Its representation of the zodiac in circular form is unique in ancient Egyptian art. More typical are the rectangular zodiacs which decorate the same temple's pronaos.
The celestial arch is represented by a disc held up by four pillars of the sky in the form of women, between which are inserted falcon-headed spirits. On the first ring, 36 spirits symbolize the 360 days of the Egyptian year.
On an inner circle, one finds constellations, showing the signs of the zodiac. Some of these are represented in the same forms as their familiar names (e.g. the Ram, Taurus, Scorpio, and Capricorn, albeit most in odd orientations in comparison to the conventions of ancient Greece and later Arabic-Western developments), whilst others are shown in a more Egyptian form: Aquarius is represented as the flood god Hapy, holding two vases which gush water.
During the Napoleonic campaign in Egypt, Vivant Denon drew the circular zodiac, the more widely known one, and the rectangular zodiacs. In 1802, after the Napoleonic expedition, Denon published engravings of the temple ceiling in his Voyage dans la Basse et la Haute Egypte. These elicited a controversy as to the age of the zodiac representation, ranging from tens of thousands to a thousand years to a few hundred, and whether the zodiac was a planisphere or an astrological chart. Louis Charles Antoine Desaix, a member of the expedition, decided to remove the relief to France and so, in 1820, the antiquities dealer Sébastien-Louis Saulnier commissioned Jean Baptiste Leloraine, a master mason, to remove the circular zodiac with saws, jacks, and scissors constructed for the job. The zodiac ceiling was moved in 1821 to Restoration Paris and, by 1822, was installed by Louis XVIII in the Royal Library. In 1964, the zodiac moved from the Bibliothèque Nationale to the Louvre.
The controversy around the zodiac, called the "Dendera Affair", involved people of the likes of Joseph Fourier (who estimated that the age was 2500 BC), Thomas Young, Jean-François Champollion, and Jean-Baptiste Biot. Johann Karl Burckhardt and Jean-Baptiste Coraboeuf held, after analysis of the zodiac, that the ancient Egyptians understood the precession of the equinoxes. Champollion, among others, believed that it was a religious zodiac. Champollion deciphered the names of Tiberius, Claudius, Nero and Domitian on the ceiling of Dendera's temple, and placed the zodiac in the era of Roman rule over Egypt.
Royal treasure house in danger: the Cabinet des Medailles, housed in the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, has its origins in the collection of art and antiquities formed by the French monarchy. Starved of funds and space, it currently faces an uncertain future. Guy Weill Goudchaux discusses the problems facing France's oldest museum and introduces a selection of its treasures.
Feb 01, 2010; Not far from the Louvre, on the rue de Richelieu, is the Cabinet des Medailles, which has been housed in the Bibliotheque...