Coffin of Pedi-Osiris, 332–30 BC
Egyptian
Carved and painted wood; gold leaf
86 1/8 × 26 × 18 in. (218.8 × 66.0 × 45.7 cm)
Museum purchase funded by the Alice Pratt Brown Museum Fund

Habits of Mind

  • OBSERVE DETAILS Observe details / time to think and reflect

Coffin of Pedi-Osiris

Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.

GRADE LEVEL

4

SUBJECT AREA

Art

Social Studies

HABITS OF MIND

Observe Details

Connecting to the Work of Art

The creator of this coffin is unknown, but was probably male. The goal of the ancient Egyptian artist was not to create a work of art, but rather to present scenes associated with life after death in order to ensure successful rebirth. The ancient Egyptians were deeply religious and had an overwhelming desire to secure and perpetuate in the afterlife the “good life” enjoyed on earth. It was the Egyptian artist’s duty to adhere to the universally understood visual iconography associated with that desire.

 

Standing over seven feet tall, this coffin is proportionately broad, indicating that the mummy of Pedi-Osiris had been elaborately prepared and wrapped in multiple layers of linen cloth. Pedi-Osiris was a priest of Osiris, god of the dead, associated with resurrection and the afterlife. The face on the coffin is gilded gold, with exotic black-lined eyes, an ornamental beard (a status symbol of dignitaries), an elaborate head-cloth painted the rich blue color of lapis-lazuli, numerous necklaces, and a vermilion cloak covered with a net of painted beads. On each shoulder, to assure eternal life, a baboon raises its paws and shrieks to cause the sun to rise. At the center of the cloak, Nut, goddess of the sky, kneels with her wings extended over a temple wall inscribed with hieroglyphs. Above Nut, the winged scarab Khepri pushes the morning sun to rise in the East. The scarab beetle is thought to move in the same pattern as the sun as it moves its dung ball across the ground. The Four Sons of Horus (the falcon god) are deities that protect the internal organs of the deceased, and are presented here in rectangular panels bordered in blue, red, and turquoise. At Khepri’s wingtips are human-headed Imseti (liver), and baboonheaded Hapi (lungs), and at Nut’s wingtips are jackal-headed Dua-mut-ef (stomach), and falcon-headed Qebeh-senu-ef (intestines). At the base of the coffin sit two images of jackals, representing Anubis, the god of embalming, whose task it was to glorify and preserve the dead. On the central back panel of the coffin, the body of Pedi-Osiris lies on a majestic, lion-shaped funeral bed.

 

This coffin was created with a strong sense of order and symmetry. The surface of the robe of Pedi-Osiris is organized and subdivided into pictorial panels using a number of geometric patterns and shapes. The various deities are depicted with consistent characteristics and each is given a ground line on which to stand or sit. The artist has also incorporated all three of the standard viewpoints used in Egyptian art: frontal, profile, and aerial. For example, Pedi-Osiris is shown in the same static, frontal pose often used in royal statuary to suggest the cessation of time. The deities on his robe are depicted in profile, which, to the Egyptian artist, meant the torso and eye are shown frontally, while the head and lower body are shown in profile. This viewpoint allowed the artist to present the most comprehensive view of the deity. The scarab beetle is shown using an aerial viewpoint.

 

The ancient Egyptians believed that death was a passageway to the afterlife, and that preserving and protecting the body were essential to that transition. The process of mummification was developed for the purpose of preserving the body, and could take up to ten weeks from death to burial. The body was dried in a mineral salt and was then washed in water from the Nile River. Brain tissue was removed through the nostril. The heart was left in the body, but other soft organs were removed through an incision in the abdomen and placed in canopic jars such as those shown beneath the funeral bed on Pedi-Osiris’s coffin. The body was then an ointed with oils, elaborately wrapped with strips of linen, and placed in the coffin to protect it. Instructions for the journey through the underworld to the afterlife were inscribed on the coffin in order to protect and assist the deceased in his journey.

Conversation Starters

Observe

  • Pick out the colors used in the decoration of this coffin. Look at them on a color wheel. What are their relationships to each other? Why might the artist have chosen to use those colors?
  • Is this a symmetrical object? Identify any axes of symmetry you can. What kind of symmetry do you see (radial, linear)? Why do you think the artist chose to decorate that way?
  • Look closely at all of the symbols on this coffin. Do you recognize any? What might those symbols mean? Even if you can’t recognize the symbols, try to puzzle out why they might be included here.

Interpret

  • This coffin once held a mummy, and played an important role in preserving the body of the deceased person. Why do you think it was so heavily decorated?
  • What can you guess about the person buried here, based on this coffin? Look closely at the decoration and materials to support your answer.
  • What symbols hold a lot of power in your lives, religious or otherwise? How do we use those; where do we place them?

Assessment

• Research the iconography on this coffin. How did the ancient Egyptian know that it belonged to an important person? Are the symbols and icons on this coffin similar to those found on the coffin of a less important person in Egyptian society?

• Using heavy cardstock, glue, and paint, create a small coffin. Remember that it must be able to stand on its own and be proportionately wide enough to accommodate a standing, wrapped mummy.* Also remember the ancient Egyptian artist’s guidelines for depicting viewpoints, and the prevalent use of geometric shapes and symmetry when painting your pictorial scenes.

 

*This hollow coffin measures 86 1/8 x 26 x 18 inches, and consists of four separate pieces of carved wood. The upper front section is approximately one-third of the length of the coffin and is attached to the bottom front section. The upper back section is slightly longer than its front counterpart, and the lower back section is slightly shorter than its front counterpart. The coffin is hinged along its vertical side so that it opens along its length.


The Learning Through Art program is endowed by Melvyn and Cyvia Wolff.

The Learning Through Art curriculum website is made possible in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider.