Winged Isis Pectoral
Unknown artist, Egyptian
Winged Isis Pectoral, 1075-712 BCE
Helen M. Danforth Acquisition Fund 1996.73.1
This amulet in the form of the winged goddess Isis was originally sewn onto the linen bandages of a mummy. The goddess’s wings spread across the mummy’s chest, embracing and protecting the deceased in the afterlife.
The pectoral was made in three pieces. A mold was probably used for the body, and the two wings made with either molds or templates. The delicate feathering on the wings perhaps was impressed by hand with the flat side of a blade before firing.
About the work
Approximately 3,000 years ago, this small figure may well have adorned the chest of an ancient Egyptian whose body was being wrapped for mummification. The figure’s purpose was to impart magical properties to the deceased and help ensure a safe journey to the afterworld. Amulets were often small enough to be worn or carried by a person, or, as in this case, probably wrapped with the deceased. An amulet’s ability to provide protection was determined by a combination of its specific form or image, the materials from which it was made, and the words recited to summon its powers.
This amulet portrays Isis, a goddess known as a protector of the dead. It is made from faience, a material that was associated with life, rebirth, and immortality because of its lustrous quality. The powerful connotation of faience (or tjehnet as it is called in Egyptian, meaning “what is gleaming”) is due both to its brilliant color and the radical, and seemingly magical, alteration of ordinary materials that occurs during the process of firing. Since the precise ingredients and process of making of faience were kept a secret by the Egyptians, only recently have scholars determined that it was made by mixing water with finely ground crushed quartz or sand, both abundantly available in Egypt, and small amounts of lime and either natron or plant ash. The marvelous transformation would occur when, after being fired at a high temperature, the dull colorless paste emerged from the kiln as a shiny, hard, blue-green object.
Amulets such as this one were often originally sewn onto the linen wrapping of a mummified person. Have students look closely at images of the front and back of the object, available in the set of images above. Which details helped scholars confirm this original use?
Looking at Isis’ adornments and other characteristics, what do you think they reveal about the goddess’ powers?
Discuss the symbolism of the color of faience. Why might its blue-green color have been particularly significant to the ancient Egyptians? Ask students to think about what they know of the geography of Egypt.
Archaeologists and historians have pointed out that during the period when the winged Isis pectoral was made, there was an increase in the production of amulets, especially ones representing gods. To learn more about the particular powers Egyptians associated with Isis, ask students to research the goddess and find different representations of her. Then, ask them to compare these depictions with the winged Isis pectoral to determine what features are emphasized and what symbolic characteristics seem to be valued in each.
Ancient Egyptians believed that many factors, including magic, ensured they would achieve life in the afterworld. To protect the body and aid its hazardous afterlife journey, Egyptians empowered the deceased with amulets, images of deities, and other adornments. To encourage your students to connect with the power of objects, ask them to write a short personal account about a favorite object that helped them get through a difficult situation. Students can choose to draw their object and emphasize any memorable features.
For ancient Egyptians, the mystery of faience was rooted in the fact that through the process of firing, a dull, malleable material becomes a brilliantly hard blue-green object. To explore the wonder of transforming an object, ask students to give a recycled object new life by transforming it aesthetically or making it functional in a new way.
King Ay, successor to the pharaoh Tutankhamun, called himself tjehnet khaw, “shimmering of (glorious) appearances (like the sun),” and tjehnet khepheru, “shimmering of manifestations.” Tjehnet refers to faience’s special qualities. Ask students why an Egyptian pharaoh might want to imagine himself in terms of a material substance or a natural phenomenon. What are some examples of other imagery or references used to describe leaders in more recent history, for example during specific periods in American history? What do these images suggest about what was important and valued in each historic period?
Florence Dunn Friedman, ed. Gifts of the Nile: Ancient Egyptian Faience. Providence: Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, 1998.
Diana Craig Patch. “Egyptian Amulets,” in Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000.
http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/egam/hd_egam.htm (October 2004)