Egyptian Baroque

Startling new discoveries from the ground or from dusty libraries, shook the centre of Christendom and changed it forever. A new way of seeing the world inspired writers, artists and architects to create profound new works of art. An ancient culture was rediscovered and created the modern world.

Sounds like the Renaissance, but it wasn’t. This was the Baroque and the ancient culture was Egyptian. The impact of Baroque Egyptology are possibly more profound than any other modern cultural trend, including the Renaissance and yet it is still little known.

Rome in 1600 was a city poised on change.

The city was full of Egyptian objects of various sizes, from the obelisks which began being re-erected at this time, to the smaller statues and statuettes. By the 1600s, there was a strong tradition of Egyptian inspired art and literature, which at times came into conflict with the Church but at other times was patronised. 

Writers

Artists, architects and writers had a profound interest in Ancient Egypt during the Baroque, an artistic period which can be defined as covering the 1600s and beyond. The Baroque is hard to define but we broadly see new expressive forms of art, influenced on the one hand by science and on the other by the pact of science. 

Creatives drew on both the bible and classical texts. In the bible, Egypt is important in three stories: The Story of Joseph, The Story of Moses and the Exodus, and the sojourn of the Holy Family to escape King Herod. People could also learn more in the writings of Herodotus, Josephus and Diodorus Siculus amongst others.  

Although travel to Egypt was limited there was some interchange between Europe and the Ottoman Empire (which included Egypt from 1517).

Athanasius Kircher

Perhaps the most important intellectual figure in the Baroque period, not least in terms of Egyptology, was Athanasius Kircher. Famous for claiming to have cracked the Riddle of the Hieroglyphs, he is now famous for having got the translations so wrong. He was at the centre of the “Republic of Letters” an international hub of thinkers and scholars. He spread knowledge of Ancient Egyptian far and wide.

He was born on the feast day of St Athanasius in 1602 in what is today Germany. He joined the Jesuits who were at the height of their power, with a complex network of connections which spanned the globe. The Jesuits prided themselves on their intellectual superiority in religious debates. In some seminaries, oriental languages were taught alongside classical Greek and Latin. The reason was doctrinal. Texts survived in these languages which provided alternative biblical translations, the the countries were potential regions for missions and finally they sought to counter Protestant writers who were interested in the Christianities which were both ancient and also beyond the authority of the papacy.

From a young age, Kircher had an interest in Egypt and the Middle East. In the final year of his training as a priests, he wrote a letter to the head of the Jesuits in Rome requesting to be sent there as a missionary so that he could continue his research in his spare time. Instead he was kept in Europe. He became professor at Wurzberg. He nearly replaced the late Kepler as Professor of Mathematics in Vienna, but arranged to be transferred to Rome instead.

Rome was then one of the intellectual centres of the world. Even non-Catholics visited and communicated with important figures there. The Jesuits had created a vast worldwide web of jesuits and other correspondents which centred on Rome. In addition, the city’s libraries were incomparable. The Vatican Library contained valuable Oriental manuscripts. It also benefited from the sacking of Heidelberg during the Thirty Years War, when the Catholic general Tilly sent the books from the Palatine Library to Rome as booty.

Rome was also full of many “museums”. Kircher added to these riches building an important collection at the Collegio Romano, containing several Egyptian antiquities which are now in the Turin Museum.

Kircher was a polymath and wrote books on magnetism, volcanoes and China but it was Egypt which always drew him back, even in books on other subjects. His great Encyclopaedia of China was based on the reports of Jesuit missionaries and his own erudition. In it, he argued that Egyptians had settled in East Asia following the Great Flood based on supposed similarities between China and Egypt: the caste system, temples, symbolic writing. He even claimed that the Chinese reverered the teachings of Hermes Trismegistus whom they called Confucius and worshipped the goddess Isis, though they called her Pussa. 

Hieroglyphs

Kircher was drawn to Egyptian antiquities for many reasons, but perhaps the most important was the mystical element which was supposed to be strong in Egyptians. Daniel Stolzenberg has argued that the: 

Egyptian Oedipus is better understood as an antiquarian treatise, which made use of occult philosophy as a historical framework to explain ancient objects and inscriptions.

