In general, the world knows little about the desires and prayers of the common man who lived a few thousand years ago. While archeologists piece together how people lived, the prayers and thoughts of only the most powerful leaders and religious figures have been captured in ancient bas reliefs and religious texts.
There are exceptions. Roughly 3,000 years ago, a group of artisans who decorated the tombs of the kings of Egypt prepared their own modest burial chambers about a kilometer away from the Valley of the Kings in Luxor, in Deir el-Medina.
Sennedjem, the owner of what became known as “tomb 19”, was ensconced for three millennia with his wife, children and grandchildren in that tomb until it was discovered at the end of the 19th century. Unlike the government officials who featured artwork related to their government functions in their tombs, Sennedjem and the other artisans of Deir el-Medina had painted scenes of their family and idealized world.
Sennedjem’s tomb walls and arched ceiling were completely covered in ornate paintings which reflected scenes from the Book of the Dead. The yellow background paint gave the walls the feel of papyrus, the ancient Egyptian paper, and allowed the strong colors of the painted subjects to stand out.
The western wall of the tomb painting included two jackals which guarded the road to eternity along with Sennedjem and his wife, Iyneferty, and several gods. The southern wall featured a banquet with the parents and children of Sennedjem and Iyneferty, while the northern wall showed the mummification process together with text from the Book of the Dead, and an appeal to the god Osiris that the deceased, who led a good life, should be granted passage to paradise.
The eastern wall is the last wall to be “read” in the tomb. On top, two baboons surround the falcon-headed god Horus with a sun and protective cobra over his head, depicting the god of the rising sun. It is meant to convey a prayer for a successful journey to paradise and the beginning of a peaceful eternal life.
Below the tympanum are five rows which highlight that view of paradise.
The top register, read from left to right, includes the couple kneeling before five Egyptian gods followed by one of the couple’s sons facing them in a bark (boat) who escorts them to paradise. Another son is seen opening the mouth of the mummified Sennedjem, an important action to help the body survive and enjoy food and drink in the afterlife.
The following four registers show scenes of paradise. First they arrive in the Field of A’aru, the Field of Reeds. Egyptians believed that it is there that all of one’s possessions and family which were lost are returned (think of the death scene in the movie Gladiator). In this after-world, harvesting is as easy as pulling the grains from the ground or using animals to work the land. Blue water envelopes the entire scene (much like the Nile and canals during life), feeding plants, fields and trees. The bottom row features poppies and mandrakes, showcasing plants used in making drugs for sleep and aphrodisiac for love-making (see Genesis 30:14).
Paradise in ancient Egypt was an idealized version of life on Earth, focused on physical pleasures together with one’s spouse.
Shalom of Safed
Shalom Moskovitz (1896-1980) was commonly known as Shalom of Safed. He was an artisan for most of his life, including in watch-making and silver, and took up painting at the age of 55. He mostly painted scenes which were important and close to his heart such as the events of Jewish history, the Bible and the Talmud.
Shalom’s painting “Pray for the Peace of Jerusalem,” is a classic example. Like the Egyptian painting described above, Shalom used a muted old paper-like yellowish background for a story with multiple scenes. The registers were not neatly aligned in rows, and show a number of locations from around Jerusalem and Bethlehem. The borders showcase grains and fruit trees, bringing to mind the sheva mi’nim, the seven species native to Israel: wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives and dates.
Shalom replaced the semi-circular Egyptian tympanum which had been used because of the arched ceiling of the burial tomb (and later copied by churches in Europe above their portals) with a few of the notable monuments in Jerusalem’s skyline: the Tomb of Absalom, the Mosque of Omar (Dome of the Rock) and Tower of David. Further down are two gates of the Old City of Jerusalem with the Kotel, the Western Wall in between. To the left is Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem. Other churches, mosques, homes and fields give the painting a calm feeling.
The painting highlights diversity in sharp contrast to the Egyptian tomb which focused on the deceased couple. The people in the painting are assembled in two groups with one in the lower left ascending a hill (and holiness metaphorically) passing graves and the tomb of the Jewish matriarch, Rachel, and the second group to the right praying at the Kotel. All of the men are wearing different hats showing their different backgrounds, but stand together in their prayers. Similarly, the Jewish, Muslim and Christian sites are shown coexisting in harmony. They dwarf the people as opposed to the Egyptian tomb in which the people dominate the scenes.
The people of ancient Egypt worshiped idols and their art showcased those many gods to whom they prayed for an afterlife of physical enjoyment. The Jews of modern Israel pray to an invisible God, and their art reveals an inconsequential physical man before dominant religious monuments with prayers for abstract harmony.
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