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MC14.2 Aegyptiaca in early modern Europe and the phenomenon of Egyptomania

Aegyptiaca in early modern Europe and the phenomenon of Egyptomania

Coordination: Joachim Friedrich Quack


table centrepiece © courtesy of the "Hessische Hausstiftung, Schlossmuseum Darmstadt"

table centrepiece © courtesy of the "Hessische Hausstiftung, Schlossmuseum Darmstadt"

Related to the central theme, the subproject concentrated on “Egyptomania” in Europe. This phenomenon can chiefly be considered as the reception and recreation of ancient Egyptian objects of art. For that purpose the case study of a royal work of art crafted in Berlin in 1803 was a golden opportunity to unfold perfectly the idea of “materialising memories”:

From 2012 to 2015 Dr. Friederike Werner had the mandate to investigate the history and meaning of a royal table centrepiece which is kept in the Schlossmuseum Darmstadt. The research results are published in October 2016: Ägyptomanie in Preußen – Die Tafelskulptur zur Hochzeit im Königshaus 1804. The book is published by VDG – Verlag und Datenbank für Geisteswissenschaften Weimar.

Based on this masterpiece the monograph unfolds the mechanisms and ideas behind the movement of so-called “Egyptomania” in early modern Europe. The book deciphers the multilayered enigmatic and profound train of thoughts that led to commission and design of the masterpiece, whose initiator was Frederick William III., King of Prussia. The path into the peculiar and unexpected perception of the royal idea is spread in detail. – In reference to the approach of the research assignment the work revealed a magnificent and undreamt revenue.

The centrepiece of black and gilded bronze and white opaque glass is a salient example of Egyptomania. It does not include any ancient Egyptian object; instead, it refers to different prototypes, places, epochs and ideas and also mirrors the mental image and state of knowledge of ancient Egypt in the years around 1800. Before the scientific exploration of Egypt and the significant transfer of ancient artefacts during the 19th century, it was common practice to refer to principal works as prototypes for the creation of Egyptianising objects.

Artists were concentrated on well-known guiding themes such as Apis, Canopus, Antinoos, sphinxes, lions, obelisks or hieroglyphic texts, as described by ancient authors and depicted in illustrated publications. The imagination of ancient authors as well as copies and variations of Roman Egyptianising artefacts are present as well. Likewise, the use of contemporary sources (Vivant Denon, Voyage dans la basse et la haute Égypte, 1802) led to an approximately accurate rendition of ancient Egyptian models in several details.

All these ideas find echo in this centrepiece. It was placed at the spousal banquet of Prince William, brother of King Frederick William III., and Princess Marianne of Hesse-Homburg. The publication elucidates the stated ideas of the King as well as the surprising and specific coherence to the wedding in January 1804.

Beyond all these facts new meanings came to light. The denotations complement and depend on each other. They correlate likewise to paragons and ideas of several centuries and media. In this kaleidoscope of memories, references are assembled to Greek and Roman authors as well as to classical monuments, to Egyptian themes of Early Modern Age, to 18th century Freemasonry, to the knowledge of Egypt to around 1800 and to art theory of the time.

On this base multiple scenes and tales become accessible and visible to the guests at the spousal banquet. A centrepiece is an object of dialogue. Therefore, the last chapter of the book offers and presents ten potential conversations that lead into different courses but harmonize among themselves. For example, there is talk about the following items: the poetic transformation of divine images, the mysteries of Isis, initiations, scenes of opera, ideas of Pythagoras and of the order of secrecy at the royal court. – And all this potentially is only the beginning of a much more profound movement!



Joachim Friedrich Quack

Group members

Friederike Werner