There is a truth in this, but throughout his Egyptological work Kircher takes such a strong interest in the mystical elements that it seems this was as much a draw as Egyptology.

His work remains controversial.  

Early in his career, Kircher claimed to have discovered an arabic manuscript in the library of the Archbishop of Mainz written by a certain Barachias Nephi (or Abenephius) with guidance on translating hieroglyphs. He was never able to give anyone the manuscript for detailed study, although an early supporter Perisc was able to see it briefly. It contained an Arabic lexicon and texts on Egypt. Kircher quoted from the book in his later works.

“Abenephius typically explains hieroglyphs as symbols of cosmological and metaphysical forces: the spirit or soul of the world; the incomprehensible, inseparable, eternal nature of God and so forth”.

Daniel Stolzenberg, Egyptian Oedipus: Athanasius Kircher and the Secrets of Antiquity, p. 85

Many scholars think that the work is a forgery by Kircher, although Stolzenbeg is more generous arguing that the text is similar to other Arabic texts and that if he did “invent” it, Kircher must have used genuine sources.

Kircher set himself the challenge to decipher hieroglyphs. He already knew Coptic and believed that the Ancient Egyptians had spoken a related language, but argued that hieroglyphs were symbols and not signs for sounds. He sought to translate the meanings behind symbols.

We now know this was wrong. Coptic was the last form of the same language (Egyptian) which was written in hieroglyphs. If Kircher had continued examining similarities between Coptic and the hieroglyphs, perhaps he may have cracked the riddle long before Champollion and Young.  

Kircher was dedicated to his symbolic approach for two reasons. First in the Baroque several scholars believed that the hieroglyphs conveyed mystical teachings. This was based on the testimony from ancient writers who professed a knowledge of the text. The most notable of these figures was Horapollon, an author from fifth century Egypt whose book Hieroglyphica contains a list of 189 signs with meanings. In some cases, this provides evidence that there was some understanding of hieroglyphs at this stage.

Kircher not only believed he had deciphered the hieroglyphs, he offered a translations for the inscription on the Pamphilian Obelisk which was more fulsome than the terse Egyptian: Horus, Strong Bull, Beloved of Maat.

Legacy

Kircher has a complex legacy. 

Kircher’s Egyptological work is less valuable today following the work of Champollion and Young to decipher the hieroglyphs. Champollion said of his own work: “Davus sum, non Oedipus” or “I am Davus, not Oedipus” a quote from the Latin playwright Terence in reference to Oedipus Aegyptiacus which he had rendered ridiculous by his own efforts. 

Kircher’s scholarship is still cited as authoritative by certain writers who value his mystical reading, such as Madame Blavatsky the founder of Theosophy. 

Yet in one important area, we might say that Kircher’s scholarship indirectly built the modern world. The philosopher and master biscuiteer, Gottfreid Wilhelm Leibniz, eagerly corresponded with Kircher as a young man and read all his books. Paula Findlen writes that “Virtually every major scientific, linguistic, and historical project on which he embarked has been directly inspired by reading Kircher’s works”.  Leibniz’s work on binary numbers was perhaps inspired by Kircher’s account of the I Ching and the Great Art of Knowing. The binary numeral system today underpins much of computing and communications software. Since the turn of the century, he has been studied by more scholars, been the subject of exhibitions and even called a postmodernist of the 1600s.

John Milton

The English poet John Milton was also drawn to Egyptian myth. A classicist par excellence he was Secretary for Foreign Tongues for the Protectorate writing both the official correspondence and composing some propaganda for the new Revolutionary regime.

He wrote On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity whilst at Cambridge. It tells how the birth of Jesus (God incarnate for many Christians) destroyed the demons masquerading as gods. Isis, Horus and Anubis are mentioned but more interesting is the description of Osiris’ reaction to the nativity.

Nor is Osiris seen
In Memphian grove or green,
Trampling the unshowered grass with lowings loud;
Nor can he be at rest
Within his sacred chest;
Nought but profoundest Hell can be his shroud;
In vain, with timbreled anthems dark,
The sable-stolèd Sorcerers bear his worshiped ark.

