Eternal Egypt – Masterworks of Ancient Art from the British Museum

Written by:
Arthur Lazere
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Eternal Egypt

Masterworks of Ancient Art from the British Museum

Papyrus with Satirical Vignettes (detail) (reversed)

The ancient Egyptians responded to humankind’s universal concern with mortality with the alternative of immortality, the idea of an eternal life to come after life on earth is over. Their tombs were seen as the eternal home of the spirit and items were placed in the tombs which would assist the spirit in eternal life: depictions of food, weapons, even pets and game pieces for amusement. Mummification preserved earthly remains and portraits sometimes preserved earthly appearances.

During renovation work at the British Museum, selections from their great collection of ancient Egyptian artifacts are touring major North American cities. Some 144 pieces, ranging in size from a pair of gold earrings to a two and a half ton granite lion, span a period of over 3,500 years.

The exhibit is arranged chronologically with the stated goal of demonstrating the evolution of the art over time, but covering such an extended period and with such subtle changes, that aspect of what is on view will most likely prove to be of more interest to scholars than to the general public. That should not and will not discourage attendance–this fascinating art evokes a powerful sense of connection, bridging the millennia to ancient peoples, aspects of their day-to-day lives and their religious beliefs. Most surviving Egyptian artifacts were found in the tombs, so this is a view of their times from the top down; the tombs belonged to royalty and the aristocratic class.

The granite lion may be the heaviest item on view, but the lion itself is a pussycat–front legs crossed and a somewhat docile presence. The second heaviest item is something else again: a capital from a column that was in the temple of the goddess Bastet. Bastet is most often shown with the head of a cat; she is the goddess of the hearth and protector of the newborn. But the representation on the capital is not Bastet, but Hathor, the cow goddess, a goddess of fertility, of women, and of childbirth, clearly related in function to Bastet. On this capital, Hathor has cow’s ears, stylized horns, and a curled wig topped with a row of cobras. Impressive in its own right, this two-ton fragment must be visualized as part of an enormous column, one of four in an interior hall of the temple. The scale is nothing less than awesome.

Awesome, too, are the papyri, not for their scale, but for their amazing survival over the eons and for the sense of immediacy and intimacy to their ancient creators that they provide.Papyrus was a reed that grew along the Nile and the Egyptians created a prototype for the later development of paper out of the pith of the plant. There’s a "Papyrus with Satircal Vignettes" from around 1200 B.C., unusual in its humor and lively observation. When the lion beats the gazelle at the board game, his reward is not gastronomical, but graphically sexual.

There are also fascinating Books of the Dead, papyrus rolls with magical spells to protect non-royal individuals in the afterlife. Right now, C.P.A.s are in pathetic disrepute, but the Papyrus of Ani, a scribe who specialized in accounting, shows great mourning at his funeral procession, elegantly rendered in a long horizontal composition, his wife in tears beside his coffin. Extensive hieroglyphic text below the painting contains the spell. He’s going to need the spell because further along comes "Ani’s Judgement"–the moment when he (like some of his contemporary counterparts) repeatedly declares his innocence. Unlike his modern-day professional peers, however, Ani’s heart is placed on one balance of a scale, with a feather representing the god Maat, personification of truth and order, on the other. Ani successfully makes it to the afterlife; Arthur Anderson, et. al. merely disintegrated in disgrace.

Hieroglyphics appear not only on papyrus scrolls, but on wall paintings, stelae, and statues as well. The statue of Tety, which dates to the fifteenth century B.C., wears a kilt heavily inscribed with characters. There’s a prayer, a list of his titles, even a genealogy. This and two similar statues were made during the reign of Queen Hatshepsut. One of very few female pharohs, Hatshepsut wore male clothing and remained on the throne for some twenty years before disappearing. According to the catalog, her nephew successor engaged in a "very thoroughgoing campaign to destroy any memory of her" and he had her cartouche (her ID) erased from one of these statues. Thus the fate of an early feminist.

Many of the portraits, both painted and sculpted seem to the modern eye to be highly stylized and more a collection of conventions than representations of character. But some pieces resonate for the contemporary viewer. "Nude Figue of the Seal bearer Tjetji" has a natural stance and the sense of a personality. The coffin of a woman, dating from the time of Christ, seems an individualized portrait, as does the later panel portrait from the Roman period. Learning of the lives and customs of these ancient peoples provides a link to our forebears; portraits have the unique potential to connect past and present in more direct, personal terms.

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