Egyptian Mummies: From Medicine to Paint

For hundreds of years Europeans used ground up Egyptian mummies as medicine and paint pigment.

The Arabic word mūmiyā (which later became “mummia”) was the name for the black sticky asphalt material that came out of the ground used as a sealant, an adhesive, and as medicine around the ancient world. Pliny the Elder and others wrote about the medicinal uses for mummia which became a bit of a cure-all for a range of ailments.

Unfortunately mummia the petroleum product looked like another black substance that was a byproduct of the Egyptian embalming process. As such the word “mummia” came to mean both the petroleum product AND the product of Egyptian mummification, which was then even further confused as meaning an entire mummified body. This is how we got the word “mummy”. Unfortunately this series of mistakes also led to hundreds of years of cannibalism.

Cannibal Medicine

Since the petroleum based mummia was used both externally as a salve as well as ingested internally, the Egyptian mummy version of mummia became used in the same ways. The 11th century physician Constantinus Africanus even described mummia as a “spice” found in the sepulchers of the dead. Soon the human version replaced the petroleum version and people began to crumble & grind human corpses for medicine.

With the Crusades, Europeans learned of mummia and its medicinal possibilities. This significantly increased European demand for Egyptian mummies and by the 15th-16th centuries there was a thriving trade in mummies. Thousands of bodies were being exhumed and shipped to Europe to be turned into medicines. In 1586 English merchant John Sanderson shipped 600 pounds of mummies to London to sell at various apothecaries. This was fueled in part by orientalism, that Egyptian mummies had some sort of exotic ancient knowledge or power.

Europeans would consume portions of Egyptian corpses for help with general pain, ulcers, inflammation, epilepsy, cough, difficult labor, etc – none of which worked, or if they worked it wasn’t the mummy that was the active ingredient. The practice was so common Shakespeare included mummy as an ingredient in the witches’ potion in Macbeth. Demand was so high that by the 17th century some mummy dealers were producing counterfeit mummies. Newly deceased people, animals, or prisoners who had been purposefully starved & executed, were put through a process to simulate ancient Egyptian mummies.

After a few hundred years of medicinal cannibalism Europeans began to express doubt as to the practice’s efficacy (and ethicality). The 16th century herbalist Leonhard Fuchs felt foreign mummies were acceptable but local ones were wrong. While doubts arose during the Renaissance in the 16th century it took until the 18th century age of Enlightenment for the practice to fall out of fashion. As consuming mummies slowly ended Egyptian mummies took on a new role: paint pigment.

The Egyptian Widow by Lourens Alma Tadema is an 1872 painting of Egyptian life potentially painted using mummy brown paint.
Liberty Leading the People by Eugène Delacroix is another painting that’s theorized to contain mummy brown.

Mummy Brown

Around the end of the 16th century artists began using ground up Egyptian mummies (mixed with other materials) to produce mummy brown, a shade of brown pigment. Apothecaries that were grinding up mummies for medicine began to grind them up for paint as well. As a paint it was good for shadows, flesh tones, and glazing. Artists Benjamin West, Martin Drolling, Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Edward Burne-Jones, Eugène Delacroix, and others all painted with mummy brown.

It wasn’t until the 19th century that mummy brown began to fall out of favor. That said as recently as 1926 C Roberson & Co. still sold mummy brown made with ground up Egyptian corpses. As mummy brown died out so too did hundreds of years of large-scale desecration of deceased Egyptians, using human beings for medicines and paints.

Cabinet of Curiosities

Before museums existed, people had cabinets/rooms to display their collected treasures.

There was a time when museums did not exist. The role of collecting, preserving, and displaying the art, artifacts, and wonders of the world belonged largely to individuals. As far back as the 4th century BCE Greeks were collecting exotic treasures from the East. More than just trading in commodities, the Greeks collected the art and textiles from these far away cultures. Roman emperor Augustus decorated his homes not just with art but with rare objects and bones of giant animals. Over the centuries, as cultures explored & traded with increasingly distant lands, the trends in what was collectible grew & changed. By the 16th and 17th centuries wealthy European collectors had amassed enough objects that they created special cabinets and/or rooms to show-off their collections. They created cabinets of curiosities.

Ole Worm’s Museum Wormianum is one of the most famous cabinets of curiosities.
Ferrante Imperato’s Dell’Historia Naturale is another famous wunderkabinett.

