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Color & Symbolism

Thutmose I Facsimile

When I was visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art this week, one particular exhibition caught my eye. Nestled into the museum’s Egyptian collection was a room covered in framed paintings from the walls of New Kingdom tombs. They were all facsimiles – that is, they were almost all copies of original ancient artwork by early 20th century archaeologists and explorers. Many of these pieces depicted scenes from daily life, as well as some more conventional scenes depicting assorted pharaohs offering to the gods and smiting enemies. One of the paintings I found especially interesting featured a statue of Thutmose I being drawn on a sledge by priests, presumably in a ritual that was part of the king’s mortuary cult. The original painting was found on the wall of a New Kingdom tomb (reign of Seti I), while the facsimile was painted in 1911. What was really interesting about this piece was the color of Thutmose I’s skin tone: ink black, a marked deviation from the typical red ochre used to indicate Egyptian males. Why was this so? For this week’s Thutmose Tuesday, I decided to take a look at the ancient Egyptian use different colors and their symbolic connotations.

Color played a vital symbolic role in ancient Egyptian artwork. From the vibrant walls of Theban tombs, to intricately decorated sarcophagi, to brightly painted stone statues, the Egyptians used color to communicate specific symbolic/religious meaning through their work. Bright reds, greens, and blues were particularly popular throughout all periods of Egyptian history. When it came to skin tones, the ancient Egyptians used color to denote a both a person’s ethnicity and their gender/societal role. For example, Egyptian men were depicted in a dark red ochre color, to indicate their tanned skin from working out in the hot sun. Women, by contrast, were often depicted with a lighter yellow skin tone, indicating that they spent most of their time indoors (with a few notable examples, including Hatshepsut, Nefertiti, and the Amarna Princesses). Foreigners such as Nubians, Syrians, or other Asiatic peoples were depicted with either black, dark brown, ochre, or yellow skin tones, and were further identified by their often brightly colored and patterned clothing and unique beards, hairstyles, and other accessories.

Turning back to the Thutmose I facsimile, the king’s unusual black skin tone turns out to be quite explainable. The colors black and green were frequently used by the ancient Egyptians to represent life, rebirth, and fertility. For instance, many depictions of the god Osiris show the god with bright green skin, a nod to his role as the deity in charge of transitioning the deceased into the afterlife. In the case of Thutmose I, the black could either be a representation of the dark wood the statue of the king is fashioned out of, or a reference to the fact that, by worshipping the pharaoh years after his death, Thutmose’s has been spirit “reborn” and kept alive over many generations.

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