Kohl pot with openwork decoration

A pot to be used to hold cosmetics, carved with openwork decoration from two pieces of steatite, the container and the lid. Steatite is a soft metamorphic rock. This quality made it easy to use to fashion small amulets such as scarabs, and minute containers, but ones which were highly decorated. When the carving was completed the object was glazed, giving it a brilliant green turquoise finishing, quite different from the original white aspect.

The upper surface of the lid is decorated, while the underneath has a projection so that the lid fits snugly into the pot. A rosette decoration has been incised on the lid. This may be a lotus flower seen from above, from which come out ten stems with lotus flowers, some of which are open, and others still closed.

The lotus was one of the main territorial emblems of Egypt, alluding to Upper Egypt. The symbolic plant was represented as an offering to the gods; it was also an allusion to beauty, to life and to regeneration. A particular feature of the blue lotus was that this flower opened with the light at dawn and closed as night fell, to open at daybreak once again. This led to a strong association with the sun and cosmogonical stories. Sensual and erotic connotations are also present. It is common to find in Egyptian art depictions of people at banquets taking pleasure or being carried away by the magic of the perfume of these flowers. It is not surprising, therefore, that this type of dressing table objects should have such a decoration.

The pot has an inverted ovoid body with a pronounced mouth, a short neck and a wide flat lip. From the centre it has a circular orifice where liquid cosmetic can be introduced and stored. The external form is cylindrical, and the walls are incised with figurative openwork. One horizontal register runs around the vessel. Above and below this are two bands with diagonal marks, similar to a twine.

The most important figure in the register of decoration is a lion facing to the right. At its back we find again the image of a lotus flower. It faces two prisoners tied with their arms behind them. In line with Egyptian art and iconography, these prisoners could be Asian or Nubian, most probably the latter, given the type of hair depicted.

The image of a lion is common in Egyptian iconography to incarnate some deities and the king himself, who is often depicted hunting this feline as a way to represent domination over aggressive forces. It was a symbol of vigour, of regenerative powers as, when identified with the sun, it was born in the morning, died in the evening and this cycle was repeated every day. As a symbol of protection and powerful defence, it is represented on seats and beds to watch over the hours of rest of the owners. It is found as gargoyles on temples. The skin of this feline was also used for magical protective ends.

Behind the second prisoner, three lotus flowers blossom from a mound. The central one is erect while the other two are half bent over. The figures of a seated jackal and a falcon complete the scene. The jackal, which has a collar, is the representation of the deity Anubis, the guardian of tombs, associated with death and the afterlife, master of the necropolis and patron of embalmers. It was depicted with black skin, the colour of the discolouration of the corpse, and of fertile soils, the symbol of resurrection. The falcon is associated with the god Horus, the son of Osiris, and the governing of Egypt. Both animals, therefore, refers once again to the idea of rebirth and the power of the monarch.

It is common that objects such as this kohl pot, meant to be part of the funerary goods, should have references to rebirth and the afterlife. Even if they had been used during the lifetime of an Egyptian, the destiny of the object was to become part of the belongings that the person would take into the eternity of the Other World.

Kohl is a cosmetic with a base of ground up galena and other ingredients. It can be black or grey depending on the mixture used. It has traditionally used since the Bronze Age as a protection against diseases in the eyes. At the same time, as it darkens the eyelids, it protects them from the glare of the desert sun. Mothers applied kohl to the eyes of their new-born babies to “strengthen” them. In Ancient Egypt it was used as a make-up and for its bactericide properties.

The vases where it was stored, such as this example, have been found among funerary goods in tombs. During the XVIII Dynasty it was frequent to find them decorated with images of protective deities. This is one of the most beautiful examples, given the iconography and the magical elements associated with life, power and rebirth. In short, it is a complete resume of Egyptian culture in one unique object.


- Kohl pot with openwork decoration. Glazed steatite. XVIII Dynasty. Height 5.1 cm. Brooklyn Museum, New York. Inv. 37.642E.
- Kohl pot with openwork decoration. Glazed steatite. XVIII Dynasty. Height 3.8 cm. Museum of Fine Arts Boston, Boston. Inv. 00.701a-b.
- Kohl pot with openwork decoration. Glazed steatite. XVIII Dynasty. Height 10. 5 cm. Auctioned at Christie´s New York, Antiquities, el 18 December 1998. Lot 17.

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