Wunderkabinett

From the German for art (kunst) or marvels (wunder) and cabinet (kabinett) or room (kammer), these cabinets & rooms were places where Renaissance scholars, merchants, royalty, and others could store their collections. Collecting was very fashionable in 17th century Europe and these cabinets were dedicated spaces to displaying all manner of objects. Like the contemporaneous maps of the world, some of these spaces were designed for show while others were more utilitarian.

A collection of cabinets and rooms displaying all manner of curiosities.

Some collectors had thousands of specimens. The objects in these cabinets were thoughtfully categorized and organized, each piece contributing to the larger whole. Collecting was a way to bring order to the world, to exert some level of control over something that is uncontrollable. What was stored & displayed in these cabinets depended on the collector, but broad categories of objects included:

  • Fine art
  • Applied art (scientific instruments, anthropological objects, etc.)
  • Natural materials (fossils, shells, rocks, etc.)
  • Historical objects

These categories, as well as these collections, served as the precursors to our modern museums. The Amerbach Cabinet was a collection of art, books, coins, etc. that was assembled by various members of the Amerbach family. It was eventually co-purchased by the city of Basel & the University Basel and became the Kunstmuseum Basel in 1661, the first public museum in the world. Francesco I de’ Medici had his studiolo, a 26 x 10 foot room of curiosities that is part of the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. Other Medici possessions served as the start of the Uffizi Gallery. Elias Ashmole, who amassed his fortune & collection through sometimes questionable means, gifted his collection to the University of Oxford which became the Ashmolean Museum in 1683.

Throughout the 18th century an increasing number of private collections were converted into public museums, some of which still exist today but all of which helped define what museums have become.

Added info: In 1784 Charles Wilson Peale’s collection became the Philadelphia Museum which was the United States’ first museum (and also the first to display a mastodon skeleton).

Sunday B. Morning

The recreations of Andy Warhol’s work that started officially & amicably, but are now unauthorized copies of copies.

Andy Warhol worked in a variety of mediums throughout his career, but his most famous works are his silkscreen prints. His prints of Marilyn Monroe, Campbell’s Soup cans, Mao Zedong, Elvis and others changed pop culture and today sell for millions of dollars. While he produced some of these works himself he eventually created The Factory, his aptly titled Manhattan studio where an assortment of interesting characters would produce his prints for him. Like a Pop art orchestra Warhol served as the conductor, directing his assistants as they played their parts in making his art.

The 1967 collection of prints made by the Factory are referred to as the “Factory Additions” and are authentic Warhols. Authenticity begins to get murkier in 1970 when Warhol started a collaboration with two anonymous Belgian artists. Andy Warhol’s use of repetition in his art was part of a larger criticism & statement about consumerism, pop culture celebrity, and disposable mass produced goods. He took this to a new level when he gave the negatives & the color codes for several of his most famous prints to these new Belgian partners so they could start printing his work. These prints would be new editions of the work his Factory had already done for him. These secondary prints became known as the Sunday B. Morning prints.

Flowers, Mao, and Marilyn are all Warhol works that Sunday B. Morning creates prints of.

A copy of a copy?

What started as an amicable collaboration ended with Warhol regretting the decision and the 1970 prints were labeled “unauthorized”. The Sunday B. Morning duo produced 250 prints of several Warhol works which, while not exactly by Warhol, were produced from his own negatives to his specifications so they became valuable pieces in the art market. Warhol’s lack of direct involvement broadly categorizes this work into what is referred to as “After Warhol.” Despite his disapproval, when Warhol would encounter one of these prints he would sometimes sign the back with “This is not by me. Andy Warhol” which only added to the value.

To add to the confusion another series of prints were created by Sunday B. Morning in 1985. Then, after Warhol died in 1987, a company (rather than the original duo) calling themselves Sunday B. Morning have been continuously producing prints. After the original 1970 series the silkscreens used to make the prints were locked away and the current Sunday B. Morning prints are copies of the 1970 prints … which were, in a way, copies of the original Factory Addition prints.

Black or Blue: Which one am I looking at?

Discerning an original Warhol Factory Addition print, from a 1970 Sunday B. Morning, from a later day Sunday B. Morning, from a forgery can be difficult. An original Warhol is almost guaranteed to be in a museum or the home of a wealthy collector so it’s unlikely you’ll find one on eBay. His original prints were frequently signed by him in various ways on the back (interestingly, his earlier 1950s work was also signed with his name, but was sometimes written by his mom Julia Warhola).

