title: “Visible Language”
author: “Alex Fatato”
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During my time at the Museum of Fine Arts, I chose to compare a Greek mixing bowl from 340 BC, and an Egyptian sheet of papyrus from 2350-2150 BC. The Greek mixing bowl is large - about 3 feet tell and a foot and a half wide. It is black with red and yellow drawings all over it. These drawings depict the story of the death of Thersites. Specifically, the bowl depicts the aftermath of his murder, by Achilles. Achilles sits in his pavilion while below, Thersites’s head rolls past his body. Interestingly, the mixing bowl was not meant to be functional. Instead, it is explained that the bowl was used as either a grave marker or a grave offering. It may be meant to celebrate the dead person’s life as he joins Achilles and other heroes in the Underworld. The sheet of Egyptian papyrus was labelled as a “Letter to the Dead”. This too was a sort of grave offering, the Egyptians believed that it was possible to communicate with the dead and ask for assistance. In this letter, the writer asks the dead to drive away a demon making the dead man’s child sick. He pleads, “Heal your child!”
Both of these artifacts communicate with pictures, but in very different ways. The Egyptian letter used hieroglyphics, and the Greek bowl simply illustration. The Egyptian is using his alphabet to beg for help, as someone close to them is very sick and not getting better. The mixing bowl seems to only be representative of honor, made by a skilled artisan. It is a beautiful piece of art and I can infer that it was pretty expensive to commission or create. These messages to the dead, one of honor, one of desperation, led me to consider the social class that the parties involved were in. Perhaps the family of the Egyptian man was suffering financially and could not afford to treat his son, and instead turned to his father - scrawling on a sheet of papyrus a plea. The family of the dead greek person were celebrating his life with an extravagant mixing bowl. The bowl depicts a scene from a story. Admittedly, I had no idea what the pictures represented before I read the explanation, but the same is true for the sheet of papyrus.
The two artifacts also got me thinking about how illustration can be used both to communicate and to express oneself (as art). The Egyptians’ hieroglyphics were by themselves illustrations, but together a language. The bowl, if “unrolled” and viewed as a rectangle, would depict one scene from a Greek myth. It is still a message, but perhaps maybe not one as straightforward or linear as the papyrus sheet. I suppose literacy is not required to understand the Greek bowl, however I still think it represents a higher social class than the writer of the papyrus sheet. These are two very different artifacts from two different places at two different times - both dealing with the crushing inevitability of mortality.