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The Symbolism of Egyptian Blue-Painted Pottery

Dynasty 18 (ca. 1550/1549 to 1292 BCE) of the New Kingdom marks the “Golden Age” of ancient Egypt. The Upper and Lower kingdoms were reunified, resulting in an exuberant amount of wealth, prosperity, and growth. Blue-painted pottery serves as evidence of the economic growth and trade that occurred during this time. It was at its height of production from about 1400-1200 B.C.E. The sites of Malkata, Amarna, and Saqqara have provided a large number of blue-painted pottery; in particular, vessels with the Hathor emblem have been discovered. This article takes a comparativist approach to the Hathor emblems featured on blue-painted pottery in juxtaposition to mirrors also exhibiting the Hathor emblem and decorated floral collars and garlands. This reveals the significance of Hathor and floral imagery within ancient Egyptian art.


Origins of Blue-Painted Pottery

Blue Painted Pottery Jar
Blue-Painted Jar Blue-painted jar, From Egypt, Upper Egypt, Thebes, Malkata, Palace of Amenhotep III, Dynasty 18, ca. 1390-1353 B.C.E. (courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Blue-painted pottery was as a luxury item during the New Kingdom and demonstrates a high level of technical ability in its manufacturing. A wide range of imagery has been featured on blue-painted pottery, but floral motifs are the dominating decoration. These floral decorations usually portray the blue lotus; however, there are also representations of the white lotus, cornflowers, poppies, mandrakes, chrysanthemums, and the papyrus. Some of these vessels contain birds, cattle, fish, gazelles, ibexes, horses, cats, humans, and even hieroglyphs. Decorative figures are also seen either molded, incised, or carved onto the vessel in a three-dimensional manner. While many sherds of blue-painted pottery have been excavated, the highest proportion of finds originate from the reigns of Akhenaten (ca. 1353–1336 BCE) and Tutankhamun (1353–1336 BCE).

Blue-Painted Pottery with the Hathor Emblem

Storage Jar with Hathor Emblem
Storage Jar Embossed with Hathor Emblem, from Upper Egypt, Thebes, Malkata, Palace of Amenhotep III, Dynasty 18, ca. 1390-1353 B.C.E. (courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art)

A distinct type of blue painted pottery associated with divine emerged during mid-Dynasty 18. These ceramic types display the face of Hathor, the ancient Egyptian goddess of love, beauty, music, dancing, fertility, and pleasure, molded onto the neck of the vessel. This particular ceramic is sometimes decorated with gazelles or ibexes, clusters of flowers, and occasionally with grapes. The shapes of these vessels resemble amphorae because of the influence of Egyptian trade with Greece, Crete, and Cyprus. Evidence of blue-painted pottery found at Amarna has been discovered in a wide distribution throughout the city that includes domestic, industrial, administrative, and religious contexts. This ornately decorated pottery was available and utilized by all social classes in the city of Amarna. Considered to be cult vessels, the religious purposes of these containers molded with the Hathor emblem is evident by their association with palatial and burial contexts and were predominately used for festivals and religious ceremonies. By the late Ramesside Period, in Dynasty 20, the production of blue-painted pottery ceases altogether, and the existence of this ceramic type is no longer found in the archaeological record.

Floral Motifs: Collars and Garlands

Floral Collar with Blue Painted Pottery Elements
Floral collar from Tutankhamun's Embalming Cache, ca. 1336–1327 B.C. Egyptian, New Kingdom Papyrus, olive leaves, persea leaves, nightshade berries, celery (?), faience, linen dyed red; diam. 47 cm (18 1/2 in); d. 17 cm (6 11/16 in); diam. disk beads 0.5 cm (3/16 in) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Theodore M. Davis, 1909 (09.184.216)

An analysis of ancient Egyptian collars and garlands helps to better understand the floral motifs displayed blue-painted pottery with the Hathor emblem. These floral motifs originate from the Egyptian practice of decorating vessels with collars or garlands of flowers during festivals, as well as paintings in tombs, palaces, and houses. Throughout Egyptian history, physical and representative flowers were employed for their aesthetic and symbolic significances. Collars are created by sewing flowers petals, leaves, fruits, and seeds onto semi-circular or penannular sheets of papyrus or strips of palm leaf. Garlands are a band, or chain, of flowers, foliage, and leaves; it may be joined at the ends to form a circle, as seen in wreathes or worn as chaplets around the head. Both collars and garlands are worn by men and women in ancient Egypt.

Floral collars and garlands are associated with beauty, the afterlife, festivals, and rebirth. This is illustrated by the representation of these floral works being worn by elite men, women and adolescent girls. Evidence of physical collars playing a major role in the afterlife is found in the floral collar from the tomb of Tutankhamun (see above). The manifestation of floral motifs on blue-painted pottery represents their affiliation with mortuary beliefs of rebirth and the afterlife.


Hathor Emblem on Mirrors

Mirro with Hathor Emblem
Mirror with Hathor Emblem Handle, ca. 1479–1425 B.C. Egyptian, New Kingdom Disk: silver; handle: wood (modern) sheathed in gold; inlays restored; H. 33.4 cm (13 1/8 in); w. of disk 15.5 cm (6 1/8 in); d. 2 cm (13/16 in.) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Fletcher Fund, 1919–1920

Mirrors with the Hathor emblem also illustrate the importance of Hathor to the ancient Egyptians. The association with Hathor played a significant role in New Kingdom material culture. Elite women during the New Kingdom utilized these mirrors associated with Hathor for their religious ideologies in beauty, rebirth, and sexuality. The mirror’s emblem displays her face with two elongated cow ears. The handles of these mirrors have symbolic meaning with the goddess with their shape made in the form of the stem and umbel of the papyrus plant. The mirror's disk emulates the disk of the sun and Hathor’s headdress featuring the sun disk set between two bovine horns, referring to the goddess's role as a cow who carried the young sun god between her horns. Other handles were made in the shape of a papyrus stem and flower that formed the hieroglyph wad, which means ‘green, fresh, flourishing, healthy.’ Mirrors with the Hathor emblem were utilized as instruments of beauty and as a symbol of the sun.



Blue-painted pottery with the Hathor emblem and its inclusion of floral motifs signify the association with beauty, life, rebirth and the afterlife. This is evident with other items crafted during the same period, such as Hathor emblems forged on mirror handles and florally decorated collars and garlands. This hybridization of symbolism with practical use in a festive and mortuary context demonstrates a balance of religious connotation with a celebratory and utilitarian purpose. In recent discovery, this blue-painted pottery type has extended from palace sites to domestic and mortuary contexts. This particular pottery type with the face of Hathor was a popularly utilized luxury item with multi-faceted symbolism during the New Kingdom in ancient Egypt.


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