After playing with my new camera in the Classical galleries, I crossed the great entrance hall of the Metropolitan Museum into the Egyptian galleries, to take pictures of Egypt, the great African mother of Western Civ. I think the Met has the largest collection of Egyptian art in the Western Hemisphere, and certainly one of the best in the world outside of Egypt. The only exception in this country might be the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Their Egyptian collection is smaller, but it is arguably finer. The Met's collection, however, runs a very close second.
The unsung Brooklyn Museum has an outstanding Egyptian collection that can hold its own with the Met and Boston.
A reconstruction of the Old Kingdom mastaba tomb of Perneb greets us when we enter the Egyptian galleries. If we go to the right from the mastaba, then we can travel through the entire collection in chronological order from Pre-Dynastic times through the Old, Middle, and New Kingdoms, all the intermediate periods in order, the Amarnan heresy, the later dynasties through the Ptolemies, and ending with the Roman occupation.
Here is what you see when you walk inside Perneb's mastaba. It is a very small room where visitors must make room for each other. This is not Perneb's burial chamber. That would have been off to the right and far underground from this room. This chamber was on the surface and always accessible. It is a chapel where Perneb's family and friends would make offerings and prayers to him. I get the impression that what took place in this chapel, originally lit by a single window behind and high above us in this picture, was something similar to ceremonies offering food, flowers, and incense at family tombs during the Chinese Ching Ming festival. The focus of the chapel is a "false door" in the end wall where Perneb's spirit met his living family and his descendents. What I find so striking about the painted decoration of this tomb chapel and others like it is the almost complete absence of recognizably religious imagery. The gods are conspicuously absent. The object of the offerings is Perneb, not Osiris or the sun or anything else. The inscriptions and the imagery are all about what a great and important man Perneb was. He was a court official in charge of robing and crowning the king. With access to the king's person, he must have been very powerful and significant indeed. The imagery and inscriptions are all lists of his titles and his possessions. He was apparently the owner of several large estates with thousands of people living under him. He clearly expected this to continue into the next life.
The Met has another almost complete set of mastaba chapel reliefs from the tomb of Ahktihotep, another Old Kingdom estate lord with access to the king. I think the reliefs from his tomb are finer than Perneb's and a little more accessible, displayed in a dark side chamber that does not attract quite so big a crowd. A lot of these reliefs are very beautiful with lots of wonderful animal imagery like this ibex which I can't tell if it's captured or somehow domesticated. Like the reliefs in the Perneb mastaba, there is almost no religious imagery.
Looming up in the middle of the Old Kingdom gallery are 2 red granite columns from the mortuary temple of Pharaoh Sahure on the east side of his pyramid at Abusir. They are testimony to the great power and charisma the Pharaoh still enjoyed at this late period in the Old Kingdom. The column capital is a cluster of stylized palm leaves bound together.
Two headless statues of the scribe Babaef. The one on the left shows him as a young man, the one on the right shows him as a successful man in middle age. Egypt's scribal class was proud of their flabby bodies with sagging man-tits and bulging love handles. Sagging bulging fat on an unathletic body meant success. A lean muscular body meant that you did manual labor and were therefore lower class. Remarkable how that hierarchy is now completely reversed today as flabby inhabitants of the Skillman Projects watch the Ivy League MBAs do their power work-outs in McCarren Park in Williamsburg, Brooklyn on any given afternoon.
In the Middle Kingdom galleries, there is a single gallery devoted entirely to a set of remarkable wooden models found in the tomb of Meketre. He was Chancellor of Egypt during the reign of Pharaoh Mentuhotep II at the very beginning of the Middle Kingdom. These models are not toys, but representations of all of the activities that took place on his estates for magical purposes. By some kind of spiritual magic, all of these models were supposed to come to life when Meketre entered the next life. The very prosaic and unspeculative Egyptians believed that the next life was the mirror of image of this life. Meketre was Chancellor of Egypt and lord of several estates in this life and he fully expected the same in the next life. Above is one of several boat models in the gallery. This one I call his office boat since he appears to be instructing his staff.
