Newly Acquired Archive Traces Scholar’s Work on Egypt’s Religious Symbolism

An archive tracing the life and work of a woman who was a dancer, set designer and the wife of film star Rudolph Valentino before becoming a renowned Egyptologist was recently donated to the Yale Egyptological Institute in Egypt, part of the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations.

The department will showcase the archive of Natcha Rambova at a reception and exhibit on Friday, April 17, at 2:30 p.m. in the Sterling Memorial Library lecture hall, 120 High St. The public is invited to attend.

“Natcha Rambova’s work on the complex and multi-layered images of post-Ramesside mythological papyri resulted in important observations concerning the iconic representation of the twin solar axes over a decade before these concepts received any considerable attention from most Egyptologists,” notes Professor John Darnell, director of the Yale Egyptological Institute in Egypt.

“The photographs and drawings within the archive will provide an important resource for Yale students of Egyptian and ancient Near Eastern studies,” he adds.

Born as Winifred O’Shaughnessy, Rambova began dancing professionally with a Russian ballet company in Paris at age 17. During this period she took on her Russian name, one which she would later legalize. After returning to the United States, Rambova joined the Kosloff Ballet Company and travelled extensively through Canada, England and the United States. She eventually became a teacher at the dance school opened by Theodore Kosloff, and designed many of the sets and costumes used in his productions.

Alla Nazimova hired Rambova as the art director for her film “Camille,” being made at Metro Pictures; there, Rambova met Valentino. When the actor was fired by his studio, Paramount Pictures, the couple turned to spiritualism for guidance.

When Valentino finally returned to Paramount, Rambova took control of his career, choosing “Monsieur Beaucaire” a pre-revolutionary French saga, as his comeback movie and supervising all the costume designs. On a later film, she expanded her role to include hiring supporting cast. She lost control of Valentino’s contract when he later signed with United Artists, and the couple eventually divorced. His death a few years later revived her interest in spiritualism, which led subsequently to her interest in Egyptology.

In 1945, the Bollingen Foundation hired Rambova as the executive head of a two-year expedition to Egypt. Her primary job was to supervise the photography, and the expedition resulted in several important scholarly publications with photographic records of major Egyptian monuments.

After settling in Connecticut, Rambova devoted her time to researching a comparative study of ancient religious symbolism. In fact, her research is an important part of classroom instruction at Yale, including the course in “Egyptian Religion” being offered this semester by Darnell, who is also professor and chair of Egyptology in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations and professor of religious studies.

Edward Ochsenschlager, professor emeritus at Brooklyn College, City University of New York, donated Rambova’s archive to the Yale Egyptological Institute in Egypt in 2007. Darnell has done extensive research in Egyptian religion, and it is due primarily to his work that Yale was chosen as the site for the archive.

The Rambova archive contains over 10,000 items. Rambova collected photos, drawing and paintings not only from Egypt but also Mesopotamia, India, Greece, Italy, Cambodia, Tibet, China, Mexico, Peru, Ireland and England. The images — many exploring the theme of religious symbolism — span the period from the fourth millennium B.C.E. through the 19th century.

The archive also includes the original drafts and manuscripts for Rambova’s 1,000-page comparative study of manuscripts and drafts of Rambova’s extensive notes and hand-drawn diagrams, as well as her correspondence with fellow scholars. Rambova also amassed a collection of Egyptian antiquities. One of these — a Predynastic bull’s head amulet — was recently acquired by the Yale University Art Gallery, and a photograph of the amulet will be on display on April 17.

Founded in 2005 as part of the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, the Yale Egyptological Institute in Egypt provides instruction in the philology and cultures of ancient Egypt and Nubia, both in the classroom and in the field.

In 2010, the institute will host a two-day conference exploring Rambova’s place in the history of Egyptology and contemporary trends in scholarship of Egyptian religion, with particular focus on the corpus of Underworld Books.

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