Die Kultkammer des Ka-ni-nisut im Kunsthistorischen Museum Wien

Reading September 02. 2019

Die Kultkammer des Ka-ni-nisut im Kunsthistorischen Museum Wien by Regina Hölzl. Published by Verlag Christian Brandstätter, 2005.

The Egyptian Collection of the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna owns one of the most outstanding collections of monuments of the Old Kingdom. This richly illustrated work by Regina Hölzl is dedicated to the mastaba of the royal official Kaninisut: its discovery, the purchase of the tomb’s cult chamber for the museum where it is to be visited today, and its relief decoration. 

Project description

The mastaba of Kaninisut lies in the western cemetery of Giza. It was discovered in early 1913 by the excavation team of the Austrian Academy of Sciences directed by Hermann Junker. Subsequently the cult chamber of the mastaba was purchased for the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, where it has been accessible for the public since 1925.

Kaninisut was a high official during the 4th or early 5th dynasties, as demonstrated by the location and size of his tomb, and his numerous honorific titles, such as “beloved son of the king”, “sole friend” or “lord of the kilt”. He held the position of “sem-priest”. The family of Kaninisut can be followed up into the fifth generation, since his descendants had their graves built in the immediate vicinity of his mastaba, although they had gradually lost their standing in the royal court.

The mastaba tomb of Kaninisut lies in the western section of the Giza cemetery. The core structure of the mastaba was approx. 24 m long and 10.2 m wide. The exact height of the mastaba can no longer be determined due to its destruction. The external walls of the core building were built of limestone blocks, which were coated with a layer of fine white Tura limestone. The interior of the upper building contains no rooms and is filled with rubble. A short, narrow corridor led to the cult chapel of Kaninisut that was attached to the south side of the mastaba. The 3.60 m long, 1.45 m wide and 3.16 m high chamber was sealed with a wooden door and contained two false doors on the west wall, in front of which the offerings were carried out. Behind the southern false door was the serdab, a walled-off small room where the ka-statue of the tomb owner (now lost) had stood originally. The substructure of Kaninisut's mastaba was a 17 m deep vertical shaft tomb, which led, via a short corridor, to a grave chamber roughly hewn from the rock.

Decorative program 

The cult chamber of Kaninisut’s mastaba tomb was built of the best Tura limestone and is decorated with fine raised reliefs. Scenes from the offering rituals, delivering and slaughtering of sacrificial animals, offering lists, and two ship scenes adorn the east and south walls. The chief focus of the chamber was on the west wall, which contained the two false doors. Between the two doors Kaninisut is depicted with his wife Neferhanisut and their children. The faces of the children have been intentionally destroyed. To the left of the family, numerous servants of Kaninisut's household are depicted, including four scribes.

The northern wall of the cult chamber shows Kaninisut on a very large scale, together with his eldest son, who is depicted as a child, before the scribes and officials of his household.

Before a wall could be decorated with reliefs, guidelines were placed on the smoothed surface on which the artists could orient themselves when they made their preliminary drawings. When depicting human figures, a certain proportional canon had to be observed.  This was already introduced during the Old Kingdom and existed, with some changes, until the Greco-Roman times. From the Old Kingdom on, the human figure was subdivided into six sections with defined dimensional specifications, whereby the first of the figure was determined as a unit of measure. According to the proportional canon, a person from foot to knee should be six units of measurement, which is one third of the total height of the figure. From knee to buttocks there were three units of measurement, as well as from buttocks to elbow. Two and a half units amounted to the distance from the elbow to the armpit, one and a half units from the armpit top the neck. As for the head, two units of measurement were determined up to the forehead. In addition to the guidelines, a grid system was added during the Middle Kingdom, which made the figures even more appropriate. Preliminary drawings for the relief representations were drawn in red into the system of the guidelines, any corrections were made with black paint… In the cult chamber of Kaninisut, the remnants of red and black paint are still visible, especially in the representation of the ship above the passageway and the depiction of the tomb owner on the north wall. Before the face of Kaninisut on the north wall small red rectangles are noticeable, which were intended as guidelines for inscription but were never carried out.

Documentation method

Not specified by the author.

Visual example(s)

Fig. 14. The mastaba of Kaninisut

Fig. 6. Offering scene on the northern doorjamb of the cult chamber of Kaninisut (drawing by Christa Mlinar).

Fig. 22. The northern doorjamb of the cult chamber.

Fig. 20. Proportional canon of the Old Kingdom on the example of the representation of Kaninisut on the north wall of the cult chamber (drawing by Christa Mlinar).

Firg. 32. North wall of the cult chamber.

Guidelines (detail from the north wall of the cult chamber).

What we like

  • The reliefs are represented with various line weights indicating the depth of carving. In case of both figures and text, the traditional sun and shadow conventions are used more or less consistently.
  • Damaged and plastered-over areas are shown with different textures: the damaged surface is enclosed with light gray outline and filled with light dashed lines, while plaster is indicated with a dotted pattern.
  • Painted details, wherever providing extra information over the raised relief, are shown as light gray dotted lines; color is otherwise not indicated on the drawings.
  • In Egyptian art, a proportional guide was the basis for human representation from the Old Kingdom onwards. Beside explaining the rules of depicting human figures, proportional guidelines are imposed over the tomb owner’s representation for better understanding, while a table with the proportional canon of the Old Kingdom is also attached as an aid. 

Additional reading

This article is based on the Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien publication „Die Kultkammer des Ka-ni-nisut im Kunsthistorischen Museum Wien“ by Regina Hölzl, which can be purchased through the museum, now at the reduced price of €4.95. 

Hermann Junker’s “The offering Room of Prince Kaninisut”, which was published by the Kunsthistorisches Museum in 1931, offers further information about the Austrian excavations at Giza and the cult chamber, and can be read online.

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