Geo-Historic Context of the Reliefs: Heracleopolis Magna and Oxyrhynchus

This project explores the historical geography of the Picker’s reliefs through the lens of Late Egyptian Antiquity funerary and religious architectural reliefs from the two ancient cities: Heracleopolis Magna and Oxyrhynchus. This essay will concentrate on the similarities between the reliefs from Herbert Mayer’s collection at Colgate’s Picker Gallery and the reliefs from the Hagop Kevorkian Collection at Harvard’s Arthur M. Sackler Museum. Employing connoisseurship will help to discern stylistic similarities between the two collections of reliefs. Ultimately, by paralleling and comparing certain stylistic attributes from the Picker reliefs with a published, well-documented Hagop Kevorkian collection at Harvard, will help to trace and to construct a likely provenance for the previously unpublished Picker Reliefs.

The second half of the twentieth century saw more documented excavations of gravesites at Oxyrhynchus and Heracleopolis Magna, which might account for the tendency of scholars to attribute funerary sculptures to these locations when they share stylistic qualities with those found at sites, such as Bawit and Alexandria. Therefore, past misattributions contribute to a muddled perspective on how to classify the present reliefs. The art of the Coptic Culture stems from advanced textual sources in the cosmopolitan areas of Heracleopolis Magna and particularly the wealthy city of Oxyrhynchus. This cultivated scribal literary culture associated local culture with Greek and Roman texts available to them at the time. In the past, the interest in the literary culture of Oxyrhynchus might have distracted diggers who excavated sites searching for papyrus and therefore might have overlooked certain architectural sculptures.

Important burial sites and other where architectural reliefs were discovered are located in Alexandria, Memphis, the Fayum, Heracleopolis Magna (Ahnas), and Oxyrhynchus. Excavations that took place during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were not well documented, and the tradition of recycling architectural elements and pagan themes from Pharonic and Greco-Roman temples makes the exact dating, location, and iconography of Late Antique reliefs that difficult, if not impossible. Pagan and Christian stylistic motifs coexisted and intertwined on limestone compositions during the Egyptian Late Antiquity period.

The Heracleopolis Magna excavations conducted by Petrie and Naville established certain common architectural characteristics from Heracleopolis Magna: sculptures are large rectangular blocks of a fine-grained white limestone, backs are not carved but dressed, rectangular backs inserted in walls. Since according to Thelma Thomas, no two sculptures excavated are exactly alike from Heracleopolis Magna, this location seems consistent with the Picker’s diverse group of reliefs and one scholar’s opinion that they appear “strange.” The menagerie of animals in the Picker’s reliefs are perplexing, mostly since the reliefs are broken and thus only a fragment of a frieze is currently intact, presenting multiple and possibly endless broken narratives of what one assumes was a continuous frieze.

Hundreds of architectural fragments from Late Antiquity adorn the most prestigious museums are without a definitive provenance. The tentative provenance of Oxyrhynchus for many of the reliefs and friezes in the Hagop Kevorkian collection at Harvard is a hypothesis according to Anna Gonosová, the Harvard doctorial student who had worked cataloguing and studying the Harvard reliefs. She wrote: “Random attribution of Coptic material is commonplace. During the accessioning of the Kevorkian Collection for the Fogg Art Museum, only a single piece (acc. no. 1975.41.50) could be securely attributed to Bawit, although the entire collection entered the museum under this tentative provenance.” (Gonosová, note 15) See Figure 16. According to Dr.Gonosová, there are currently 800 architectural fragments worldwide in private collections or museums that are attributed to Oxyrhynchus.

Despite what appears to be an over-attribution of works to Oxyrhynchus, there is reason to suspect that at least some of the reliefs at the Picker Gallery are originally from Oxyrhynchus. The defining characteristics of Late Antique Oxyrhynchus funerary sculpture is greater stylization, with the acanthus vine scrolls, and if displayed in a niche, the relief would be constructed in relation to its elaborate frame just as it is created to prominently be displayed as a niche (Thomas, 137). Dr. Gonosová’s observations describe the more elaborate frieze containing stylized peacocks (now at the Alexandria Museum, see figure 9) and elaborate acanthus leaves as consistent with an earlier date for the ornamentation at Oxyrhynchus. She attributes the less stylized leaves on the Fogg capitals from Oxyrhynchus to a later date (see figure 12 and 13). The early-style frieze from Oxyrhynchus has many stylistic and iconographical elements that are similar in stylized ornamentation and iconographical composition to reliefs 1982.53, and 1982.49 in our collection.

The Harvard fragment 1975.41.58A (figure 15) is stylistically consistent with Gonosová’s reference to the frieze in the Alexandria Museum (figure 9). The information sheet in the folder associated with Harvard’s acquisition of this particular architectural fragment reads: “Another fragment from the same arch is in the Greco-Roman Museum in Alexandria and it comes definitely from Oxyrhynchus.” The direct connection of this architectural element from the Harvard collection with another piece in the Greco-Roman Museum, whose provenance is established to be Oxyrhynchus, indicates that our reliefs could plausibly come from the same source, due to the stylistic bonds.

Harvard’s Oxyrhynchus relief (figure 15) with its ornamental acanthus scroll frieze, and medallions frame a flower, leaf and possibly a fruit. These iconographical elements and the similar framing device of the acanthus scroll recalls relief 1982.49 in the Herbert Mayer Collection. Both reliefs create circular frames to accentuate carved leaves. The bulb-shaped flowers can be seen in relief 1982.64, which also employs a vine to accentuate – in this case the animals over the foliage. This circular frame motif will extend to display fearful animals such as lions.

Devising a definitive provenance for an object whose exact origin is uncertain is near to impossible but through comparative research and analysis could be made about the objects likely origin. The likely possible contexts for the reliefs were to adorn a burial site, a monastery, pagan temple or a church during the late Antiquity period.

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Brooke Weinstein, Class of 2012, Art and Art History.