Seti's father, Ramesses II, began the 19 Dynasty during Egypt's New Kingdom period. His brief two-year reign allowed his son to take the throne and formally begin one of the most important periods in all Egyptian history. Seti instituted massive building and restoration projects throughout Egypt. These monuments are covered with relief sculpture of exquisite style. Seti's was the father of Ramesses II, who built the great complex at Abu Simbel and is believed to have been pharaoh at the time of the Hebrew exodus from Egypt.
This scene is simple, yet profound. Here, a dignified male figure, identified as Seti I, piously extends his offering of incense toward an unseen deity, immediately taking his place beside those who have performed this act in the past and those who will do so in the future. The pharaoh is depicted in a composite pose so characteristic of Egyptian art: his face is shown in profile while his torso is shown from the front. Rather than disrupt the flow of the figure, Egyptian artists used this arrangement to present the fullest or most typical features of each part of the human body. A delicately carved incense burner, which terminates in the head of a hawk, is held in the left hand. The right arm is positioned lower than the left as indicated by the curve of the right shoulder. Perhaps Seti I is actually making a double sacrifice. Might he possibly be pouring sacred water or oil from his unseen arm? He wears a wonderfully carved striped cloth nemes headdress flanked by two large uraei cobras, indicative of his royal stature.
The depiction of ritual acts in Egyptian art centers on a set of highly codified poses, gestures, and implements. Many of these were developed over centuries of use and related to Egyptian hieroglyphs as well. From the pose of Seti I on this relief panel, we can conjecture that he stood before a deity at his left, extending the incense burner with his left hand and simultaneously making another offering with his right. Offering incense was more than an act of devotion. Ancient Egyptians believed that the essence of the deity resided in the fragrant smoke; the god's presence was as real as in the smoke as it was in the statue Seti faced.
Related examples: Seti offering a libation, Temple of Seti I, abydos, Nineteen Dynasty in Wilkinson, Reading Egyptian Art, New York, 1992: p.204.
For further discussion on this theme see: Davis, W. The Canonical Tradition in Ancient Egyptian Art, Cambridge, 1989. Robins, G. The Art of Ancient Egypt, Cambridge, 1997 and Wilkinson, R.H., Symbol and Magic in Egyptian art, New York, 1994