Seeing Race in Biblical Egypt: Edwin Longsden Long’s Anno Domini (1883) and A. H. Sayce’s The Races of the Old Testament (1891)

Debbie Challis

Abstract


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This paper discusses the impact of ideas about the historical and racial origins of the Holy Family that are captured in the painting Anno Domini or the Flight into Egypt (1883/4) by Edwin Longsden Long. Anno Domini fits into a wider 19th-century popular visual and literary narrative around Egypt and its ancient and biblical past. This general narrative, and its racial constructions, has been explored within reception theory and art history, but often overlooked in histories of archaeology and Egyptology. This paper unpacks how Anno Domini fits into a well-known orientalist way of seeing Egypt but also reflects ideas about race that were prevalent in archaeology and other newly established scientific disciplines at the time. The construction of the Virgin Mary and Christ child as White Europeans in Anno Domini both reflects and had an impact on constructions of race in Britain and on ancient (and modern) peoples in the Holy Land and Egypt in the late nineteenth century.

These constructions fed the growing use of scientific terminology to give such racist imagery authority, as found in A. H. Sayce's ‘Sunday school book’ The Races of the Old Testament (1891). Sayce’s popular book used photographs taken by the archaeologist Flinders Petrie in 1887 of different 'racial types' from Egyptian monuments. Anno Domini vividly illustrates the preoccupation with race and identity found in archaeological interpretations of and motivations for recording material culture from ancient Egypt. This paper illustrates how art, archaeology, orientalism and racial theory fused and fed each other.


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