Die like an Egyptian

The wondrous funerary objects of ancient Egypt at the MFA.

click to enlarge SMALL WONDER: A gold amulet in the form of a scorpion (664-30 BC) is a mere 15/16ths of an inch long. - Collection of the Fondation Gandur pour l’Art ©Sandra Pointet
Collection of the Fondation Gandur pour l’Art ©Sandra Pointet
SMALL WONDER: A gold amulet in the form of a scorpion (664-30 BC) is a mere 15/16ths of an inch long.

When fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent died of brain cancer in 2009, one of his biggest status symbols — a massive art collection that included Chinese statuary, fine porcelain, and a Matisse painting that sold for a record 32 million euros — hit the auction block. One six-and-a-half-foot tall, coffee-colored sarcophagus lid, crafted in ancient Egypt around 3,000 years ago, made its way from the Paris auction to Fondation Gandur Pour L’Art, a respected Geneva, Switzerland-based collection. Today it stands inside the Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg.

On loan to St. Pete from the Swiss foundation, the wood coffin lid, carved deeply with the image of an imposing male head, is part of an exhibition devoted to objects involved in ancient Egyptian funerary practices. The exhibit, Ancient Egypt — Art and Magic: Treasures from the Fondation Gandur pour l’Art, includes more than 100 works that collectively conjure the importance of images to the experience of dying in ancient Egypt (at least for the elite members of society who funded the production of the objects).

After Saint Laurent’s death, his partner Pierre Bergé opted to sell the art collection they had amassed to generate proceeds for an AIDS research center. For two 20th-century Parisian elites, the value of an ancient sarcophagus was best felt during life; after life, it became the means to a charitable legacy. By contrast, the ancient Egyptians who commissioned the objects in Ancient Egypt — Art and Magic seem to have believed powerfully in post-mortem possessions and their potential to influence life after death.

The MFA exhibit doesn’t offer an overarching narrative about the objects on view, nor is it organized around a single royal biography. Instead, the items impart multiple insights into the way ancient Egyptian beliefs shaped the making of specific things. It’s these wondrous things — described at length in a thorough exhibition catalogue that has been my source for factual information presented here, and further explored in a truly commendable array of ongoing educational events at the museum — that make Ancient Egypt — Art and Magic worth a visit.

Here are four of my favorites:

An amulet in the form of a scorpion (664-30 BC). At 15/16 of an inch, this gold amulet is the second smallest object in the exhibition. (A duck-shaped amulet inscribed with miniature hieroglyphics clocks in at 13/16 inches.) Designed to hang from a necklace, the diminutive pendant marries the body of a venomous scorpion with the abstracted head of a woman, perhaps designed to be interpretable as a variety of goddesses. By combining the images, the amulet may have offered its mummified wearer multifaceted protection from evil — reversing the scorpion’s lethal power as a ward against other dangers and tapping into divine sources of benevolence.

A statuette of a goose (1554-1305 BC). Much of ancient Egyptian visual culture relies on the simplified, stylized forms of hieroglyphic design. Not so this foot-tall wood-and-bronze goose, so detailed and lifelike in its construction that it appears to have stepped out of an Audubon field guide. The striking animal portrait may have been crafted as a manifestation of the Egyptian god Amun. Where the statue originated is unknown, but it could have stood in a royal tomb inside the Valley of the Kings (where similar geese have been found) to help enable a deceased ruler’s resurrection.

A sarcophagus for a shrew (380-250/200 BC). Modern eyes might be tempted to find comedy in this wood coffin for a mummified shrew, a rodent-like mammal. (It hardly helps that the tiny shrews painted on the sides of the box look like escapees from an early Walt Disney cartoon.) But this supplement to a deceased human’s tomb may have been (seriously) intended to provide the interred with an animal guide through the long night of resurrection. Breeding and mummifying animals for religious ceremonies was big business in ancient Egypt, the exhibition catalogue reports.

Lid from an anthropoid sarcophagus (1080-720 BC). Along with the Saint Laurant sarcophagus top, this vibrantly colorful coffin lid in the shape of a human body offers one of the exhibit’s biggest wows. Virtually every inch of its wooded surface is covered with patterns, hieroglyphs and narrative vignettes painted in red, blue and yellow pigments (or pigments that have chemically transformed over time to display those colors). Winged entities — a scarab beetle, a sun goddess and a sun — soar over the torso section of the lid; an idealized male face carved in three dimensions and framed by a painted wig that was once black, rather than muted blue, tops the piece. Who its owner was remains unknown, but he may have been a priest in the wealthy ancient city of Thebes.

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