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HOME : Egyptian Antiquities : Archive : Middle Kingdom Copper Alloy Sculpture of a Striding Hippopotamus
Middle Kingdom Copper Alloy Sculpture of a Striding Hippopotamus - X.0286
Origin: Egypt
Circa: 1940 BC to 1750 BC
Dimensions: 1.8" (4.6cm) high x 3.2" (8.1cm) wide
Collection: Egyptian
Medium: Copper Alloy

Additional Information: SOLD. Art Logic-Formerly in the collection of the late Madame Marion Schuster, Lausanne, and by descent to Madame Antoinette Schuster, Sotheby's (London) 1990, Heidi Vollmoeller Collection, Christie's (London) 2003

Location: Great Britain
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This image of the hippopotamus depicts the ponderous movement of this heavy, lumbering beast. In keeping with ancient Egyptian artistic conventions, the craftsmen have captured the essence of this mammal in a remarkably abstract manner with restrained modeling within a highly contemporary, abstract design. To that end, the animal’s barrel-like body rests on short, cylindrically-shaped legs. Its erect ears work in tandem as design elements with the lidded eyes and articulated nostrils.

The dating of this hippopotamus is assured both on stylistic and technical grounds. It compares favorably to the corpus of hippopotami in faience which were generally interred in tombs where, by the principles of sympathetic magic, they could be symbolically destroyed in order to assure the safe passage of the tomb owner during the perilous, nocturnal journey toward resurrection. Those faience mammals were, however, intentionally damaged by the purposeful breaking of their legs. No such ancient and intentional damage is evident in our example, the excellent state of preservation of which suggests it served another purpose.

That function may be suggested by the material from which our hippopotamus was created. That material is a copper alloy, and recent studies have suggested that such a material was widely employed for statuettes of the late Middle Kingdom. These images include not only depictions of pharaohs and courtiers, but also of animals, as the crocodile in Munich demonstrates. It has been suggested that the Munich crocodile served as a cult image. It is, therefore, tempting to regard our hippopotamus in this same context because its material and scale are consistent with those of the Munich example, and the hippopotamus, like the crocodile, enjoyed cult centers in the Faiyum, to which region of Egypt most of the Late Middle Kingdom cupreous statuary is assigned. In that case, our hippopotamus is a welcome addition to the small number of exceedingly rare animal sculptures in this material. It, too, may have served as an object of cultic veneration. (X.0286)


Jannine Bourriau, Pharaohs and Mortals. Egyptian Art in the Middle Kingdom [exhibition catalogue] (Cambridge 1988), pages 119-120, catalogue number 111, for a discussion of such statuettes of the hippopotamus in Middle Kingdom contexts.

Marsha Hill, Royal Bronze Statuary from Ancient Egypt (Leiden 2004), pages 11-16, for a discussion of statuettes in this material from this period.

Hans Wolfgang Müller, “Eine viertausend Jahre alte Nilpferdfigure aus ägyptischer Fayence,” PANTHEON 33 (1975), pages 287-292, for one of the most felicitous essays on these wonderful figures of the hippopotamus which features a reclining example like the one under discussion.

Ian Shaw and Paul Nicholson, British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt (London1995), pages 129-130, for a succinct summary of the animal and the Egyptian attitudes toward it.

S. Schoske, Staatliche Sammlung Ägyptischer Kunst München (Mainz 1995), figure 51, for the Munich crocodile described as a cult statue.

Formerly in the collection of the late Madame Marion Schuster, Lausanne, and by descent to Madame Antoinette Schuster: sold Sotheby's London, 10 July 1990, lot 317.Also sold at Christies in 2004 Vollmoller collection. - (X.0286)


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