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Work Comb

Department of Egyptian Antiquities: Christian Egypt (fourth - twelfth centuries AD)

Comb

© Musée du Louvre / G. Poncet

Egyptian Antiquities
Christian Egypt (fourth - twelfth centuries AD)

Author(s):
Meurice Cédric

Despite its many missing teeth, this comb has retained its full value by virtue of its central scene, still virtually intact. It features three figures, with a Greek inscription above and below, together depicting a dance or poetry competition.

A comb of great antiquity

This comb is carved from elephant ivory. Two rows of teeth flank the central rectangle: an extremely fine-toothed comb in the upper half, with larger and more widely spaced teeth in the lower half. Many teeth are missing in both parts, particularly the lower one. Some have been glued back in place.

The enigmatic figures of the decorative scene

A Greek inscription runs along the upper and lower sections of the central spine, following incised lines in the decoration. In the center are three figures, rendered in an open-work design that emphasizes the sculpted appearance of the object as a whole. The central figure is a woman dressed in a long robe with braids and medallions and wearing a headband. She is depicted in front of an architectural structure consisting of an arch resting on two cabled columns. She wears a shoulder strap and in her raised right hand seems to be holding a crown, the upper part of which forms part of the border. To the right, another woman stands in the same pose, but without the shoulder strap or the crown. To the left, a man dressed in a tunic is shown either picking up or setting down a scroll placed on a small stool in front of him. He seems to be making a sign of greeting to the central figure with his left hand. Note that only his right foot has a sandal with straps, while his left foot is bare - perhaps an oversight on the part of the artist.

An invocation to fortune

The composition of the scene suggests that the central figure is the principal subject, and that the figures flanking her are paying tribute to her in one form or another. This is confirmed by the Greek inscription: "Long live Helladia's fortune and the Blues! Amen!" This invocation to fortune and to the Blues indicates that the object relates to a literary competition, or else to a mime or pantomime performance. An actress named Helladia is therefore probably the central figure on the comb. Having won the competition, she probably had the Greek inscription added to immortalize this important event in her life. In general, ivories such as this one, depicting victories in competitions, date from the 5th or 6th centuries.

Technical description

  • Comb

    5th century

    Antinoe

  • Sculpture, elephant ivory

    H. 17 cm; L. 6.7 cm

  • Purchased 1926

    E 11874, E 25353

  • Egyptian Antiquities

    Denon wing
    Lower ground floor
    Gallery of Coptic art
    Room B

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