A new SpaceX rocket launched recently carrying various satellites, including Tavares Strachan’s artwork “Enoch.” Strachan was inspired by the canopic jars that ancient Egyptians used in burials.
What were those canopic jars anyway? Well, to prepare for the afterlife, ancient Egyptians underwent elaborate mummification, including the removal of certain organs. The liver, stomach, lungs, and intestines were extracted, sometimes from an abdominal incision, and carefully placed within four containers known as canopic jars. While their design evolved over the centuries, they often involved an animal or human face carved on the lid. Sometimes they represented the deceased; other times divine protectors.
“During the New Kingdom, the mythical Four Sons of Horus, the son and successor of Osiris, god of the dead, were entrusted with the care of these organs,” writes archaeologist Robert S. Bianchi in Archaeology. “Later during the Third Intermediate period (1080-750 BCE), canopic jars were not popular and the soft organs were packaged individually into bundles and then redeposited into the abdominal cavity of the corpse.”
The number of jars—four—was possibly symbolic. As Egyptologist Maarten J. Raven explains in The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, the number four appears in numerous Egyptian rituals, such as the “shooting of four arrows and the release of four birds during coronation rituals.” Although the jars were phased out over time, they did have an impact on other funerary traditions.
Canopic jars have long inspired other works. Curator Joan R. Mertens writes in Metropolitan Museum Journal that the jars may have inspired Etruscan urns, which similarly had a human head atop a simple terracotta base. Instead of organs, these held ashes of the dead. “The hypothesis that these Etruscan objects prompt is that, in the course of commercial contact, knowledge of a canopic urn, or urns, reached the Athenian potters’ quarter,” writes Mertens.
When Egyptomania swept through eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europe, the canopic jars were among those artifacts reinterpreted into decorative arts. For instance, Josiah Wedgwood, founder of the famed Wedgwood pottery company, designed one from black basalt that has a pharaonic head above reliefs of hieroglyphs. The visual essence of the canopic jar was there, but the Wedgwood iteration lacked its funerary and spiritual meaning. It was simply an object.
Still others were influenced by the original purpose of the vessels. Composer Claude Debussy owned a couple of canopic jars which he kept on his work table, and composed a 1913 piano prelude called “Canope.” “The sight of a stark, slender canopic jar itself may have suggested the unadorned, blocked chords of the opening section,” observes music scholar Richard Hoffman in College Music Symposium. Debussy’s enigmatic notes, and “tinges of modality,” suggest contemplation of a distant time and place.
Strachan’s 24-karat gold canopic jar, contained in a black frame, features the face of the first African American to train as an astronaut, Robert Henry Lawrence Jr. Lawrence, an air force pilot with a PhD in physical chemistry, was selected in 1967 for the Air Force’s Manned Orbital Laboratory. Tragically, Lawrence died on December 8th, 1967 while working as a supersonic jet instructor, teaching the landing techniques that would eventually be used on the Space Shuttles. He was thirty-two years old.
Strachan created “Enoch” through the Art+Technology Lab at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). As LACMA describes on its site, Strachan’s choice of a canopic jar “nods to a practice employed by the ancient Egyptians to protect and preserve organs of the deceased for use in the afterlife.” His sculptural tribute to Lawrence was blessed at a Shinto shrine in Japan, and there “recognized as a container for Lawrence’s soul” and named “Robert Lawrence–Enoch.” In some biblical texts, a man named Enoch lived over three centuries and entered heaven without experiencing death. Under this name, Lawrence spiritually departs the mortal plane and ascends into outer space.
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Strachan is installing “beacons” that will light up on top of schools as “Enoch” travels above Earth for about seven years until it ultimately burns up in the atmosphere. Lawrence never got to space, yet in this tribute his spirit soars, embodied by this ancient symbol of life’s passage to the next realm.