Milton is clearly referring to images of Osiris as a mummy or even as a coffin, perhaps as Osiris Canopus. The last lines in particular are of interest. The worshipped ark might make reference to the processions of the Egyptian gods widely known from both The Golden Ass by Apuleius and the Palestrina Mosaic, which Milton may have seen in print, although he did not travel to Rome until ten years later.

(We will return to the impact of this Mosaic when we consider Poussin’s research into the visual remains of Egyptian art in Rome.)

His most famous poem Paradise Lost retells the tale of the Creation and Man’s Fall in broadly protestant terms. It is a rich feast of imagery and language, but never overdone.

In the first book Milton revels in his non-Christian learning as he lists the demons who fell with Satan, identifying them with pagan gods.

His sources are largely classical authors and the bible. This may be to do with the topic as he mentions Arthur and Charlemagne.

Alongside various Canaanite and Mesopotamian gods, he lists the Egyptian gods Osiris, Isis and Horus- one of the main triads of gods popular throughout the Roman Empire.

After these appear’d
A crew who under Names of old Renown,
Osiris, Isis, Orus and their Train
With monstrous shapes and sorceries abus’d
Fanatic Egypt and her Priests, to seek
Thir wandring Gods disguis’d in brutish forms
Rather then human. Nor did Israel scape
Th’ infection when their borrow’d Gold compos’d
The Calf in Oreb: and the Rebel King
Doubl’d that sin in Bethel and in Dan,
Lik’ning his Maker to the Grazed Ox,
Jehovah, who in one Night when he pass’d
From Egypt marching, equal’d with one stroke
Both her first born and all her bleating Gods.

The impact of the Bible is also clear in the reference to the Golden Calf produced by the Israelites in exile. The Exodus myth also inspired the lines which liken the number of devils to the locusts which plagued Egypt.

Nicholas Poussin, The Adoration of the Golden Calf; The National Gallery

Visual art

Although Italian artists had been interested by Egyptian motifs in the Renaissance, the Baroque period saw new waves of interest. This was partly a response to patronage from the church. The Papacy sought to rebuild Rome as a symbol of the power and truth of Catholicism. 

The Counter-Reformation Catholic Church saw changes to education of clergy and the art in churches. 

The veneration of the Virgin Mary was also important in Catholic communities. James Steven Curl argued that in Central Europe, symbols used with the virgin Mary were often symbols of the goddess Isis. 

“The Fons Signatus, the Rose Mystica, the Stella Maris, the Oliva Speciosa, the Hortus Conclusus, the Stella Matutina, and the Salus Informorum […] are all Marian, and, ultimately, Isiac”.

This argument is quite dense and needs unpacking, but the ornate and classical style sought inspiration from earlier ancient works. The Rose Mystica depicts the virgin Mary surrounded by a garland of stars and roses, an image with parallels in the description of Isis in Apuleius. Nevertheless the association between Mary and roses was old evein in the Baroque period. The Olivia Speciosa depicts the Virgin Mary holding the Christchild in her lap, similar to images of Isis and Harpocrates but nevertheless substantially different.

Poussin

Life

Nicolas Poussin was the preeminent painter of the 1600s. In a new biography, the art critic Richard Verdi calls him the “father of French painting”. He was born in Normandy in 1594, but moved to Paris at 18. In Paris he did various jobs in the studios of other artists and studied the Royal Collections, where he discovered the work of Raphael. By all accounts it was a rakish youth, although not much about it is known.

He finally travelled to Rome at the age of 30, after two earlier attempts had failed. In many ways this was a shame as he missed the excitement of the new as a young man. Nevertheless like most late starters he had an assurance and focus lacking in his younger contemporaries. His first great work was the Death of Germanicus.

In the 1630s, we see a change in his art. Anthony Blunt, the great Art Historian whose work of 1965 set the Poussin paradigm for many years, wrote that the artist found his vocation at 35. Richard Verdi, in a new work published only last year, writes about a radical change in Poussin’s style, from a sensuality akin to Titian to the more classical manner of Raphael.

Poussin is best known for these late works which display a cool classicism. In later life he led a modest and regulated life and was the centre of well connected intellectual circles. He was friends with both Kircher and Bernini. Anthony Blunt even described him as a philosopher artist, someone who took his themes from the “stoic historians”, those writers of Antiquity with some sympathy for Zeno of old. 

