Sphinx at the Brooklyn Museum (all photographs by the author)
To be feline is divine, or at least that’s the message we have from ancient Egypt. Cats are everywhere in Egyptian art, from the towering Great Sphinx of Giza to the small bronze cats with their pointed ears laced with gold hoops.
Last month, the Brooklyn Museum in New York opened a longterm exhibition called Divine Felines that celebrates the cat, drawing on the museum’s Egyptian collections, some on public view for the first time. It’s a relatively compact show, with 30 objects including mummy-holders, furniture pieces, and tiny bronzes, but gives a fascinating insight into this long celebration of the cat as a creature both feral and tamed, and mysterious and maternal.
The pieces in Divine Felines stretch over centuries from the 10th century AD to the First century BC, yet there’s a connection in using the cat as a symbol for fertility and protection, and giving the best of cat attributes to the gods. Below are some highlights from the exhibition.
This bronze seated cat from the Late Period Dynasty represents the goddess Bastet, who was at first shown as a lioness, but then later morphed into a figure more similar to a house cat. An interesting detail is that cats’ tails in Egyptian art would almost always be shown on their right, as in hieroglyphics people and animals always face to the right, so even in 3D this trait is guarded to keep the tail visible.
On the right, we have a cat with her kittens, referencing fertility. It’s hard to tell here, but one kitten is approaching its mother who has a very human smile across her face.
Cats with earrings aren’t too unfamiliar in ancient Egypt, but this bronze from the Roman Period has extra elaborate jewelry to reflect the style of the time. The scratches on the ears don’t just represent fur, but also mimic the hieroglyph for an ostrich feather, meaning truth and harmony.
This standing bronze of the goddess Bastet from the Ptolemaic Period shows her holding another god in her left hand, and in her right she once held a sistrum, a type of musical instrument. Yes, the human interest in cats playing instruments is not a recent thing.
This seated bronze sculpture of the goddess Wadjet from the Late Period once held a mongoose mummy. Wadjet was usually shown as a cobra, and as mongooses spend their lives as mortal enemies of snakes, there was frequent use of her figure as a holder for mongoose mummies, which seems a little cruel.
This is another mummy holder in the shape of a leonine goddess. It originally held a cat mummy, and likely was used as an offering to another feline goddess. The crouched pose references the netherworld and guardian demons.
The cats weren’t always female, as here we have a relief with the gods Tutu and Bes. The leonine Tutu on the left is shown with the seven demons he controls parading above him.
This lion-shaped waterspout was functional for channeling water, but was also meant to be a guardian of the building it was on, although the worried brow doesn’t give much of an intimidating front.
Lions had actually mostly left Egypt by pharaonic times due to climate change, but they were still popular in art. Here one at rest conveys power and confidence.
Divine Felines is a longterm exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum in New York.