Art of the Day

4 Jan

Lion Cub

Lion Cub. by Ancient Egyptian artist that lived during the Early Dynastic Period (ca. 3100-2649 B.C.), possibly in Gebelein, Upper Egypt. Quartzite, ca. 3100-2900 B.C.

Notes from

This powerful figure of a crouching lion belongs to the beginning of Egypt’s historic period, when the process of integrating Upper and Lower Egypt into one centralized state was underway. The simplified sculptural treatment, with the tail curled over the back and the absence of a base, is typical of sculpture from this period, when the Egyptians were learning to master the art of carving in hard stone.

This statuette is said to have come from Gebelein, a site in Upper Egypt about twenty miles south of modern Luxor, where there was a temple to the goddess Hathor. Although best known as the goddess of love and beauty, Hathor was also a celestial mother goddess who often appears as a cow suckling the king. In her less benevolent aspect, she is represented as a lioness. It is possible that this statuette was a votive offering presented to the temple by the king.

Notes from the Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, 1995:

The abstract form, lack of a base, and the way the tail curls up across the back of this glowing figure of a lion dates it to Early Dynastic times. It is a somewhat enigmatic masterpiece, and scholars have proposed various interpretations. The animal has been identified as a maneless male lion, a lioness, and a cub. This last is most likely. None of the hardstone sculptures of powerful male lions that were made around the same date matches short head, over-large nose, soft mouth,and general furriness of ears, paws, and body. These features, decidedly those of a young lion, must be read as intentionally reproduced characteristics of the animal represented.

It is difficult to explain the meaning of a lion-cub sculpture in the context of Egyptian religion and art, especially in this early period. In ancient Egypt lions usually represented the king. There was a famous temple of the goddess Hathor at Gebelein, where the quartzite lion was reportedly found. Beginning in early times, Hathor was not only the goddess of love but also a celestial mother deity who appeared as a cow suckling the king and as a wild lioness. Is the quartzite lion her son, the king?

My comments:

Although I have so far exclusively posted modern and contemporary artwork on this blog, Ancient Egyptian art is also one of my favorite art historical periods, and so today I’ve decided to post one of my favorite Ancient Egyptian pieces. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC is one of the few American art museums on the East Coast that actually possesses a substantial Egyptian art collection, as the lion’s share of that exists in European museums. Since I’ve never visited a European museum, my mental visual library of Egyptian art is rather limited, but this piece is probably my favorite that I have seen in person or in books.

The sculpture appeals to me, I think, because there is something simply adorable about it. But it also amazes me because it’s almost incomprehensible to think about people making art like this 5,000 years ago. With so few strikes to the quartzite, the artist of this sculpture manage to clearly convey its identity as a lion cub (there has been debate in the past as to whether it’s an adult male or female or a cub, but to me it definitely is a cub). It has a minimalist kind of beauty and simplicity, a sculpture that, although not created in a very precious medium such as gold or silver, commands a respect and reverence that equals that of any diamond or lapis lazuli art object. Even though we are separated from Ancient Egypt by thousands of years and miles, we can see that this sculpture is certainly a masterpiece because even now and even here we can feel what the artist felt when he created it.



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