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Studi Poliziani di Egittologia 1

ARTISTS
AND PAINTING
IN ANCIENT EGYPT

Edited by
Valérie Angenot and Francesco Tiradritti

Montepulciano 2016
This article will appear in:

Angenot, Valérie, and Francesco Tiradritti. Eds. 2016. Artists and Colour in ancient
Egypt, Proceedings of the colloquium held in Montepulciano, August 22nd – 24th, 2008,
Studi Poliziani di Egittologia 1, Montepulciano: Missione Archeologica Italiana a Luxor.
ISBN 978-88-908083-0-2.

The paging is only provisional and will change on the printed version.
THE USE OF COLOR IN EGYPTIAN STATUARY

Loredana Sist
Sapienza Università di Roma

Though in the late 1700s scholars were aware of the multicolored hues of Greek and
Roman sculpture, color was considered a minor, insignificant aspect of these creations.
This inclination towards homogeneity dates back to the theories of Winckelmann,
for whom ultimate beauty was the whiteness and purity of marble. The most famous
pieces conform to the classical ideal of beauty, the ascendancy of form enhanced by the
pure translucence of white marble. Apparently, though, that is not exactly how it was.
A recent traveling exhibition, originated at Munich's Glyptothek, entitled in
Italy “I colori del bianco. Mille anni di colore nella scultura antica”, has demonstrated
that the use of brilliant pigments to paint statues, walls and buildings was routine.1
A series of groundbreaking examinations employing polarizing and scanning electron
microscopy, infrared spectroscopy and ultraviolet light have documented the true colors
of antiquity. Shortly after the pieces were carved they were painted either completely
or in part.
That was consistent with Egyptian practice, and the several surviving painted
examples spread all over the world, visible in museums and collections, have accustomed
us to consider Egyptian sculpture generally as painted, even if today most of this paint
has weathered away. Anyhow we are still unable - I think - to imagine the impact of
color when we have to deal with colossal architecture and sculpture, and our taste is
far away from the bright and intensely colorful world of ancient Egyptians.

Considering Egyptian colors, so well known through innumerable reliefs and


paintings which decorated the walls of temples, tombs and palaces, on which an
extended bibliography is available,2 we could think that their application on sculptured
pieces was a simple imitation of reality. This was probably the case of some limestone
statues, which were conceived as ka of the dead, and were usually intended to be placed
into closed spaces, not at all visible (in the serdab for instance).
Egyptian art is always functional and never decorative, so the aim of these images
was the creation of an exact copy of reality, a double of the real. But in many other
cases, as we shall see, colors do not correspond to reality and their use was obviously
connected to other meanings: for example, in the case of images, especially of a royal
type, that were destined to be exposed in cult and funerary areas, the presence of color
had to do with the kind of stone, the symbolic meaning of color and the purpose of the
statue in the context in which it was settled. Several significances are then interlaced
and the understanding is not so easy and cannot be taken for granted.
I will try now synthetically to underline the factors which play a role in painted
statuary. First of all color.

