Wednesday, December 16, 2015


Anne-Marie Guimier-Sorbets, André Pelle, Mervat Seif el-Din, Renaître avec Osiris et Perséphone: Alexandrie, les tombes peintes de Kôm el-Chougafa. Antiquités Alexandrines, 1. Alexandrie: Centre d'Études Alexandrines, 2015. Pp. 177. ISBN 9782111298583. €40.00.

Reviewed by Marjorie S. Venit, University of Maryland (

Version at BMCR home site


The title of this volume accommodates multiple meanings: most straightforwardly, it addresses the subjects of the paintings that form the substance of the book, but it also calls to mind the deceased persons once entombed below the paintings and also the volume's raison d'être, as it heralds further images that have recently reemerged through new photographic techniques.

The paintings in question are found in two tombs in "The Hall of Caracalla," a catacomb that received its name from a mistaken historical connection, also called the "The Nebengrab," based on its proximity to the larger and far better known "Great Catacomb" at Kom el-Shoqafa. They are dated by Anne-Marie Guimier-Sorbets and Mervat Seif el-Din to the end of the first through the middle of the second century CE. Their imagery, conceived in two registers on the back and side walls of the tomb niches created by the rock-cut sarcophagi below, consists of two sets of scenes. The first, from the Egyptian myth of Osiris, is in an egyptianizing style in the upper register, and the second is from the Greek myth of Persephone in a classicizing style in the lower. With their emergence dependent on the level of humidity in the catacomb — when they appear, at best, as vague ghost images —the paintings had never been seriously studied, even though they had been mentioned as early as 1901. When the paintings reappeared in the early 1990s, they were photographed with infrared film under the direction of Jean-Yves Empereur, the Director of the Centre d'Études Alexandrines, but it was not until 1996, when André Pelle considered photographing them with a view camera under ultraviolet fluorescent light that their imagery more fully emerged. Subsequently, guided by Guimier-Sorbets and Seif el-Din, who were to publish the two tomb chambers in the BCH in 1997,1 Mary-Jane Schumacher made paintings to clarify the still ghostly images, which were incorporated, along with Pelle's photographs, as illustrations in the article.

More recently, Pelle re-photographed the tomb with a high-resolution digital camera and remarkable new evidence emerged. These new photographs, some of which include traces of the imagery's original color, form the basis for this book.

The volume is divided into three parts: the first, a brief introduction by Empereur, addresses the photographic history of the tomb paintings; the second, by Pelle, provides the technical account of the imagery's photography; and the third and longest section, by Guimier-Sorbets and Seif el-Din, presents a new description and a revised interpretation of the imagery in the two tomb niches.

Empereur notes that the recovery of the two tomb chambers for modern study falls into four stages: one, his observation of the images of Tomb 1 in 1993 and his interpretation of them as figures dancing or as the Judgment of Paris;2 two, a more correct visualization of the scenes photographed under ultraviolet light in 1996 that permitted the "Judgment of Paris" to be correctly interpreted as the Abduction of Persephone; three, a new reading of the imagery in 2012 realized through the use of a digital camera and manipulation with relevant software; and four, in 2014, the raising of some of the original colors of the paintings through further digital manipulation.

Pelle was the photographer in both the late 1990s and the second decade of the 2000s, and his account records the technical aspects that finally illuminated the paintings. In 1996, after confirming that infrared photography provided no conclusive evidence for the subject of the Greek paintings, Pelle opted for the other extremity of the spectrum. He turned to "black light," shooting in the dark with the tomb walls illuminated by ultraviolet fluorescent tubes. Though the colors of the paintings had completely disappeared to the naked eye, the pigments had left remains on the limestone support and because the materiality of the support and those of the remains differed, photographs taken under UV light were able to separate the image from the background. Even paintings in sections of Tomb 1— and all those of Tomb 2 — that showed no ghost images at all, could be seen. This technique provided the photographs published in the BCH by Guimier-Sorbets and Seif el-Din.

This volume, however, highlights the images that Pelle took with a digital camera, images that he then manipulated with computer software. Unlike pigment, the primary colors in light, and thus photography, are red, green, and blue (RGB). With computer software, Pelle converted the RGB scale to CIE Lab, which permits the calibration of colors based on three calculations — L: the light or luminescence; a: the red/green axis; and b: the yellow/blue axis — and he then inverted and separated out the three components, L, a, and b. Finally, he reassembled the three layers, adjusting the transparency of each to obtain the results that most clearly elucidated the images. Since photographs taken with the camera closet to the image gave the best results, most images in the book consist of these close-ups. Manipulation of the saturation levels in CIE Lab also revealed the actual colors used in the paintings. When so manipulated, shooting under cold LED light permitted Egyptian blue to emerge, while shooting with a flash revealed yellows and reds.

Aside from clarifying images seen in 1996 and exposing their colors, these new techniques also revealed images never seen before that revised the interpretation of scenes, and these new images and details required the third part of the book — a new description and interpretation of the paintings of Tombs 1 and 2. Guimier-Sorbets and Seif el-Din provide the history of the discovery of and the early scholarship on the catacomb and its tombs, a thorough description of the tomb-niche architecture, and a full description of the narrative paintings and the images on the tombs' ceilings, pilasters, and pediments, as well as their interpretation.

