Bleiberg’s research is now the basis of the poignant exhibition “Striking Power: Iconoclasm in Ancient Egypt.” A selection of objects from the Brooklyn Museum’s collection will travel to the Pulitzer Arts Foundation later this month under the co-direction of the latter’s associate curator, Stephanie Weissberg. Pairing damaged statues and reliefs dating from the 25th century BC to the 1st century AD with intact counterparts, the show testifies to ancient Egyptian artifacts’ political and religious functions — and the entrenched culture of iconoclasm that led to their mutilation.
The ancient Egyptians, it’s important to note, ascribed important powers to images of the human form. They believed that the essence of a deity could inhabit an image of that deity, or, in the case of mere mortals, part of that deceased human being’s soul could inhabit a statue inscribed for that particular person. These campaigns of vandalism were therefore intended to “deactivate an image’s strength,” as Bleiberg put it.
“The damaged part of the body is no longer able to do its job,” Bleiberg explained. Without a nose, the statue-spirit ceases to breathe, so that the vandal is effectively “killing” it. To hammer the ears off a statue of a god would make it unable to hear a prayer. In statues intended to show human beings making offerings to gods, the left arm — most commonly used to make offerings — is cut off so the statue’s function can’t be performed (the right hand is often found axed in statues receiving offerings).
Indeed, “iconoclasm on a grand scale…was primarily political in motive,” Bleiberg writes in the exhibition catalog for “Striking Power.” Defacing statues aided ambitious rulers (and would-be rulers) with rewriting history to their advantage. Over the centuries, this erasure often occurred along gendered lines: The legacies of two powerful Egyptian queens whose authority and mystique fuel the cultural imagination — Hatshepsut and Nefertiti — were largely erased from visual culture.
Speaking to the futility of such measures, Bleiberg appraised the skill evidenced by the iconoclasts. “They were not vandals,” he clarified. “They were not recklessly and randomly striking out works of art.” In fact, the targeted precision of their chisels suggests that they were skilled laborers, trained and hired for this exact purpose. “Often in the Pharaonic period,” Bleiberg said, “it’s really only the name of the person who is targeted, in the inscription. This means that the person doing the damage could read!”