My route to this painting started with a small, steatite dish in the exhibition Ancient Beings, which conveys the significance of the oryx in Ancient Egyptian culture. The Scimitar oryx, Oryx dammah, was a type of antelope that is now extinct in the wild. They lived in arid and desert climates and so became associated with Seth, god of deserts.
Oryxes were extremely precious to Egyptians, due to the fact that they were associated with Seth. The characteristics of animals were of symbolic importance, and it is thought that the zoomorphic depictions of gods developed from the ‘otherness’ of animals which implied a link to the divine. The religious symbolism of animals is evoked throughout visual and material culture. Sacred animals act as embodiments of a god whose characteristics can be expressed in that animal’s form.
Similarly, animals were a vital part of the Egyptian culture. For example, wild animals, were mostly used in farming or were pets to Kings and Queens. As such, they were also essential for the afterlife. Pets were sometimes mummified and entombed with ceremony. Animals were also mummified, although with less care, to provide food in the next world.
Feeding the Oryxes
Feeding the Oryxes, a painting, decorated the tombs of local Princes at Beni Hassan. As explored in Ancient Beings, animals were mummified for Kings and Queens. The painting suggests that Oryxes were mummified for the Princes to provide comfort and services to them in the afterlife.
This fascinating painting conveys two young men feeding two memorizing oryxes. One Oryx is slightly higher than the other, letting the viewer see the beauty of these creatures in detail, this could be noted by the bold white bouncing off of the men and the Oryxes. Illustrating a pure and godly like relationship, as the painter compositions one of the young men in a kneeling position before the Oryx, thus implying a special bond and ideas of worship towards these animals. This painting is not just about two young men feeding oryxes, it highlights much more than this. The exhibition demonstrates oryxes to be essential in the Egyptian culture. They were deemed to be a religious symbol, hence, oryxes were treated with the upmost respect and the painting reflects this delicate relationship.
In Egyptian paintings there are always symbolic meanings, for example, the men are painted red or ash brown to show that they work outside. Whereas, women are painted yellow to depict that they work indoors. There are six colours that Egyptians use to paint with which are green, red, blue, yellow, white and black. In the painting above it is evident that the painter has used these colours to create a warm atmosphere.
By Leah Rashid, Gallery Custodian
We’re releasing this post as part of an Antiquities double-bill, where two our Sunday team have explored the ancient world through selected items in the temporary exhibition Ancient Beings, above, and in the Museum of Antiquities. See the sister post here: https://etoncollegecollections.wordpress.com/2020/07/14/an-ode-to-an-amphora/
References and bibliography
 Ancient Beings Catalogue: Rebecca Tessier, Collections Cataloguer and Museums Officer, November 2019, pg. 8
 Ancient Beings Catalogue: Rebecca Tessier, Collections Cataloguer and Museums Officer, November 2019
https://oi.uchicago.edu/sites/oi.uchicago.edu/files/uploads/shared/docs/paintings1.pdf Picture no. 25