The second series of this work, the 1970 Sunday B. Morning series, have a black ink stamp on the back that says “published by Sunday B. Morning”. These prints have a second black ink stamp that says “fill in your own signature”, which is where Warhol would sometimes semi-ironically sign that the print was not by him.

The third series from 1985 have a rubber stamp signature of Andy Warhol’s name on the back, which became known as the European Artist’s Proof Editions. Finally the modern day prints are stamped on the back with “fill in your own signature” and “published by Sunday B. Morning” but in blue ink, and are referred to as the Blue Ink series.

Two samples of the stamps found on the back of the Sunday B. Morning Blue Ink later day series of prints.

Assigning monetary value to any of these depends on a lot of factors, but basically the 1967 Warhol Factory Addition prints are the most valuable (into the hundreds of thousands of dollars) and the later day Sunday B. Morning Blue Ink prints are the least valuable (worth a few hundred dollars). Of the Sunday B. Morning prints, the 1970 series is the most respected and the most highly valued.

The Ambassadors & Anamorphosis

The illusion hidden in the middle of an art masterpiece

In 1526 German painter Hans Holbein the Younger went to England in search of work. Eventually he found a client in Anne Boleyn (wife number 2 of Henry the VIII, and mother of Elizabeth I). By 1535 he was the King’s painter, creating portraits and documenting courtly life. It was through this life at court that he came to paint one of his most famous works, the double portrait of French ambassador Jean de Dinteville and French bishop Georges de Selve titled The Ambassadors.

The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein

Painted in 1533, The Ambassadors is a meticulously detailed masterpiece of Renaissance art. At the time it was painted, Henry VIII was separating the English Church from the Catholic Church of Rome, and these two ambassadors were most likely trying to resolve this political & religious turmoil. Filled with symbolism and hidden messages, the painting is more than just a double portrait. Between the two men is a table crowded with objects. On the top shelf are instruments to study the skies and on the lower shelf are items associated with the Earth and human activity. The lute with a broken string, the book of mathematics opened to division, and the hymn book are all references to the political & religious discord taking place at the time.

It’s what’s below the bottom shelf that makes this painting especially famous. With the top shelf representing the heavens, the bottom shelf representing life, then what is this thing below that? When viewed head-on it is a long diagonally shaped blob that looks out of place in this very life-like painting. However, when viewed by standing at the edge of the painting’s frame (or tilting your device), through a distortion of space, it is revealed to be a skull. The skull as a reminder of death completes the three levels of the center of the painting with the heavens, life, and finally death. It is also interesting that death exists amongst life but can’t be seen properly. It can only be viewed when you can no longer view the rest of the painting (when you can no longer view life).

Through anamorphosis the warped image in the center of the painting is revealed to be a skull when viewed from the right perspective.

Anamorphosis

The skull at the center of The Ambassadors is one of the most famous examples of anamorphosis. In anamorphosis an image can only be properly seen from a certain point of view, or with the aid of a special device (such as a mirrored cylinder), or sometimes both. It’s an illusion where you start not understanding and then move into understanding. Unlike normal optical illusions or trope l’oeil which can be understood (albeit mind bendingly) at face value, anamorphosis can only be understood when viewed the right way.

It’s a neat optical trick that has been used in various ways for millennia. The technique goes back at least as far as the ancient Greeks, but it really came into being in the Renaissance. Leonardo da Vinci included an early example in the illusion known known as Leonardo’s Eye. It was also used at times with tromp l’oeil to create more elaborate church ceilings. This was the case when Andrea Pozzo painted a “dome” on the ceiling of Saint Ignatius’s in Rome because the church builders were not allowed to construct an actual dome. So if you stand in the right spot the illusion of looking up into a dome is excellent, but from any other angle the illusion breaks down.

Saint Ignatius’s in Rome has a fake dome done through anamorphosis and trope l’oeil.
Anamorphic street art for Twin Peaks
Leon Keer’s anamorphic street art of Pac-Man
Thomas Quinn’s anamorphic type art.

Today we find anamorphosis in fun street art. Sidewalks become filled with precarious holes or cliff faces that confuse our sense of space. Artist Jonty Hurwitz creates anamorphic sculptures including a three dimensional version of the skull from Holbein’s The Ambassadors. In practical usage we experience anamorphosis most frequently while driving. Words written in the road are elongated but look correct from the vantage point of a seated driver. Similarly emergency vehicles such as ambulances frequently have words written backwards, but when seen from a driver’s mirror they read correctly.

Jonty Hurwitz’s anamorphic 3-D skull version of The Ambassadors
Jonty Hurwitz’s anamorphic 3-D frog that is revealed using a mirrored cylinder

Added bonus: There is a great video by The National Gallery in London where Deputy Director and Director of Public Engagement Susan Foister discusses The Ambassadors and some of its hidden messages.

The Art Collection of Dorothy & Herbert Vogel

How an ordinary couple amassed one of the greatest art collections in history

Dorothy and Herbert Vogel began collecting art in the 1960s. Herb was a mail sorter at the post office and Dorothy was a librarian at the Brooklyn Public Library. With a passion for art they decided to live on Dorothy’s salary and use Herb’s salary (never more than $23,000 a year) to collect art. They lived frugally in a rent-controlled two room apartment in Manhattan, all the while amassing a collection of art that amounted to thousands of pieces.

Their collection is primarily modern, minimalist and conceptual art. Many of their pieces came from then lesser-known artists such as when they acquired pieces from Christo & Jeanne-Claude in exchange for taking care of the artists’ cat Gladys while they were away installing Valley Curtain in the early 1970s. The Vogels befriended many of the artists they bought from and gradually became known collectors in the art world. Chuck Close called them “the mascots of the art world.” Their collection became a who’s who of modern art.

Herb and Dorothy Vogel
Some of their collection in their apartment, later in a gallery
the Vogels with Christo & Jeanne-Claude

Ultimately the Vogels collection amounted to 4,782 pieces, all crammed inside their NYC apartment with the couple, their cats, and their turtles. Dorothy insisted they never stored work in their oven, but otherwise every other space seemed to contain art. After decades in the making they decided it was time to unload their collection and invite the public to experience it so in 1992 they donated the entire collection to the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C.. They chose the National Gallery because the museum is free to the public and never sells pieces in its collection. Similarly, the Vogels never sold any of the art in their collection, a collection conservatively estimated to be valued in the millions of dollars.

In 2008 they worked with the National Gallery and ran a program where they donated 50 pieces to a museum in each of the 50 states. The 2008 documentary Herb & Dorothy documents their world famous collection, the collection of two working class art fans who loved art for art’s sake.

Marlene Dietrich & Queen

One of the most iconic photos of Queen was inspired by a photograph of Marlene Dietrich

For their second album, Queen II, Queen wanted to explore the theme of duality. This was visually explored through black and white imagery and even labeling the two sides of the album Side White and Side Black. They went to photographer Mick Rock (who had worked with David Bowie, Lou Reed, and others in the mid ‘70s glam rock scene) to photograph the album cover.

Rock had recently been shown a 1932 photograph of Marlene Dietrich from the film Shanghai Express. Dietrich was lit with a technique known as “butterfly lighting” where one of the lights is positioned in-front and above the subject, casting shadows down from the subject’s brow, cheeks, and nose (the shadow below the nose produces a butterfly looking image, hence the name). This was a technique frequently used with Dietrich to accentuate her facial features, especially in her collaborations with director Josef von Sternberg.

When Rock showed this photograph to the band, Freddy Mercury loved the idea that they could recreate it for the album cover.

“I don’t know if it was the shot itself or the idea that [Freddie] could be like Marlene Dietrich—probably a combination of the two,”

Mick Rock

This Dietrich inspired pose was used again in the music video for Queen’s greatest masterpiece Bohemian Rhapsody. The video for Bohemian Rhapsody, at over 1 billion views on YouTube, extends Marlene Dietrich’s influence even further, despite some viewers not even knowing it.

Moses’s Horns

Moses spent a period of time in art with horns because of a mistranslation.

During the Middle Ages, and into the Renaissance, Moses was frequently depicted in art as having horns on his head, including in a statue in Rome by Michelangelo. This was all because of a mistranslation from the Hebrew text.

The mistranslation said that Moses came down from Mount Sinai and his face was “horned from the conversation of the Lord” but should have been translated as his face was “shining/radiant from conversation of the Lord”.

So the paintings & sculptures of Moses with mutant horns should have just been Moses with a rosy glow.

A collection of Moses depicted with horns from over the centuries.