar carving styles. The top sides of both reliefs are rounded (the other reliefs in the collection have tops that are flat), and their backs feature comparable roughened out indentations. The acanthus leaves on the reliefs are of the same style, with an incision defining the leaves’ midribs and indentations adding dimensionality and detail to their lobes. The bird and the lion’s eyes also display a similar carving technique. Finally, the two reliefs feature light incision lines that seemingly box off the subject. Not seen on any of the other reliefs in the Picker’s collection, the incisions extend the length of 1982.50’s left and top sides, and separate the lion from the vine to the figure’s left.

Similarities also exist in the carving techniques used on 1982.49 and 1982.60. Both works bear evidence of the use of a running drill. One element formed by the running drill in both reliefs is the figures’ eyes. The eyes and wings of the birds in both reliefs are accentuated by incisions of a similar depth and style. The two sculptures also feature vines of comparable simplistic detailing.

A final pair of reliefs that may have originated from the same building or sculptor are 1982.59 and 1966.1.883. The creatures in both reliefs are looking backwards over their shoulders and have the same parallel incisions accentuating their hind legs and jaws. The foliage in the two reliefs is also a similar soft acanthus style with an incision forming the leaves’ midribs. Though not exactly the same height or length, both reliefs are roughly 2 ¼ inches deep.

Where might the reliefs have originated?

A few of the reliefs in the Picker’s collection also bear striking resemblance to the known reliefs of other collections. For example, the two cervine creatures in Picker relief 1982.47 have a close stylistic resemblance to two deer found in a frieze from Oxyrhynchus (Figure 3.100.5 in Badawy, 171). The lion and deer in relief 1982.57 look very much like a lion and deer represented on a frieze from the fourth or fifth century C.E., also excavated at Oxyrhynchus, now in the British Museum’s collection (Figure 3.44 in Badawy, 140). An arch in the Brooklyn Museum’s collection from Ahnas (Russman, 37-39), dated to the sixth century C.E., has similarly styled birds and lotus flowers to those seen in Picker relief 1982.51 and 1982.53. Another frieze fragment from Ahnas (Figure 3.100.6 in Badawy, 171) has a vine rinceau encircling the fore of an animal, similar to Picker relief 1982.62. Though many of the motifs and themes present in the Picker reliefs were widespread during the late antique Egyptian period, a close comparison between the Picker reliefs and others scattered amongst similar collections throughout the world has the potential to reveal even more about the reliefs and late antique Egyptian architectural sculpture as a whole.

Figure 1 - Raking marks on the bottom of 1966.1.882 (Photograph by Professor Patricia Jue)

Figure 2 - Claw chisel or scraper use on the bottom of 1982.53 (Photograph by Professor Patricia Jue)

Figure 3 -Round chisel use on back of 1982.64 (Photograph by Professor Patricia Jue)

Figure 4 - Chiseled back of 1982.57 (Photograph by Professor Patricia Jue)

Figure 5 - Smooth back of 1982.47 (Photograph by Professor Patricia Jue)

Figure 6 - Pigmented tongue on deer in 1982.64 (Photograph by Professor Patricia Jue)
Figure 7 - Nine Sections of an Arch (5th Century, Limestone, 1975.41.64.A-I, Harvard University)

Figure 8 - Twenty-one Fragments of a Voussoir Arch Comprising Thirteen Voussoirs (5th Century, Limestone, 1975.41.65.A-U, Harvard University)

Figure 9 - Bottom of 1982.59 showing angular shape (Photograph from Professor Patricia Jue)


Annie Johnson '12 is an Art History and English major at Colgate University.