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Work Chalice in the form of a lotus

Department of Egyptian Antiquities: The final Pharaonic dynasties and the Ptolemaic period (circa 1069 - 30 BC)

Chalice in the form of a lotus

© Musée du Louvre/C. Décamps

Egyptian Antiquities
The final Pharaonic dynasties and the Ptolemaic period (circa 1069 - 30 BC)

Author(s):
Geneviève Pierrat-Bonnefois

This drinking-cup in bright-blue faience, with its molded decoration, is by no means a commonplace object. If it were indeed once used for drinking, it would have been exceptional in its rich decoration. Yet its form is not to be found among the ritual vessels represented in traditional religious scenes.

A cup for drinking, or for an offering?

Together with the papyrus reed, the water lily or blue lotus accounts for the vast majority of plants represented in Egyptian art. Its pointed petals are very often found decorating the bottom of a vessel. Drinking-cups such as this, which adopt the form of the flower completely, standing on a small conical base, made their appearance in the Eighteenth Dynasty, in calcite or siliceous faience. They were to reappear in the Twenty-second Dynasty, in highly curvaceous form, covered in delicate detail in relief. The present cup is an example of the latter style: from between the petals emerge little palmettes and stylized lilies, bearing no natural relationship to the lotus flower. The square mouth of the cup is extremely surprising, though another example can be seen at the archaeological museum in Florence.
The intense blue of the faience and the fine detail connect this cup to a series of vessels found at Tuna el-Gebel, which have narrative decoration depicting scenes of royal activity and images of agricultural life. They may be a kind of offering, connected to the celebration of festivals.

The blue lotus: a highly symbolic flower

The scented blue lotus (Nymphaea caerulea) gradually supplanted the white lotus (Nymphaea lotus) in Egyptian art, without the latter ever disappearing completely. The flower of the white lotus has short, rounded petals and very little scent; it opens in the evening to close again in the morning. The blue lotus, on the other hand, opens at dawn, exuding a sweet fragrance and revealing bright yellow stamens at its heart. It was thus adopted, in the creation myth of the city of Hermopolis, as an image of the place where the Sun, the source of life, emerges.
The Egyptians decorated their offerings to the gods and to the deceased with this highly symbolic flower, and held it to their noses at festivals. The flowering of the blue lotus and the inhalation of its sweet perfume may also be associated with summer, the season which precedes the flooding of the Nile Valley; there are references to "The scent of the lotus and the season of shemu (summer)."

The lotus in France

Today, botanists prefer to use the word "lotus" for the Nelumbo, which comes from India and was unknown in Egypt before the Persian period. In French, these plants are called "nénufar" or "nénuphar," the spelling with "f" being that recommended by the Académie Française since 1990. It is a word of Semitic origin. In the Egyptian language, the root NFR, conventionally pronounced "nefer," means "beautiful." This was the name that the Egyptians gave to the flower; this would eventually yield the French "nénufar," via Arabic and Medieval Latin. It would seem that French botanists of the nineteenth century opted for the spelling "nénuphar," no doubt influenced by the Greek name for the plant, "nymphea," which, however, has nothing to do with the etymology of the French.

Technical description

  • Drinking-Cup in the Form of a Lotus Flower

    Chalice in the form of a lotus

    Third Intermediate Period, 22nd Dynasty, 945-715 BC

  • Siliceous faience

    H. 14.4 cm; W. 10.2 cm

  • Purchased 1913

    E 11349

  • Egyptian Antiquities

    Sully wing
    1st floor
    From the year 1000 to the first Persian conquest, c. 1069–404 BC
    Room 29

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Additional information about the work

The foot is a restoration