The two tombs generally repeat the same scenes, though details differ. The upper register of the back wall of Tomb 1 shows a mummy lying on a lion-bed being attended by Anubis (or a priest in an Anubis mask). Below the lion-bed are two canopic jars and to either side of the bed stand Nephthys and Isis, their wings outstretched. Behind Nephthys stands a pharaoh figure and behind Isis, Horus or Re-Harakhty. That of Tomb 2 depicts the same narrative, but the two goddesses are undifferentiated and the canopics beneath the lion-bed number four. The upper register of the right walls of both tombs show the resuscitation of Osiris, set between Isis and Thoth as does the left wall of Tomb 2, whereas the left wall of Tomb 1 differs somewhat with Thoth and Isis flanking the fetish of Osiris.

The greatest changes wrought by the new photographs are in the scenes of the myth of Persephone, especially those of the lateral walls. The lower register of the back wall of Tomb 2 shows Persephone abducted by a quadriga-driving Hades as Artemis, Aphrodite and Athena look on, as does the back wall of Tomb 1, though a robbers' hole, cut through from the Great Catacomb, has destroyed the chariot scene. The left wall of Tomb 2 again depicts the three goddesses alongside Persephone as she gathers flowers in the meadow, a reading that marks a slight change from that of 1997, which saw the standing female figures as Oceanids and added an anthropomorphic river god. The left wall of Tomb 1, which is greatly destroyed, depicts Athena, armed and armored, kneeling at a kalathos with an indistinct figure to her proper left. This reading marks one of the greatest differences in interpretation from that of 1997, which saw a river god near the container beneath the tree and the left-hand figure as a nymph. The meaning of the scene on the right wall of Tomb 2 (that of Tomb 1 is entirely destroyed), however, is the one most altered by the new photographs and the one that necessitates an entirely new interpretation for the ensemble. Initially the scene was interpreted as the anodos of Persephone as she emerged from the cavern that marked the Underworld while Hermes, Hekate, and Demeter looked on, thus augmenting the relatively rare representations of the subject in ancient art. With the new photographic technology, however, it has become clear that the moment depicted is one entirely different. The new photographs indicate the cavern as the destination of the charioteer; Hermes stands to the left of the cave that leads to the Underworld, which is articulated by three-headed Cerberus, who guards the entrance. Then to the right, as if the wall of the cavern were transparent, a quite masterful but somewhat less distinct painting, indicates Hades and Persephone enthroned side-by-side in three-quarter view.

The remainder of the volume addresses the tombs' ceiling, pedimental, and pilaster decoration and adduces comparative material for both the Egyptian and Greek imagery and the authors' interpretations of the ensemble. With the reinterpretation of the scene on the right wall of Tomb 2, the remarkable visual correspondence between the Egyptian and the Greek myths heretofore encapsulated in the two registers is shattered. The rationale for the anodos of Persephone as a complement to the resurrection of Osiris can no longer be sustained, since the former scene has ceased to exist. Instead, the authors now connect the paintings to the Mysteries of Persephone and Demeter and interpret the entire suite of Greek images more generally.

Based on Pelle's new photographic record, the absolute meaning and relationship of the two superimposed friezes can now be opened to discussion. So far as I know, the two paintings of the myth of Persephone are the only examples of a Greek myth depicted in an Alexandrian tomb, and the treatment of the resuscitation of Osiris differs from that normally depicted in contemporaneous tombs in the Egyptian chora. Thus, the imagery encapsulated in these two tombs acquires both special distinction and crucial importance, not only in the history of Alexandrian eschatological history, but in that of eschatological thought in Egypt and in the wider Greek world. The new visual explication of the images by means of digital technology is thus of greatest consequence, and we are fortunate to have this handsomely produced book with its copious illustrations as a means of beginning to wrestle with the questions that the tombs' imagery now raises.


1.   M. Seif El-Din and A.-M. Guimier-Sorbets, "Les deux tombes de Perséphone dans la nécropole de Kom el-Chougafa à Alexandrie, Bulletin de correspondance hellénique 121.1 (1997): 355–410. Subsequently discussed in A.-M. Guimier-Sorbets, "The Function of Funerary Iconography in Roman Alexandria. An Original Form of Bilingual Iconography in the Necropolis of Kom el Shoqafa" in: Proceedings of the XVth International Congress of Classical Archaeology, Amsterdam, July 12–17, 1998: Classical Archaeology towards the Third Millennium: Reflections and Perspectives. (R. F. Docter and E. M. Moormann, eds.). Amsterdam: Allard Pierson Museum: vol. I, 1999: 180–182 and A.-M. Guimier-Sorbets and M. Seif el-Din, "Les peintures de la nécropole Kom el-Chougafa à Alexandrie. Éléments de méthode pour la lecture iconographique et l'interprétation du style 'bilingue'" in: La peinture funéraire antique IV e siècle av. J.-C.–IVe siècle ap. J.-C. Actes du VIIe Colloque de l'Association Internationale pour la Peinture Murale Antique (AIPMA) 6–10 Octobre 1998. Saint Romaine-en-Gal-Vienne (under the direction of A. Barbet). Paris: Editions Errance, 2001: 129–136.
2.   J.-Y. Empereur, A Short Guide to the Catacombs of Kom el-Shoqafa Alexandria. Alexandria: Serapis Publishing, 1995: 22 (as the Judgement of Paris).

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