The notion of the Afterlife was part of the essential belief system of the ancient Egyptians, and a key component of this was the preservation of the physical form, which would guarantee a smooth transition to the afterlife and the reunification of the body with the soul. Central to the mummification process was the act of removing the internal organs of the deceased – the liver, the lungs, the intestines, and the stomach. The heart, believed to be the abode of the soul, was left inside the body. The viscera were placed in special vessels known as canopic jars. By the time of the New Kingdom, the period from which the present jar lid dates, the four vessels were fashioned in the likenesses of the four sons of Horus, one of the most important gods in the Egyptian pantheon. They were the falcon-headed Qebeh-senu-ef, the human-headed Imsety, jackal-headed Dua-mutef and baboon-headed Hapi, who is represented in the present example. Each god was entrusted with the protection of a particular organ, with Hapi being responsible for the lungs. In turn, Hapi was protected by the goddess Nephthys. The names of the protective deities were often written on the jars, along with formulaic spells intended to invoke the gods’ powers. The organs would be individually wrapped in linen, placed in the jars and covered with consecrated oil before being closed and placed inside canopic chests or boxes near to the mummy.
The materials from which canopic jars were made depended on the wealth of the owner. That the present lid is made from alabaster suggests that it was commissioned by a well-to-do individual, who would have been able to afford more than pottery or wood versions. Some jars are made from alabaster but the lids are carved in wood, but it is likely that the whole vessel in question would have been made from alabaster. Stone was preferable to wood because, although wood was considered a high value material, stone was the most durable medium known to the Egyptians. They believed that anything placed inside a stone vessel was therefore imbued with this same permanence and would be immune to the agents of time. This lid is also particularly interesting because it is painted with patterns in brightly-coloured pigments. The practice of mixing pigments with beeswax and applying this amalgam to the surface of alabaster was typical of the reign of Ramesses II and continued into the later Ramesside Period. It is usually seen on large stone vessels associated with the preparation of the mummy, shabtis, and, as here, canopic vessels. Popular pigments included blue, derived from powdered blue frit; green from ground malachite; yellow from an arsenic sulphide called orpiment; red from iron oxide; and black from carbon black. A brightly-painted wood pseudo canopic jar with the head of the Hapi is in the collection of the Louvre Museum, Paris (Late Period, circa 1069-664 BC) and a set of alabaster canopic jars with painted wood heads is displayed in the British Museum London (inv. no. EA59199, Third Intermediate Period, twenty-first dynasty, circa 1077-943 BC).
For the use of coloured pigments, P. Lacovara, B.T. Trope and S. H. D'Auria, eds, The Collector's Eye: Masterpieces of Egyptian Art from The Thalassic Collection, Ltd (Washington, 2001), pp. 124-125.
J. Assman, Death and Salvation in Ancient Egypt (Ithaca, 2005).
with Mohammed Mohassif, Cairo.
Edward Drummond Libbey (1854-1925), Toledo, acquired from the above and gifted to The Toledo Museum of Art, 1906 (Accession no. 1906.18).
Toledo Museum of Art, 1906-2016.
Exhibited: The Toledo Museum of Art, Monkey Business, 2 July-30 August 2009.
The Toledo Museum of Art, The Egypt Experience: Secrets of the Tomb, 29 October 2010-8 January 2012.
Published: The Toledo Museum of Art, Catalogue of a Collection of Egyptian Antiquities, Brought Together and Presented to The Toledo Museum of Art by Mr. Edward Drummond Libbey, Toledo, 1906, p. 15, no. 18.
W.H. Peck, S.E. Knudsen and P. Reich, Egypt in Toledo: The Ancient Egyptian Collection at The Toledo Museum of Art, Toledo, 2011, p. 52.