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Work Stele: princess Nefertiabet and her food

Department of Egyptian Antiquities: From the late prehistoric period to the late Middle Kingdom (circa 3800 - 1710 BC)

La princesse Néfertiabet devant son repas

© Musée du Louvre/C. Décamps

Egyptian Antiquities
From the late prehistoric period to the late Middle Kingdom (circa 3800 - 1710 BC)

Author(s):
Geneviève Pierrat-Bonnefois

Steles representing the deceased's nourishment in the afterlife were the principal element of Egyptian funerary art. This is one of the most ancient and best preserved. Nefertiabet was a princess during the reign of King Cheops; the best artists of the day were called upon to portray her food for the afterlife.

The fundamental funerary scene

The seated woman is facing rightward, as is the inscription above her head ("The king's daughter, Nefertiabet"). This was the usual orientation for writing, recognizable from the direction of the heads of the animal hieroglyphs. The princess, wearing a panther-skin dress, sits on a stool with bull's feet, adorned with a papyrus umbel. She stretches one hand toward a white stone pedestal table on a cylindrical terracotta stand, which bears slices of white bread with a golden crust. These elements represent the purely pictorial part of the stele; the remainder—more than half the total surface— is adorned with text only. The image itself is very pictographic, as if detached from time and space. The scene is a familiar one, reproduced thousands of times and consecrated by time and usage: the deceased's nourishment in the afterlife. A simple palette of colors—red, yellow, black, and green (now faded)—embellishes the extremely delicate relief work.

A play between text and image

The text is presented in a variety of ways. All the inscriptions are oriented toward the princess (apart from her name), since they express the offerings made to her. A double rectangle above the table contains the inscription of items such as cosmetics, drinks, and various delicacies. A large vertical panel on the right, divided into three sections, lists the many pieces of fabric offered to the princess. Finally, a number of ideograms used pictorially, in front of the princess's face and around the table, express the essential elements of the offering: "libation" (in front of her face), "lustration" before her chest, "leg of beef", "ribs", "duck", "linen", "crockery", "bread", "beer", "meat and poultry", "thousand", "thousand", "thousand!". The words here are an integral part of the image.

A vital function

Both text and image have a role to play in this timeless work. On the death of Nefertiabet (no doubt a sister of King Cheops and daughter of Snefru), this stele was embedded in the outer wall of her tomb at Giza, at the foot of the great pyramid. It was subsequently walled up, and thereby protected from the ravages of time. The stele's raison d'être was essentially practical: the images it featured (Nefertiabet's food and material possessions) were brought to life from the moment of its creation and for ever after—thereby ensuring the princess eternal life and its attendant pleasures.

Bibliography

-  ZIEGLER C., Musée du Louvre Département des Antiquités Egyptiennes - Catalogue des stèles, peintures et reliefs égyptiens de l’Ancien Empire et de la Première Période Intermédiaire (vers 2686-2040 av. J.-C.), Editions de la réunion des musées nationaux, Paris, 1990, p. 38, 187-189, notice n° 29.

- L’Art égyptien au temps des Pyramides, catalogue de l’exposition, Paris, Editions de la Réunion des musées nationaux, 1999, p. 20, 207-208, notice n° 54.

- Portes pour l’Au-Delà. L’Egypte, le Nil et le champ des offrandes, catalogue de l’exposition, Montpellier, 1992, p. 117-, 123, fig. 34.

-  ANDREU G., RUTSCHOWSCAYA M. H., ZIEGLER C., L’Egypte au Louvre, Hachette, Paris, 1997, p. 54-55, fig. 13.

- ZIEGLER C., BOVOT J.-L., Art et archéologie : L’Egypte ancienne, Ecole du Louvre / Editions de la Réunion des musées nationaux / Documentation française, Paris, 2001, p. 116-117, fig. 35.

Technical description

  • La princesse Néfertiabet devant son repas

    règne de Khéops (2590 - 2565 avant J.-C.), 4e dynastie

    trouvé dans le cimetière de Giza

  • calcaire peint

    H. : 37,70 cm. ; L. : 52,50 cm. : Pr. : 8,30 cm.

  • Don L., I. et A. Curtis

    E 15591

  • Egyptian Antiquities

    Sully wing
    1st floor
    The Old Kingdom, c. 2700–2200 BC
    Room 22
    Vitrine 05

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