British Museum blog

London, a world city in 20 objects: Shiva Nataraja, the god Shiva dancing in a ring of flames

Shiva NatarajaRichard Blurton, British Museum

Shiva Nataraja

Shiva Nataraja

Fine bronze sculptures of the gods of Hinduism were produced in the Chola period in southern India for use as processional images. These portable representations of the gods could be taken from the temple, dressed and decked with garlands, and then paraded through the streets, enabling all to have a beneficial view of them. Within the temple itself, images of the Hindu deities, such as Vishnu, Shiva and Durga, were venerated in images of stone and these never left the sanctuary. However, bronze images, such as this one of Shiva, Lord of the Dance, could easily be carried on platforms and paraded through the streets by devotees. Processions carrying such images and with many thousands of participants, are still a feature of south Indian temple festivals in towns such as Madurai and Chidambaram.

Lord Shiva is depicted in this famous dance form as the deity at the extremes of time, the lord who crushes ignorance underfoot and who ushers out one cycle of existence and dances in a new one. In Indian lore, time is cyclical and made up of endless iterations and this image shows the god at the end of one cycle and the beginning of the next.

The dance of Shiva at this moment of dissolution and of creation, is conceived of as full of wild movement. The dreadlocks of the god (usually discreetly tied up on top of his head) fly out unchecked around him, providing some indication of the fury of his circular dance – though one foot is, nevertheless held up for his devotees to shelter beneath. The flame he holds in his upper left hand represents the destruction at the end of one cycle, while the sound of the drum in his upper right brings in the new cycle. Not for nothing has this image of the god, full of cosmic symbolism, become the one that people internationally associate with Hinduism.

This was first published in the London Evening Standard on 22 November 2012.

The Shiva Nataraja is on display in Room 33: China, South Asia and Southeast Asia

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Pigment and power dressing in Roman Egypt

Limestone sculpture of Horus from Roman EgyptElisabeth R. O’Connell, curator, British Museum

‘That’s one weird looking bird,’ grinned an American student on one of my tours of the Ancient Egypt and Sudan Department study collection for university students last year.

And to Egyptology students he is. And to students of Classical Archaeology too. But that’s rather the point. Roman Egypt (30 BC-AD 642) witnessed some of the most interesting, innovative and transformative combinations of traditions in the ancient world.

The god sits casually on his throne, one sandal-clad foot forward, his knees apart and draped in a garment. From the waist down, he could be any of a number of senior Olympian deities, or Roman emperors masquerading as such. He wears a feathered mail armour shirt that ends just above his elbows. His arms, now broken off, would have held symbols of power, perhaps an orb and sceptre. His cloak, pushed back over his shoulders, is fastened with a circular broach. From the waist up, his costume belongs to military deities and, especially, Roman emperors, who were also worshipped in temples dedicated to them throughout the empire. The head, however, places us firmly in an Egyptian context.

Limestone sculpture of Horus from Roman Egypt

Limestone sculpture of Horus from Roman Egypt

It’s Horus, the sun god and divine representative of the living king in ancient Egyptian tradition. His head is that of a falcon, rendered in naturalistic style with the bird’s distinctive facial markings articulated by the carving and also traces of paint. His eyes, however, are strangely human; instead of being placed on the sides of the head, like any ‘real’ bird, they are frontal, and his incised pupils tilt his gaze upward. In an imaginative turn, the feathers of the falcon’s neck blend into the scales of the mail shirt. In the top of his head is a hole, into which a (probably metal) crown once fit.

Big Bird, as I think of him, has been off public display since 1996 when the gallery he was formerly displayed in was reconfigured to create the Great Court. Since I arrived at the Museum in 2007, he’s been the culmination of my tours for university students, giving us the opportunity to explore cultural identity through different kinds of objects from Roman Egypt. We look at magical papyri written in Egyptian and Greek, with some of the Egyptian words written in Old Coptic, that is, the Egyptian language written in Greek script. Why the glosses of Egyptian words in Greek script? Because in magical spells it was very important to say the words correctly or else the spell wouldn’t work. And Greek script, unlike Egyptian, represented the vowels ensuring that the words said aloud were accurately pronounced at a time when literacy in Egyptian scripts was on the wane. We also look at mummy portraits belonging firmly in the Roman tradition of individualised commemorative portraiture, but made for the specific purpose of placing over the face of a mummy, a feature that belongs unmistakably to Egyptian funerary practice. We see the same combination of traditions in this limestone sculpture of Horus and other contemporary depictions.

The opportunity to get the sculpture on public display arose last year when the Gayer-Anderson cat was scheduled to travel to Paris, then Shetland, for exhibition. Big Bird would get his very own case at the top of a ramp, amid other sculpture more readily identifiable as ‘Egyptian’ in the British Museum Egyptian Sculpture Gallery.

While preparing the display, we also had a chance to identify some of the pigments that are apparent to the naked eye: his yellow arms, black pupils and ‘eye-liner,’ garments in two different shades of green, and his red and black throne. Using an innovative imaging technique, we were also able to detect the pigment used for his armour, and it turned out to be one of the most valued pigments of the ancient world, Egyptian blue.

The image on the right was taken with an infrared camera. The bright white areas show where traces of ‘Egyptian blue’ pigment survive

The image on the right was taken with an infrared camera. The bright white areas show where traces of ‘Egyptian blue’ pigment survive

Although no longer apparent to the naked eye, it shows up in visible-induced luminescence imaging by British Museum scientist, Joanne Dyer. In addition to the strange (to us) combination of Graeco-Roman-Egyptian elements, he would also have been rather garishly painted.

A colour reconstruction based on pigment analysis suggests how the statue originally may have looked

A colour reconstruction based on pigment analysis suggests how the statue originally may have looked

Horus – I should really stop thinking of him as Big Bird – will not go back into the study collection when the Gayer-Anderson cat returns, but instead join a touring exhibition on the Roman Empire which will give visitors to the exhibition in locations including Bristol, Norwich and Coventry, that is, in former Roman Britain, an opportunity to see a selection of objects from Antinoupolis and other cities from the former empire’s southern frontier, Roman Egypt.

For their collaboration and enthusiasm, I thank Joanne Dyer, Tracey Sweek, Michelle Hercules, Antony Simpson, Susan Holmes, Paul Goodhead, Robert Frith, Evan York, Emily Taylor and Kathleen Scott from the American Research Center in Egypt.

The sculpture of Horus will be on display until 10 December 2012, in Room 4

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