Funerary Stele of Tembu (22.92)
An ancient Egyptian stele is a stone or wooden slab erected for funerals or commemorative purposes, typically carved with scenes that tell a story, document, or give information about the person or people it is meant to memorialize. During the New Kingdom of ancient Egypt around about 1500-1470 BC, the “Funerary Stele of Tembu” was originally made to be a gravestone that commemorated the important Egyptian official, Tembu, and his wife.
The place of origin of this funerary stele is Western Thebes in Egypt, however the exact artist who created it is unknown, thus credit is just said to be given to an Egyptian sculptor who lived during the New Kingdom. At about 68 centimeters in height, this funerary stele is a vertical low-relief sculpture with a rounded top, created by carving very low-relief images and hieroglyphs into limestone, and then painted with bright yellow, red, blue, and black polychrome paint.
What used to be vivid colors have now faded, but not completely – the colors have still managed to remain faintly visible on the stone after hundreds of years. Each carving is very carefully done, and in close viewing, rise from the limestone at about the same height. The hieroglyphs at the very bottom are also meticulously carved, with each symbol appearing to be sculpted just as deep as the adjacent ones. This precision in work creates visual ease and order when looking at the stele.
The organization of the images additionally assist in developing the general harmonious composition throughout the stele, while also adding some variety – as in, the images within the first two registers are carved at different sizes, and there is a strip of hieroglyphs at the bottom that is unpainted to contrast the prevailing yellow background of the two larger registers. The stele is divided at just about the center; the top half includes only one register, while the bottom half is split into two registers. In order from top to bottom, the registers occupy half, two-thirds, and then one-third of the stele. This systematic division not only creates visual balance within the piece, but also provides sufficient amount of space in each register to employ the use of hierarchal scale, depicting the greater importance of the people in the larger top register, as compared to the people in the smaller middle register.
In the very top of the upper register, two gazing eyes of the Goddess Wadjit, protector of Lower Egypt, are depicted to symbolize royal power and good health. Between the eyes are a bowl with water ripples, and a shen-ring that represents eternal protection. Tembu is depicted seated beside his wife on a chair; his skin is painted darker to represent the long periods of time he spent in the sun, while his wife’s skin is pale to show the more domestic and indoor role of women. Beneath the chair is their pet monkey holding a mirror and a vase, a standard element of steles found in the New Kingdom, also included to add some extra personalization to the piece. They sit in front of a table piled with beef, bread, lotus buds, and vegetables – said to be food for the afterlife, and below the table are jugs thought to contain wine. The figure on the very right is their daughter, also shown with pale skin, and portrayed with a gesture symbolic of offering; she is holding out a bowl of wine for her father Tembu, and her mother.
Other family members are carved into the middle register, but at a smaller size to show that this stele is primarily focusing on Tembu and his wife. Tembu’s four sons, Teti, Tetimose, Teiy, and Ahmose are lined up on the right in order by height, each holding flowers in their hands; on the left, his two daughters Senetnefer and Henut are also shown holding flowers to represent that they are attending a funeral. The two lines of children face each other and are separated by a large jar. The jar is decorated with a lotus flower, symbolic of creation, rebirth, purity, as well as Upper Egypt. Lastly, at the very bottom, the hieroglyphic inscriptions list the family members depicted in the stele and give a brief description of each of them as well as their offerings.
Numerous meanings behind these iconographic symbols can be inferred in this stele but most importantly, the stele is about the death of Tembu and his wife, and their children attending the funeral to honor and wish them a good afterlife. Each figure and symbol carved on this stele is depicted rather conceptually and abstractly. The common Egyptian style of twisted perspective is used for each figure, even including the monkey: all their heads and legs are shown at profile, while their shoulders and torso area are shown frontally. There is no sense of depth within the piece, and especially in the top register, items appear to be floating on top of the table and above the people, creating further conceptuality in the piece.
With the innovative use of spatial balance and inclusion of copious amounts of symbolism, the “Funerary Stele of Tembu” successfully brings light to ancient Egyptian culture by demonstrating the value of tradition, commemoration of important people after death, and the necessity of documenting such events. Simply observing this piece full of both technical and artistic cleverness provides much insight on the lifestyles and mindsets of ancient Egyptians of the New Kingdom. Image and Sources
1. The description at the museum
3. http://www.mariejobinet.com/22/the-egyptian-funerary-stele-of-tembu- walters-art-museum-baltimore-md/