22: An Egyptian Bronze Oxyrhynchus Fish, ex-Christie's
This is one of the most remarkable representations I have ever seen of the Oxyrhynchus fish. The animal is depicted in its typical form, with a distinctive elongated, downturned snout and equally distinctive bifurcated tail. The fish is wearing a headdress with frontal uraeus, surmounted by a solar disc between cow's horns, the crown of the goddess Hathor, to whom the fish was sacred. The animal has a suspension loop behind and a long, thin dorsal fin which terminates in the tail. Its deeply recessed eyes were possibly once inlaid. The fish is perched on a sled, attached by means of the lower fins, tail and curved end of the base where it joins the mouth. The whole statuette has a rectangular base with two tangs for attachment.
There are two features that makes this representation so special. First there is a stunningly beautiful detailing of the animal's skin. The scales are very finely incised; it has been suggested that in view of this quality, the body of the fish may have been gilded. Equally well detailed are the collar, the gills and striations on the top and tail fins.
And the other feature, something that I have never seen before on any of the Oxyrhynchos fishes I have ever come across, is the pair of long-bodied cobras accompanying the fish, one on either side. These snakes, the head erect and showing their fully puffed-up hood, both wear a crown: one the white crown of Upper Egypt and the other the red crown of Lower Egypt. This identifies them as Nekhbet and Wadjet, the protecting goddesses of the two parts of the country. Originally these were seen as a vulture and a snake, but because of their similar functions they could also be shown in similar shape, especially as cobras. Quite remarkable to encounter them here in the presence of the Oxyrhynchos fish!
For an Oxyrhynchos fish with comparable detailing, however without the sled and without the accompanying cobras see Christie's London, sale 7017 of 26 - 27 October 2004, lot 135, which was auctioned for GBP 4,780 (then the equivalent of US$ 8,800).
Background information: The ancient Upper Egyptian town Per-Medjed (modern el-Bahnasa) was the capital of the 19th Upper Egyptian nome. It was called Oxyrhynchos Polis by the Greeks, which means "Town of the sharp-snouted fish". This refers to a species of fish that lived in the Nile and that, according to mythology, ate the penis / phallus of Osiris after the dismemberment of this god by his brother Seth. It has been debated which species of fish it is, and there is some consensus that it is a species of mormyrus.
According to Greek historian Plutarchos (1st-2nd century C.E.) the inhabitants of Oxyrhynchos and those of a neighbouring town called Kynopolis ("Town of the Dog") were engaged in hostilities because a person from the latter town ate a sacred fish, after which the inhabitants of Oxyrhynchos started catching and eating dogs; this resulted in a civil war which had to be ended by the Romans (De Iside et Osiride, 72).
Dating: Late Period, 26th - 30th dynasties (ca. 664 - 342 B.C.).
Size: length 12.3 cm, height 7.6 cm excluding tangs or 9 cm including tang; height including modern base 10.3 cm. Mounted on a modern wooden base.
For similar examples with a loop, balanced on a sled or an integral base, see: Arielle P. Kozloff, Animals in Ancient Art from the Leo Mildenberg Collection (Mainz am Rhein, Philipp von Zabern, 1981), fig. 60; Emma Brunner-Traut - Hellmut Brunner - Johanna Zick-Nissen, Osiris, Kreuz und Halbmond. Die Drei Religionen Ägyptens (Mainz am Rhein, Philipp von Zabern, 1984), fig. 16.
Provenance: Dutch private collection, purchased at Christie's London, sale 7814 of 27 November 1997, lot 163.
This lot will be sold not subject to a reserve. The starting price is the price at which the item can sell.
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There is a small area of restoration to the crown, mainly to the tips, and to the crown of one of the cobras. The statuette has been cleaned and treated for protection of the bronze, but the original encrustation has intentionally been left under the base.