1 Liverani 2004.
2 For example Baines 1985; Baines 2001; Colinart - Menu 1998; Tefnin 1997; Davies 2001; Tiradritti 2007.
20 LOREDANA SIST
The range of colors used is the same that we find on reliefs and I am not going to
analyze this aspect, on which eminent scholars have written a lot. I just would like to
draw attention to some few images and particularities. For example, the color generally
used to decorate the narrow central slit of the door from which, in Old Kingdom private
tombs, the deceased is represented striding forward to receive offerings is usually
orange, exactly the same color that we find in false-doors.3 We would expect a dark
color for the background of a statue appearing from the afterlife, such as sometimes
appears in niches;4 the orange instead suggests a bright and colorful world full of light,
a combination of red, which has solar meanings, and gold/yellow, which evokes the
brightness of the sun.5
I wonder if the red/orange color of a famous and enigmatic Old Kingdom image,
the bust of prince Ankh-haf dated to the 4th Dynasty, could have a similar meaning.
The statue was created as a bust and presents an incredibly realistic rendering of
individual traits.6 Quoting Dunham,7 “it was covered with a coating of red color of the
tone normally used to represent the flesh of men. The man is without a wig, but the
outlines of the hair are clearly indicated and show that he had a tendency to baldness.
This area also is colored red, contrary to normal practice, but whether because the
usual over-painting of black was never added, or for some less obvious reason, is not
clear. The eyes were originally white with dark pupils, but their colors have now faded
so as to be only faintly visible.” As Bolshakov has already pointed out,8 the color we
actually see is not the original: at some point “it was heavily retouched to reduce the
troubling unevenness of color”; anyhow, what is surprising is the uniform paint even
on the hair, as if the deceased was completely surrounded by the afterlife light such
as in false-doors. The connection with the false-doors statues has been discussed by
Bolshakov who proposes a reconstruction of the original setting of Ankh-haf’s bust
similar to Idu’s image in his tomb in Giza or to Nefer-seshem-ptah in his tomb in
Saqqara.
Black is the color used especially in Old Kingdom for bases, dorsal slabs and
sometimes also seats. It is the color of soil and was naturally connected with the idea
of land. The parts that represent the empty space between the body and the arms or
the legs, which, as we know, were usually not cut away, are painted the same color as
the background, as if this could be really seen, or they are painted black. In this case
black is probably referring to the dark color of the shadow.
White was used as a sort of neutral hue in some New Kingdom images to
emphasize particular details or texts.9 Painters were very careful about details; they
usually preferred the contrast of colors, leaving out the use of tinges. However, some
slight allusion to the use of half-tones can be traced.
The second factor that must be considered is the material used in the manufacture
of statues.10 In fact the application of paint depends on the kind of stone: soft stones,
such as limestone and sandstone, are generally completely painted; hard and dark

3  See for instance Mereruka’s image in his mastaba in Saqqara; the false-doors in Meref-nebef’s and in Kagemni’s
tombs; the New Kingdom red granite false-doors from Puyemra’s tomb in Thebes.
4  For example in Iru-ka-ptah’s tomb at Saqqara.
5  Pinch 2001, 184.
6  See Assman 1996, 55-57.
7  See Dunham 1929.
8  See Bolshakov 1991, note 19.
9  See for example the Old Kingdom seated statue of Hetep-ni in the Egyptian Museum of Berlin, 1/83; the New
Kingdom statues of Si-aset from Thebes again in the Egyptian Museum of Berlin, 2314, and of Amen-em-ipet
from Deir el-Medina in the Egyptian Museum of Turin, Cat. 3038.
10 See Baines 2000.
THE USE OF COLOR IN EGYPTIAN STATUARY 21
stones, such as granite, basalt, greywacke and quartzite, present a limited use of color
just to highlight physiognomic details (eyes, mouth, hair, beard) and ornamental parts
(jewels, dresses, insignia). The flesh instead, has the color of the bare stone. Precious
stones which present veins and translucent surfaces, such as alabaster, diorite, and
gneiss, except for a few details, are normally left unpainted.11 Steatite statues are not
painted but instead are covered by a turquoise or blue glaze. Wooden12 and metal
statues (made out of copper, bronze, gold and silver) always present colorful details,
realized, of course, in different ways: painted on wooden surfaces;13 engraved or inlaid
with other metals or precious stones in metal figures.14
The use of color on limestone sculpture dates to the most ancient times and
continued until the Roman period either on royal or on private statues. When the
surface was properly smoothed and plastered, pigments made from naturally
occurring minerals were applied by mixing them with a medium such as plant gum
or animal glue.15 There are several combinations of colors to which gilded details were
often added, especially on royal statues. Reuterswärd16 has analyzed a lot of examples.
Even indurated limestone which now appears almost perfectly smooth and white was
originally painted.17
Speaking of white stones, alabaster has to be remembered. Its translucent surface
which has connections with the idea of light and life, is sometimes either decorated by
painted physiognomic details18 or embellished by precious inlaid stones and metals.
Sometime limestone was painted to imitate alabaster19 as in the Turin statue of
Amehotep I, whose skin is purposely depicted in white.20 The “reserve heads” are also
white: the general absence of color must have a special meaning in these enigmatic
monuments.
The use of paint in both royal and private statues made in hard stone, is documented
from the Old Kingdom. Color was applied only on some parts of the figure, usually on
face, ornaments, and dress21 and finally the surface was highly polished. Often the
contrast between unpolished and polished area,22 and the skillful use of stone veins can
be noticed.23 In some cases the unpolished areas were originally covered with a gold
leaf which constitutes the only colored detail, as on the statue of Queen Aset, mother

