Meidum Geese

This part of a wall painting of geese was found in the Mastaba of Nefermaat and his wife, Itet, at Meidum where it decorated the lower part of one of the walls in the passage leading to Itet’s chapel.

The colors used here derived from natural materials: white from limestone, red from hematite and green from malachite. These materials were mixed with egg white. The panel shows three pairs of geese that are feeding on the grass. Three of them are looking to the right side, while the others are looking to the left side in a symmetrical arrangement.

Full Meidum Geese Painting. JE 34571
Full Meidum Geese Painting. JE 34571

Egypt’s Mona Lisa

Anthony Romilio, a researcher in the Dinosaur Lab at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia, believes that the speckled goose in a 4,600-year-old painting often referred to as “Egypt’s Mona Lisa”. In fact, the only known documentation of an ancient and now-extinct species.

Called Meidum Geese, the painting was discovered in the 1800s in the Chapel of Itet at Meidum. The powerful couple was able to commission works from the most sought-after artists of the day. (A facsimile of Meidum Geese hangs in the New York institution; the original is in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.)

The geese were once part of a larger scene found in the tomb chapel of Itet. She was the wife of the vizier Nefermaat, and likely the daughter-in-law of King Snefru. As members of the royal family, the pair was granted a large mastaba tomb close to the pyramid of the king and could employ the most sought-after artists of the day to help in its decoration.

The geese were depicted below a scene. It was showing men trapping birds in a clap net and offering them to the tomb’s owner. While it is not uncommon to find scenes of fowling in the marshes in Old Kingdom tombs, this example is one of the earliest and is notable for the extraordinary quality of the painting. The artist took great care in rendering the colors and textures of the birds’ feathers and even included serrated bills on the two geese bending to graze.

Unfortunately, the fragility of the support made the works vulnerable to ageing and to man, and the Meidum Geese is one of the few examples to have survived. The fragment comes from the Mastaba of Nefermaat and Itet in the necropolis of Meidum where the “cloaked” pyramids begun by Huni, the last king of the 3rd Dynasty, were completed by his successor, Sneferu, the father of Khufu.

Although animal life was depicted frequently in funerary iconography, rarely did the execution reach the artistic level of these panels. The scene is dominated by six geese in two groups of three against a background of a garden suggested by clumps of grass and flowers. The danger of restricting the painting in order to follow the rules of pictorial symmetry that sometimes stiffened the hand of Egyptian artists is here overcome by the inclusion of different details like the plumage and the tips of the tails. It is also evident that the intention was to create a rarefied atmosphere in which the harmony of the matching colors was in perfect agreement with the positioning of the geese in the landscape.

Old Kingdom, 4th Dynasty, reign of Sneferu, around ca. 2600 BC. Painted plaster, height 27 cm, length 172 cm. Excavation by A. Mariette (1871). Now in the Egyptian Museum, Cairo. JE 34571