With all the grandeur of Pharaoh himself, Meketre, seated under a canopy, issues instructions to one of his estate stewards, himself an important man in charge of hundreds of people.
Here is Meketre's kitchen boat with the staff hard at work making the Chancellor's lunch.
Inside the shelter, they are making dough. In front of that, women are rolling it out and kneading it, and appear to be baking it in an on-board oven of some kind. These models are amazingly vivid images of daily life on a great Egyptian estate, like other estates where most ancient Egyptians lived. Keep in mind that this is all from Meketre's point of view. These people are hardly fellow citizens in his eyes, but necessary factotums.
This wooden statue from Perneb's tomb is much larger than the other tomb model figures. She is sometimes described as a servant, but she's too well dressed, and size is almost always a sign of status in Egyptian art. She is probably a wife or a daughter carrying an offering basket on her head.
Here is a detail from the painted wooden statue of a woman from Meketre's tomb. This is an extraordinarily beautiful sculpture. The paint looks as bright and fresh as yesterday, and yet the prophet Abraham was in diapers when she was created.
A bad photograph of a major masterpiece of Middle Kingdom sculpture, the small sphinx of Pharaoh Senwosret III. The sculptor brilliantly incorporated the natural grain of the stone into the sculpture. No other people had such a feel for the qualities of fine stone than did the ancient Egyptians.
Here is the head of Senwosret's sphinx with the Pharaoh's own unmistakable features. Senwosret III was among the most aggressively imperial of the Middle Kingdom pharaohs leading numerous military campaigns, especially into the African interior.
Another major masterpiece of Middle Kingdom sculpture, again of Pharaoh Senwosret III. Senwosret uniquely insisted that his sculptors depict his actual features on his monuments, not some approximation of a revived Old Kingdom type. The Middle Kingdom pharaohs were more worldly, having lost much of the old religious charisma attached to the Old Kingdom pharaohs in struggles with powerful regional nobility to hold the kingdom together and to reassert their authority. They had to compete and play politics to gain and to keep power. That realism is reflected in the realism of Senwosret's statues. In many, his large hooded eyes and down-turned mouth make him look tough, as in the sphinx. In this one, he looks long-suffering, as if to say to his subjects, "see what I must bear for your safety and welfare!" a very worldly and political appeal. His is one of the most memorable faces from the ancient world.
A gallery full of beautifully painted Middle Kingdom coffins with some of their original inhabitants.
The gallery is kept dark to preserve the painting on the coffins, and none of my pictures of painted details are worth sharing. But here is one coffin with its owner. All of the coffins, including this one, are painted inside and out. These paintings are not for us, but for the deceased. The late owner was originally placed on his side in the coffin with his face right behind the pair of painted eyes on the coffin just over the shoulder of the mummy in this picture. Belief in the power of magic was once very strong. Painted eyes allowed the deceased to see out.
So much of Egyptian funerary art was about not only preserving, but reviving the bodies of the dead. Here is a detail of the mummy above with a gilded wooden mummy mask tinted red. The wide open glass eyes are strikingly vivid. You can see the painted eyes on his coffin behind him.
I'm not quite sure how I would feel about my mortal remains going on display in a museum because they did such a fine job down at the funeral home. All who ever knew or cared about this man have long ago joined him in the Land Where All Are Forgotten. The Egyptians expected their dead to depart over the western horizon toward the setting sun. I wonder if they had any idea how far over the western horizon their dead would go. I doubt this man ever imagined that he would finally rest in peace in any place called New York, or even America for that matter, and on public display in an institution called a museum.
The familiar anthropoid coffin begins to appear at the very end of the Middle Kingdom and into the Second Intermediate Period. These are rishi coffins, so called because of their painted feather decoration. "Rishi" is Arabic for "feathered." These are very strange looking.
Some of the rishi coffins are not only strange looking, but downright creepy.
We begin the grandeur of the New Kingdom, Egypt's imperial age, with the Hatshepsut gallery, newly rebuilt. Here is a view into the gallery from the last Middle Kingdom gallery.
Here is an entire gallery devoted to one of the New Kingdom's first great pharaohs and history's first great woman, Hatshepsut. All of the images in this room are of her. Most of them show her in male garb or as a man. All of these images were smashed to bits at one point and re-assembled as you can see if you look closely at the figure on the left.
The scale of all of this work is striking. These are all statues from her great temple at Deir El Bahri near Luxor, the largest construction project since the great pyramids of Giza and a major masterpiece of architecture. I think all this grandeur is out of insecurity over her legitimacy as Pharaoh. Gender was certainly an issue. Pharaoh is a male title. However, she seems not to have had much problem keeping the loyalty of the military and civil service. The priesthood appears to have actively collaborated in the story of her divine birth, her claim to be a daughter of Ammon, god of the city of Thebes and the national god of New Kingdom Egypt. Probably the bigger issue was that she was a usurper, taking power, and even the title, from her stepson, the crown prince and future pharaoh, Thutmose III.
Thutmose III as pharaoh took out his revenge on his wicked step-mother, smashing all of her statues at Deir el Bahri and erasing her name from all of the inscriptions. The mysterious and remarkable fact is that he waited 20 years after her death to do this.
Here is the star of the gallery, another major masterpiece of sculpture now beautifully displayed. I wish I could claim credit for this photo, but it's all the Met's staging. I just pointed and clicked.
She may have been a wicked step-mother to Thutmose, but to the rest of Egypt, she seems to have been a very capable and successful ruler, usurper or not. She kept her realm secure and at peace, and she expanded trade contacts deep into Africa and as far south as Somalia and/or Yemen (perhaps the "Land of Punt" described in the inscriptions from her monuments).
She had first-rate sculptors working for her. Here she appears in one of the few sculptures that shows her in male garb, but as a woman, commanding yet graceful in appearance.
Does anyone else think she looks like Hillary Clinton?
Here is Hatshepsut's magnificent sphinx, now relegated for reasons unknown to a spot behind the Temple of Dendur. This used to be another star of the Hatshepsut gallery.
Here is the sexiest pair of lips in the whole museum, carved in yellow jasper. They once belonged to Queen Tiye, favorite wife of Pharaoh Amenhotep III and Tutankhamun's grandmother.
The Met has a small, but choice collection of work from the reign of the heretic Pharaoh Akhenaten who reduced the Egyptian pantheon to just 2 gods, himself and the sun god Aten first worshiped by his father, Pharaoh Amenhotep III. Even more radically, Akhenaten closed all the temples to Egypt's traditional deities. He did what the very deeply conservative Egyptians feared most. He made a new start, building a whole new capital city at a place today called Amarna. All the surviving evidence points to this top-down religious revolution as being deeply unpopular, even within the Pharaoh's court. Nobles and commoners together kept the worship of the old gods in secret.
The Met has a collection of beautiful relief sculptures from Akhenaten's temple to Aten at Amarna. The temple was torn down soon after Akhenaten's death, and its reliefs cut up into even sized blocks and used as fill in later buildings. Akhenaten instructed his artists to depart from traditional formula and experiment in the direction of greater realism.
Here is an amazingly realistic carving of wheat waving in the breeze, from the Aten temple.
Nile river fish swimming among the water plants from another relief from the Aten temple.
One of several remarkable plaster faces found in the remains of a sculptor's studio in Amarna showing an old woman. This is hardly recognizable as Egyptian sculpture. If I didn't know better, I'd say it was Roman or Hellenistic sculpture. In fact it predates Romans and Greeks by many centuries. This particular moment in Egyptian art had no precedent and would never again be repeated.
Through a door in the small Amarna gallery, we pass into the vast hall housing the Temple of Dendur. The temple was a gift of the Egyptian government after American assistance moving the great temples of Abu Simbel away from the rising waters of the lake created by the construction of the Aswan high dam.
This is a small temple to the goddess Hathor and 2 deified brothers from the far south of Egypt, almost to the Sudan. It is a rebuilding of an earlier temple by the Roman Emperor Augustus. The Romans, and Augustus in particular, were careful to encourage and cultivate the native religions of conquered peoples throughout the Empire with active government support. This was a temple rebuilt at the Emperor's expense by native artists and craftsmen.
