August 26 is National Dog Day, and our canine-loving readers out there will appreciate this month’s Ugly Object pick, a terracotta dog figurine from Karanis, Egypt. This previously painted ceramic pup was discovered in 1935, and its original function remains something of a mystery. We can all agree though that it in the 2,000 years since its manufacture (probably in a three-part mold), this figurine has preserved much of its original charm.
In fact, you’re probably wondering how this critter made our Ugly Object cut. If you’re able to look past the cute collar and curly tail, you’ll see a pair of highly skeptical-looking incised eyes — one of which has a brow that is ever so slightly raised. It’s a look not unlike the one I get from my toddler when I offer him asparagus. This adorable dog is … Discerning? Disgruntled? Maybe sleep-deprived?
Another mystery to ponder.
I learned about this and other canines in the Kelsey collection from Terry Wilfong’s catalog for his 2015 exhibition Death Dogs, which is available on the Kelsey website as a free PDF download, along with many more digitized publications.
This month’s Ugly Object is a recurring character. I’ll give you some clues: he’s short, bearded, and has prominent ears. He looks a little grumpy, but deep down he’s a really good guy. He’ll go to bat for you in times of need — especially if you’re an expectant mom or a young child.
By now I’m sure you’ve figured out who I’m talking about. He’s the one and only Bes!
The terracotta Bes featured this month was pointed out to me in the galleries by Scott Meier, who heads the Kelsey’s exhibition department. Scott knows the collection well, and when I asked him what he thought of this particular Bes he remarked, “It is beautiful in its ugliness.” I couldn’t agree more. Sure, this Bes is missing an ear and a chunk of his feathered crown has popped off, and I dare anyone who isn’t a scholar of Graeco-Roman Egypt to identify the lumpy thing he’s holding in his hands (I checked our database, where it’s described as a club or some sort of instrument). But despite these issues, the object is undeniable in its Bes-ness. Like most Bes figurines, this one faces forward. He looks you straight in the eye as if to say, “Yeah, I’m Bes, and I’m bringing some power to this situation, whatever it might be. So get used to it!” Bes is direct. I like that. He is definitely the sort of deity I would want in my corner.
Come pay Bes a visit at the Kelsey. You’ll find him in our first-floor galleries, across from the Karanis house case.
Guess what, everyone?! We have a new exhibition going up right now: Ancient Color. Co-curated by my conservation compatriot Carrie Roberts, it features one her favorite Egyptian gods. Yes, you guessed it, HARPOCRATES RETURNS!
If you read this blog series with any regularity you will know that Carrie has a thing for Harpocrates. And it’s not because he’s really, really good-looking. Although when you know a little bit about him, you’d think he would be. Son of Isis (who we all know is gorgeous) and Horus (not bad if you’re into birds), he symbolizes the newborn sun (nice, right?). He also has magical healing and protective powers, exerted especially on behalf of women and children. This all sounds pretty great, and yet if you wanted a figurine of this god for your house (who wouldn’t?), it would look like this:
Yes, obviously this has seen better days. But imagine it with all the paint still on it! It would be very colorful, but would you really want to look at it every day? I know I wouldn’t, but figurines like this were very popular in Roman Egypt.
Carrie likes this figurine because she is crazy for ancient paint. But I’m not going to tell you about the traces of paint on this little guy, because that would spoil your Ancient Color exhibition experience.
I like this figurine for a different reason: it makes me contemplate two different but equally intriguing possibilities. One: that my decorative taste is very different from that of the typical Roman Egyptian. Would I have hated their interior decorating schemes? I feel like I would have, but I like to imagine what they’d have looked like, all the same. Two: that figurines like this — which were mass-produced by pressing clay into molds, firing the figurines, and then slapping on some paint (I have never seen one of these that was carefully painted) — were meaningful regardless of how they looked. The magical powers of this figurine are not dependent on beauty, in other words. Harpocrates can be messily made and slapdashily painted, and still heal your snake bites. He doesn’t have to look good to take care of business.
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Learn more about this figurine by visiting the Kelsey’s new exhibition Ancient Color, here in Ann Arbor beginning February 8, or anytime online.
I’m going to open this month’s Ugly Object blog post by echoing a sentiment expressed by many of our readers: beauty (or lack thereof) is in the eye of the beholder, and not every Ugly Object is ugly to everyone. In fact, “ugly” is not the first word I would use to describe July’s pick, a small jug (or juglet) in the form of the head of Dionysus.
When I gaze into this vessel’s mold-formed visage, the first thought that enters my mind is actually, “How cool is that?” Perhaps this comes from the fact that I am a huge fan of things that look like other things but function as the simple thing that they are. There are other examples of this in the Kelsey collection (many of them ceramic, a material so easily pressed into any shape), my favorite being a little date-shaped vessel that’s got all the wrinkly impressions of the desiccated fruit. This juglet’s maker took it a step further in creating a vessel that embodies in both form and modeling the square-jawed masculinity (and rather surly expression) of Dionysus. Who wouldn’t have enjoyed pouring wine straight from the head of the god of wine himself? Or eating fish off a fish plate, only to discover an illusion of more fish in the decorative scheme of the dish underneath? Perhaps I am too easy to please, but these clever little details never fail to delight me.
The Dionysus juglet will be traveling to Dearborn next spring, where you can see it on display at the Alfred Berkowitz Gallery at University of Michigan-Dearborn. Be sure to pay the juglet a visit if you are there!
This month’s Ugly Object is a familiar character — assuming you know your Romano-Egyptian child deities. That’s right folks, Harpocrates is back. Only this time, he’s taken the form of a baby bust.
The bust was found in one of the ancient houses of Karanis in 1926, and I have to say, it’s really captured my fancy. I love many things about this Harpocrates. First and foremost is that it’s a bust. You see a lot of marble portraits in this format, but it’s cool to see this miniaturized and translated into terracotta (very meta). I also love the shaved head with the intricate side lock (a Harpocrates signifier, but also — dare I say it? — very edgy!). And finally, I love the face. To me it’s a curious cross between a sweet baby face and a wise old sage, not unlike the strange depictions of the baby Jesus we sometimes see in medieval panel paintings.
You can see this version of Harpocrates in The Art and Science of Healing starting February 10. I’m sorry to report that the colorful Harpocrates featured in October will not be going on display after all. But there will be many other fascinating artifacts on view, including medical manuscripts, amulets to ward off sciatica and stomachache, and more. Definitely come check it out!