New Acquisition: Bust of Isis

Egyptian, 25th Dynasty, 750–656 B.C: Bust of Isis. Magnesite, h. 26 cm. Museum purchase, Fowler McCormick, Class of 1921, Fund and the Carl Otto von Kienbusch, Jr. Memorial Collection (2013-45). Photo Bruce M. WhiteThis bust of a woman dates from one of the most fascinating periods of ancient Egyptian history, the 25th Dynasty (750–656 B.C). In this period, Egypt was ruled by the Kushite kings of Nubia, who had emerged from their homeland in what is today North Sudan, above the first cataract of the Nile. The Nubians were black Africans who had fought and traded with the Egyptians for centuries, exporting gold, ivory, ebony, and slaves. Well before their conquest of Egypt, the Nubians had been heavily influenced by Egyptian culture, its people adopting the worship of the god Amun and its kings assuming the traditional pharaonic titles. The way this woman holds her breast in her hand identifies her as the Egyptian goddess Isis, the wife of Osiris and the mother of Horus. She probably was represented seated on a throne (Isis means “throne” in Egyptian), with the nursing infant Horus on her lap. The pillar that extends down the back originally was inscribed. The goddess wears a plump, curvaceous wig with curls that frame her face and hang down the back, a type known as a Hathor wig, after its frequent adoption by the goddess Hathor. Over a thousand years earlier, in the Middle Kingdom, many women were represented in sculpture wearing the Hathor wig; its reappearance in the 25th Dynasty suggests that the Nubians intentionally adopted it in an attempt to associate themselves with a celebrated era of Egyptian power, piety, and prosperity. The sculpture of Isis adds a new dimension to the Art Museum’s small but important collection of Egyptian art at a time when the study of ancient Egypt is occupying an increasingly prominent place in the curriculum.

J. Michael Padgett
Curator of Ancient Art