Bowl with fish and lotuses
New Kingdom, Dynasty 18
Place of Origin: Egypt
Height x diameter: 3.8 x 15.7 cm (1 1/2 x 6 3/16 in.)
Medium or Technique
Egyptian New Kingdom Gallery (Gallery 210)
The marsh scene painted on the interior surface of this shallow bowl is perfectly adapted to its shape. The bowl is a pool: six curving stems with lotus buds radiate pinwheel-like from a central square, with four tilapia passing over and partly overlapping them to create a sense of depth. Three of the fish have other lotus stems issuing forth from their mouths; these also terminate in buds that float up to the vessel’s rim to join the others.
In ancient Egyptian art no motif is too modest to be innocent of ritual symbolism. And so it is with this shallow bowl, for in Egyptian mythology, the marsh was the seething hotbed of creation. The blue lotus, whose flowers open from sunrise through midday and close at night, was closely associated with the sun’s rebirth each morning. The tilapia was a symbol of fertility and rebirth since Predynastic times, based no doubt on the creature’s remarkable habit of taking its newly hatched young into its mouth for shelter. The young fish appear to emerge from the parent’s mouth as though newly born, a phenomenon the Egyptians interpreted as spontaneous generation. This recalled the god Atum, whose own act of spontaneous generation initiated the creation of the Egyptian universe. The waters in which the fish swim are those of the boundless, life-giving Nun, the primeval ocean, while the central square motif is the primeval mound that rose above these waters.
Such marsh bowls were not made as tableware. Many pottery fragments with marshland imagery have been found at temples and shrines dedicated to the goddess Hathor, who was associated with sex, love, motherhood, fertility, and rebirth. Less frequently, the bowls have been found as tomb gifts. Given the intact condition of this bowl, it probably came from a tomb, where objects often survived best. The tombs from which such marsh bowls have been excavated belonged to nonroyal and mostly female persons. In a burial context, the fertility imagery on the bowls was meant to facilitate the tomb owner’s rebirth.
H. J. P. Bomford collection; 1959: exhibited at Ashmolean Museum, Oxord; by 1977: Gawain McKinley Ancient and Decorative Arts, New York; 1977: purchased by the MFA from Gawain McKinley Ancient and Decorative Arts, September 14, 1977.
(Accession Date: September 14, 1977)
William E. Nickerson Fund