From time immemorial, illnesses and threats to our health have always worried us. As we are surrounded by uncertainty caused by the pandemic that has gripped our world, it may be of comfort to know that we’re not the only ones who have experienced sweeping waves of contagion and great illness. The NCMA curators and GSK Curatorial Fellow have pulled together stories from the collection that show how works of art have been used for healing by people of diverse cultural backgrounds and religion throughout the centuries, or were created to remember those who have proffered medical care in times of need.
Egyptian, Bust of the Goddess Sekhmet, circa 1390–1352 B.C.E., granite, H. 23 in., Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Gordon Hanes
Sekhmet was the ancient Egyptian goddess of war, destruction, and illness. Terrible and unwavering, the lioness-headed goddess was known as the "bringer of plagues” and the “mistress of fears.” Yet—like many Egyptian deities—she had a dual nature: She could not only bring pestilence but also ward off epidemics and illness. Sekhmet was the protector of the king and a healing deity, the “mistress of life” who could heal those who suffered. Sekhmet thus became the patroness of physicians; in her care the sick were physically tended by doctors and spiritually attended by priests of the goddess, who were said to recite magical spells over those in need of her healing powers.
Did Amenhotep III suffer from physical ailments he hoped the goddess might assuage? Or did a plague sweep through the country during his reign, leaving hundreds of stone Sekhmets to protect those who survived and keeping another wave of illness at bay?
The astonishing number of Sekhmet statues (700+) commissioned by King Amenhotep III (circa 1390–1352 B.C.E.) for his mortuary temple at Kom el-Heitan on the West Bank of Thebes and the Temple of Mut at Karnak on the East Bank has led to much speculation. It has been proposed that the pharaoh, or Egypt itself, was in dire need of the great leonine goddess. Did Amenhotep III suffer from physical ailments he hoped the goddess might assuage? Or did a plague sweep through the country during his reign, leaving hundreds of stone Sekhmets to protect those who survived and keeping another wave of illness at bay?
Such dramatic explanations may be alluring; however, a more plausible hypothesis has also been offered to explain the multitude of Sekhmet statues and representations of other deities. it has been suggested that the statues were strategically positioned in Amenhotep’s mortuary temple to create a celestial map and calendar in which the Sekhmet statues represented the days and night of the year.
The role played by these statues in the various cultic rites was to invoke the protection of the goddess and other deities at times of great changes, like the renewal of the current king during his jubilee, or even at the time of the winter solstice, a precarious day when the sun was at its weakest. The great Sekhmet was always invoked and appeased so that she would not turn her wrath against king and country, and thus offered protection to all the people of Egypt.