11 See the magnificent sphinx of Senusret III carved in a beautiful grained gneiss from the quarries of Nubia
(usually known as “Chefren’s diorite”) in the Metropolitan Museum of Art of New York, 17.9.2.
12 Davis 1989, 17: “Wooden statues were often made in pieces, and there may be some essential conceptual difference
between stone sculptures extracted from a quarried block and wooden statues built up from separately turned
units”.
13 See the ebony statuette of Amenhotep III with gilding and with inlaid eyes and eyebrows in the Brooklyn
Museum of Art, 48.28; the Old Kingdom statuette of Metjetjy from Saqqara in the Brooklyn Museum of Art, 51.1.
See Kozloff, Bryan 1992, 132-135, note 28.
14 For example the gold statuette of Amun in the Metropolitan Museum of Art of New York, 26.7.1412.
15 Robins 2001, 9-18.
16 Reuterswärd 1958, 7-65.
17 We can remember queen Hatshepsut’s beautiful statue in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 29.3.2, or the
colossal group of Amun and Tutankhamun from Thebes in the Egyptian Museum of Turin, Cat. 768.
18 As in the fine hard white calcite statuette of Akhenaton from Amarna (Egyptian Museum of Berlin, 21835); or
on the lids of canopic jars from Tutankhamon’s tomb (Egyptian Museum of Cairo, JE 60687), and from KV 55
(Metropolitan Museum of Art, 30.8.54).
19 Reuterswärd 1958, 11 mentions some limestone back pillars imitating granite.
20 Egyptian Museum of Turin, Cat. 1372.
21 See the colossal quartzite statue of Tutankhamon in the Oriental Institute University of Chicago, OIM 14088; the
head of Amenhotep III wearing the Blue Crown in the Cleveland Museum of Art, 1952.513, with traces of gummy
pigments.
22 For example the Rameses II granite bust from Tanis in the Egyptian Museum of Cairo, CG 616.
23 As in the colossal granite statue of Rameses II in the British Museum, EA 19; or in the sandstone conglomerate
statue of Khaemwese in the British Museum, EA 947.
22 LOREDANA SIST
of Thutmose III, in the Egyptian Museum of Cairo, CG 42072, on the Amenhotep III
quartzite statue in the Museum of Egyptian Art of Luxor, and on Taharqo’s granite
head in the Egyptian Museum of Cairo, CG 560, which presents a rough part which
was probably covered with a veneer of gold.
Precious and rare colored stones were carved for images composed of several
elements, individually sculpted and assembled.24 This kind of material was preferred
for royal statues, but it became more and more diffused among private sculpture in
later times.
At this point it is clear that hard and dark stones were chosen for special reasons,
certainly not for the purpose of reproducing reality. Reuterswärd thinks that the reason
can be found in the symbolic meaning of colors.25 The most common are the solar
connections of red granite and quartzite and the fertility and regenerative properties
associated with black stones. But this is not the only and probably not the principal
reason. In these cases, in my opinion, the meaning of colors was less important than
the meaning of the stone itself. Dark stones are well known to be the most resistant
and durable, therefore the qualities of this kind of material were for the Egyptians the
real aim for the selection. Some Ramesside texts document the interest of the king in
choosing the right material for his images. Granite, diorite, basalt etc. were the most
suitable stones for creating long-lasting images, “monuments forever” as texts usually
define them.
If we consider, for example, the statuary of Thutmose III, collected by Dimitri
Laboury,26 we can note the large quantity of granite, diorite and schist statues in
comparison with the limestone and calcite ones. As Laboury has pointed out,27 details
dealing with jewels and insignia were often painted, and the inscriptions, as well, were
highlighted by the use of color (yellow, green, blue and red). Some of these details are
still visible on the beautiful red granite sphinx of Hatshepsut in the Egyptian Museum
of Berlin, ÄM 2299. Moreover, there is another point that could have influenced the
selection of a particular kind of material that must be considered, and to which we will
come back soon: it is the context in which a statue was placed. This is an aspect that
cannot be forgotten when we deal with sculpture, generally considered as a unique and
isolated object.
The durability of hard stones was at the basis of the selection, as we have said,
and this was considered the main quality also in the Late Period when a great deal
of royal and private statues were made out of these materials. Magic and religious
interpretations are often proposed to justify the choice, neglecting other aspects such
as, for instance, artistic needs in satisfying the wishes and taste of clients.
The series of “green and black heads”, so called because of their color, were
associated by Reuterswärd with the idea of portraying the person as an Osiris. The
question seems to me a little more complex. All these heads originally belonged to
complete statues, now lost. The body was usually carved in a traditional and idealized
manner, as you can see for instance in the Ptolemaic statues of Hor-sa-tutu (Egyptian
Museum of Berlin, ÄM 2271), Hor-sa-hor (Egyptian Museum of Cairo, CG 697) and

24 See the colossal alabaster statue of Seti I in the Museum of Egyptian Art of Luxor, CG 42139; the Middle
Kingdom chlorite head of a queen in the Brooklyn Museum of Art, 56.85; the obsidian royal head from Karnak
in the Egyptian Museum of Cairo, CG 42101; Nefertiti’s quartzite head from Memphis in the Egyptian Museum
of Cairo, JE 45547; the yellow jasper fragmentary lower part of the face of a queen in the Metropolitan Museum
of Art, 26.7.1396.
25 Reuterswärd 1958, 55-56.
26 See Laboury 1998.
27 Laboury 1998, 449-451.
THE USE OF COLOR IN EGYPTIAN STATUARY 23
Panemerit (Egyptian Museum of Cairo, CG 27493 + Louvre Museum, E 15683); the
heads, instead, were personalized.28 A taste for realistic modeling of features emerged
– we can speak in these cases of real portraits - and for this purpose hard and dark
stones gave the possibility to work in a more incisive manner; surfaces could be
highly polished; physiognomic characteristics could be better underlined through the
contrast between light and shadow. The fact is that dark stones have a consistency
and a “thickness” unknown to white matte stones and these qualities seem to have
been preferred in the Late Period when attention to the smoothness and brilliance of
modeling reached new heights.29

Of course we cannot forget that also the color of stones has to be considered. The
meaning of color is the third aspect that must be analyzed.
Looking at statuary we can note that some images present paints which have
no correspondence with reality. Color, then, has the specific purpose of emphasizing
a particular meaning. The most famous example can be seen in the seated sandstone
statue of Mentuhotep II in heb-sed costume, found by Carter in a deep shaft in the
forecourt of his mortuary temple at Deir el-Bahari, and now housed in the Egyptian
Museum of Cairo, JE 36195. The skin is painted black because of the special Osiriac
character of the image, which was found linen-wrapped as a mummy, and the shaft
itself is thought to have been originally intended as the king's tomb but subsequently
converted to a symbolic cenotaph.
We are going to start with red, which already in protodynastic times was thought
to have apotropaic values:30 traces of red are still visible on the mane of a limestone
lion from Koptos, now in the Ashmolean Museum Oxford; the color strengthens the
protective role usually played by the image of the lion.31
Sometimes, in the absence of paint, a material naturally colored with that specific
color was chosen, so we find lion statues and some sphinxes made out of red granite.32
Some baboons, defined “you are Ra, the baboon lord of carnelian” in Edfu texts (IV,39,5;
V,27,1-2), are also red. The fury of the baboon was well known to Egyptians and was
considered a good defence against the enemies of the sun god; therefore red quartzite
was preferred for New Kingdom baboon statues.33 Traces of red paint are found on
other baboon statues34 and red granite was used for the New Kingdom groups.35
Red is the color of the image of Hathor as a cow suckling the king in the
statue once housed in a chapel in the funerary temple of Thutmose III in Deir

28 See Bothmer 1960, 138-140.


29 See the granite statue of vizier Hori from Thebes dated to the Third Intermediate Period in the Egyptian
Museum of Cairo, JE 37512; the greywacke statue of Amenemipet-em-hat dated to the Saite Period in the
Metropolitan Museum of Art, 24.2.2; the so called Dattari statue in diorite in the Brooklyn Museum of Art,
52.89, dated to the 30th Dynasty.
30 On the symbolism of red in magic see Pinch 2001, p. 184.
31 The beautiful Old Kingdom pottery lion from Hierakonpolis, this, too, housed in the Ashmolean Museum (E.
189), is also red.
32 The recumbent lion of the Old Kingdom from Herakleopolis Magna in the Metropolitan Museum of Art,
2000.485; the recumbent lions of Amenhotep III from Soleb in the British Museum, EA 1-2; the sphinx of
Hatshepsut from Deir el-Bahari in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 31.3.166, in red granite with traces of blue
and yellow paint.
33 For example for the baboon statue now in the British Museum, EA 38, and the colossal dark quartzite baboon
statues belonging to the reign of Amenhotep III found in Hermopolis, erected now in the open-air museum. See
Kozloff - Bryan 1992, 227-228.
34 Bosticco - Rosati, 2005, 219-225.
35  See for example the group from Memphis now in Kunsthistorisches Museum of Vienna, inv. 5782.
24 LOREDANA SIST
el-Bahari (Fig. 1).36 The temple was dedicated by Thutmose III but the statue
bears the name of Thutmose’s successor, Amenhotep II. The protective value of
the image and of the red color is clear: the cow is protecting the sovereign who
stands against her breast, while she suckles the infant king shown crouching
to the left. The color of the head is weathered, but it looks as if it was originally
painted blue. In this case it would be interesting to remember some amulets of
the goddess depicted with a blue head.37 I would like to draw attention also to the
area representing the empty space between the legs: it is painted blue, the color
of the sky, the natural background of this cow, since she is a heavenly goddess.
The skin of the pharaoh, identified with Osiris, is instead completely painted in
black (Fig. 1).
Red granite was used for a similar image housed in the Egyptian Museum of
Florence, inv. n. 5419, depicting the heavenly cow and king Horemheb.
The hippopotamus goddess Taweret, when depicted in her aggressive and
protective character towards mother and child during childbirth, is painted in red.38
Red breccia was instead used as a substitute of color in the statue of the Late Period in
the British Museum, EA 35700.
The same animal appears also painted in blue or turquoise when its beneficent
aspects connected with water, life and regeneration are intended. Blue and green are
often interchangeable so it is not surprising to find a Late Period image of the goddess
carved in a dark green schist.39
Blue is the color of lapis lazuli which is connected with divineness: Hathor but
also Osiris and Horus are called xsbd-tp;40 the hair and beards of gods are usually
depicted in blue.41 Colors which imitate those of lapis lazuli and turquoise have of
course the same meaning of these two stones. Bright blue is the color of the glazed
cap of the god Ptah, on a gold covered statuette belonging to Tuthankamon’s funerary
equipment,42 and of a model faïence wig for a royal statue dated to the New Kingdom.43
Instead, the color of turquoise is connected with maternity and life values (mna.t
n.t mfkA.t “nurse of turquoise” is an epithet in Dendera texts)44 and is used for the glazed
images of Isis suckling Horus.
What we can say at this point is that often colors are substitutes for stones,
minerals and precious metals.45 Color becomes the material itself and produces
the same effects again.46 Color communicates fundamental values to the image and
contributes to transforming it into a living image.