Style

Poussin’s paintings have a very austere quality, not emotionless but inviting meditation. This is perhaps the influence and extent of his stoicism.

In his later works, his colours became less full. Verdi argues that he used four colours like the great ancient painters described by Pliny the Elder. Apelles, Aetion, Melanthios and Nikomachos used only white, yellow, red and black. 

Verdi writes that he “reduced his art to one of utter stillness and simplicity”. We see this best in Dance to the Music of Time, in which the dancers are depicted at the final pointing of their turns. They are each positioned to create a pleasing visual balance with the rest of the painting.

Poussin had a very thoughtful process for painting. He would first choose a topic, then read the books (ancient and modern), before working through composition ideas in his notebooks. Sometimes he would draw from life, before transferring the final to canvas. 

He also studied antiquities. One of his patrons, Cassiano dal Pozzo, was a keen antiquarian who collected images in a Paper Museum

Although we should not reduce his work to just copying from the ancient original, we can see some interesting details in his paintings which show Poussin’s wide receding and interest in visual remains of the ancient world. For example, a building in the Ordination painting (in the second Sacraments series of 1644-48) shows a building which is similar to a tomb in Jerusalem. It has been suggested Poussin was aware of this via his friends. He often used buildings in Rome or more commonly reconstructions in books, often using Palladio.

The themes

Poussin returned to three main themes throughout his career: the bacchanals, the Finding of Moses and the Flight into Egypt. 

Of the Bacchanals, Blunt wrote

“Historians have always written about Poussin’s Bacchanals as if hry were the most normal thing in the world for a painter to choose such themes in the 1630s.”

He may have been predicting Verdi who argues they are preeminently classical. It is notable that two of the three themes were based in Egypt and the third is non-Christian. The first two were common themes in art, but Poussin brought an archaeological precision to his work. His later paintings in particular were more Egyptian.

Finding of Moses

Poussin painted the story of the discovery of the baby Moses in the bell-rushes at least three times.

His painting of 1638, now in the Louvre, could almost be in Tuscany except for the pyramid on the right and the Nile god on the bottom left. In the background on the other side of the river two philosophers look on. The pyramid is obviously inspired by the tomb of Ctesiphus in Rome. The River god is relatively generic in this painting. His cornucopia contains standard Graeco-Roman fare, topped by a pine cone. The characters wear classical dress. The centre figure is the nurse maid who has a little knot in the middle of the hair, resembling Roman hairstyles. The theme is taken from Josephus.

His painting of 1651 (now in the National Gallery) , in terms of these details is very different. The classical buildings are more prominent. The background contains several obelisks and pyramids (including three in close proximity like at Giza?). The river god this time embraces a very Egyptian sphinx. And on the left hand side, a man beats a tambourine before a statue of Anubis. One writer, almost contemporaneous of Poussin wrote of his Finding of Moses:

“He is Moses, the Mosche of the Hebrews, the Pan of the Arcadians, the Priapus of the Hellespont, the Anubis of the Egyptians.”

Poussin also painted at least two paintings showing Moses trampling on Pharaoh’s crown between these Egyptian works. The story is from Josephus Antiquities of the Jews (11,9,7).  

Flight to Egypt

Poussin painted many images of the Holy Family on their flight to Egypt. His early paintings on this subject are beautiful and interesting in their own rights, but in terms of Egyptian themes it is his later ones which are work discussing. Here he let his intellectual interests roam freely, exalted in obscure details. 

Almost all of the paintings will this theme are set firmly in the classical world. His first two show ruins. The Holy Family with St John Holding the Cross of 1627 shows the family resting by a column with a noticeable split in the middle. Night is falling. A symbol of Christ’s sacrifice on Calvary. The Rest on the Flight into Egypt of the same year shows putti descending from heaven as the family rest by a ruined building, perhaps a deserted temple. In his work on this theme of 1632, the painting is framed by two columns. Putti descend and crown the Christ child with a wreath. An interesting version of 1641 depicts a domestic scene of great tenderness and gentle boredom of family life: Joseph doses in the background.

The Holy Family on the Steps of 1648 shows the influence of Claude. A dramatic perspective drawing attention to the architectural grameowrkl. The light hits Mary and Jeus, hiding Joseph in the shadow.