The Emperor Augustus certainly never visited this temple in a far away corner of his empire, and was probably barely aware that it even existed. Now, it forms a centerpiece for lavish parties thrown by New York's glitterati in this gallery.
The pharaoh shown making offerings to the gods in the reliefs throughout the Dendur temple is the Roman Emperor Augustus. He assumed the title of Pharaoh of Egypt upon becoming Emperor of Rome. We can see tourists peeking into the temple sanctuary through the small side door.
More mummies, this time from the later days of the New Kingdom, from the reign of Ramses II, "the Great." This is the coffin of a noble lady named Lineferti. Within her coffin is a second lid showing her in her very undead best clothes. Her extravagant jewelry and hair shows the opulence of late imperial Egypt under the reign of Ramses when Egypt was the dominant power in the ancient world.
Remarkable how much Egyptian burial practices have evolved since the days of Perneb's mastaba almost 2000 years earlier. All 4 of these coffins belonged to the same owner who lies to the right. They fitted one into the other like Russian dolls. Old Kingdom tomb art had little to no religious imagery. These coffins are covered with it, with images of various gods and symbols and with necessary prayers for the passage into the next life. The passage into the Fields of Blessedness became more perilous and less certain in the intervening centuries.
Here is a group of visitors listening to an explanation of an unusually long scroll of the Book of the Dead. The Met has several such scrolls, all varying in length. Each one was made to order and unique to each owner. There was no Standard Edition, revised or otherwise of the Book of the Dead. The Egyptian religion had nothing like a sacred scripture, no religious doctrine, and no idea of what it means to "belong" to a religion. Religion for the Egyptians, as for most of the ancient world, was about keeping the gods happy. To us tidy rationalizing post-Judaeo Christians, the Egyptian religion is an impossible muddle.
Here is a magnificent sculpted head of a Late Period pharaoh. The mythic charisma of the Old Kingdom pharaohs only grew with the passage of time, and the later sculptors became masters of emulation in their revivals of the now ancient style.
Egyptian civilization proved to be more powerful and durable than the Egyptian state. Egypt's conquerors ended up conquered by its culture. Alexander the Great conquered Egypt and overthrew the last native dynasty, installing one of his generals as Pharaoh. This family of Greeks became the last rulers of an independent Egypt before Cleopatra gambled and lost and Egypt became a province of Rome. This beautiful faience falcon is from that final dynasty.
Even after sunny Egypt became the 51st state in the United States of Rome, Egyptian culture lost none of its power to conquer the conquerors. Roman colonists quickly began to "go native" in this all important province. Here is one of my photos of the famous panel portrait of a boy named Eutyches. This was originally incorporated into the wrappings of his mummy. In these magnificent paintings, the Classical longing for undying fame met the Egyptian religious belief in the undying body and spirit. The Roman colonists abandoned the old Roman funerary custom of cremation for the native Egyptian rites of embalming and burial.
We are not amused by the Met's decision to surround these splendid paintings with overpowering scarlet, even brighter than is apparent in this picture. Hell, we might as well take the emergency lights from a squad car and stick them on these paintings. Even a rare swing and a miss by the Met's curatorial staff does nothing to diminish the power and poignancy of these paintings.
To my mind the spookiest object in the museum, a Roman Egyptian mummy with a beautiful painted portrait incorporated in the bandages. We gaze at this painted face knowing that the sitter himself, or what's left of him, is right behind the panel.
The cats were waiting for me when I returned from the museum.
Willy sits on my backpack and demands dinner.
Betty parks herself over by the water dish wondering just how much trouble is it really to open up a can of Friskies.
Before I go, Betty and Willy insisted that I post this picture. I didn't want to. It didn't come out well at all, but they insisted.
Betty and Willy want to remind you all that cats were gods in ancient Egypt. Pharaohs used to bow down and worship them. Think about that next time you're scooping out the litter box.