The last aspect that must be considered in our examination of painted statuary is

36 Egyptian Museum of Cairo, JE 38574-5; warm thanks are due to Mr. Franco Lovera for this picture.
37 Aufrère 1991 I, 123.
38 Traces of red pigment are visible on the New Kingdom calcite head in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1997.375,
and on the wooden statuette from Deir el-Medina now in the Egyptian Museum of Turin, Cat. 526.
39 Egyptian Museum of Cairo, CG 39194.
40 Aufrère 1991, II, 478-480.
41 Lapis lazuli together with turquoise is present in daily offerings and in embalming rituals: see Sauneron 1952,
22.
42 Egyptian Museum of Cairo, JE 60739.
43 British Museum, EA 2280. See also the cult image of the god Ptah in lapis lazuli dated to the Third Intermediate
Period in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2007.24.
44 Aufrère 1991, II, 501.
45 Schorsch 2001, 55-71.
46 We find gilded details for example in the Prince Ahmose limestone statue, now in the Louvre Museum, E 15682,
or yellow details with the same meaning of gold on the ram head of Amun in a private limestone statue from
Deir el-Medina, now in the Egyptian Museum of Turin, C 3032. See Daumas 1956; Aufrère 1998, 33-34.
THE USE OF COLOR IN EGYPTIAN STATUARY 25

Fig. 1: Chapel with the Hathor cow


Painted limestone - Temple of Thutmose III at Deir el-Bahari
Egyptian Museum of Cairo, JE 38574-5 (Photo: G. lovera)
26 LOREDANA SIST
the context in which statues were placed. A distinction should be made between royal
and private sculpture: they had different purpose and were also differently connected
with the architectonic structure. Private statuary was carved essentially for funerary
placement and never reaches colossal dimensions. When introduced in a templar
context hard stones were preferred. Royal images are instead often of big dimensions
and some of them were purposely conceived with architectonic significance. The
buildings to which they were destined influenced the selection of the materials and
the dimensions.47 We know for example that red granite and quartzite were more used
for statues placed in open courts. Granite and dark stones were instead more used for
images created on occasion of heb-sed festivals.
Light backgrounds were necessary for dark statues, as for instance the granite
images of Ramesess II in front of the pylon of the temple of Luxor and of the Ramesseum.
The colossal limestone group of Amenhotep III and his family in the Egyptian Museum
of Cairo and the limestone statue of Rameses II in Mitrahineh were probably painted.
And what about the statues of Amenhotep III still standing at the entrance of his lost
funerary temple at Thebes West, or the images carved on the façade of Abu Simbel
temple? Were they painted and why? It is of course difficult for us to imagine such
strongly colored monuments but we cannot assume a priori that our view is exactly
what ancient viewers themselves perceived48 and “the important thing is not so much
how the color differences are perceived ... as what the colors mean".49 As Tefnin has
pointed out: “il appartiendrait à l’histoire de l’art de devenir le lieu d’une analyse en
profondeur des mécanismes de la signification, puis d’un déchiffrement systématique
de la documentation imagée, en fonction d’une pluralité de niveaux de lecture”.50

47 On distortions due to perspective see Laboury 2008, 181.


48 See Baines 1990; Thompson, 1995, passim; Passoni Dell’Acqua 1998, 90-92.
49 Sahlins 1976.
50 Tefnin 1979, 244.
THE USE OF COLOR IN EGYPTIAN STATUARY 27
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