His final painting of the holy family was produced in 1655-57. It shows them resting Egypt and being offered dates. It is the background however that is most fascinating.

Several scenes are taken from the Palestrina Mosaic. The mosaic was discovered under the Palace of the Berbini in 1600 and taken to their palace in Rome. Pozzo (of the paper museum) had it copied in watercolor. Poussin studied it closely. In a letter to his patron, he drew attention to the archaeological details as signs of his attention to detail. He appears to be well read about Egypt.

A procession of priests, with their head shaved and crowned with leaves, dressed according to their fashion, carrying tambourines, flutes, and a hawk on a stick. Those under the porch carry the box called Soro Apin which contains the bones and relics of their god Serapin, toward who temple they are advancing… I put all these things into the painting in order to delight by their novelty and variety, and to show that the Virgin who is there shown is in Egypt.

Anthony Blunt, p. 311-12

One of the most fascinating details is the statue of Anubis in front of the casket.

He also borrowed the motif of a bird swallowing a snake from the mosaic in Landscape with Two Nymphs from 1659. Poussin’s interest in Egypt developed in later life and he studied those objects held in Roman collections and consulted books and scholars such as Kircher.  

Ruebens

It is useful to briefly contrast Poussin with Rubens. Rubens was interested in antiquity and archaeology, but was not drawn to Egyptian themes or iconography.

Verdi calls Poussin a classicist with an appeal to reason and an idealist, in contrast to Ruebens whom he calls a Baroque artist.

The Four Rivers of Paradise (also known as the Four Continents) shows four supine and bearded river gods with their female companions. Each river symbolises one of the major continental rivers. We can identify the River Nile by the crocodile below him. He wears a wreath of corn. Next to him sits a woman of colour with a ruby in her hair. It is an image of plenty, with barely concealed hints of violence. How different from Poussin’s portrayal of the river god. Rubens seems to have taken the same concept but not the visual iconography.

Another similar image from the same period, The Hippopotamus and Crocodile Hunt is drawn from Egyptian images in Rome: the Nilotic landscapes and perhaps images of Horus Cavalier. The three men on horseback wear turbans. The person on the right wears silk and leopard skin. There’s a palm tree in the background and reeds. 

This is a very accurate depiction of the animals. Rubens may have travelled to Rome to see a preserved hippopotamus. It also feels like an idealised image of contemporary Egypt, as opposed to a historic Egypt.

These two images are full of drama and movement and very accomplished paintings. Rubens has taken the original visual inspiration from classical art and transformed it so that it is obscured.

Summary

It is noticeable that the four individuals described here were all born within 14 years of each. More poignantly Athanasius died the day before Bernini on 28 November 1680. In the early Seventeenth Century, the city of Rome was an important hub in scholarly and intellectual communications. The Baroque city was the stage for the triumphs, tragedies and petty frustrations of these individuals. 

At points in its history, Egyptology has been intimately connected to colonialism. The creatives of the baroque age were writing and working at a time when the institutions of the slave trade and mercantilism were coming to the fore both in society and politics, but also more specifically in patronage. The art of the age also displays orientalising touches. Further study is needed to unpick the connections between scholarship and art, and slavery and imperialism. 

Perhaps with the exception of Kircher, who although well known in academic circles is hardly a household name, the artworks of Milton, Poussin and Bernini are firmly placed at the heart of “the cannon”.

Why then is this period of Egypotology less well known? This is a complex question and ultimately I cannot do justice to it in the space left to me. On the one hand, during the eighteenth century Greece and Rome become the two central planks of ‘Classicism’. They were seen as the forebears of ‘Western Civilisation’. Egypt was marginalised in this history. At the same time, Egyptian texts could not be read and travel to Egypt was impossible in comparison to Italy. Then during the period of Western colonial interventions in Egypt in the Nineteenth Century, Egyptian texts could be read and travel was much easier for Western tourists. This sudden re-emergence following a relative dearth, meant that the earlier engagement was completely eclipsed.

Thinkers like Kircher, who engaged deeply with Egyptian archaeology are dismissed as cranks, even as racists eugenicists like Petrie are still honoured. Kircher’s work was hugely flawed, but important. More research is needed in this area.