Probably only an exhibition of Egyptian culture could span more than 4,000 years of human endeavor and still contain a strong, unforced thread of continuity and consistency.
"Ancient Egypt — Art and Magic: Treasures from the Fondation Gandur pour l'Art" spans those millennia of 30 dynasties along with a predynastic period beginning in 5500 B.C. and the Ptolemaic Period, which ended in 30 B.C. when Egypt fell to Rome.
It opened Saturday at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg and, because of our publication schedule, I didn't see the installation in time for this preview. But in studying the catalog and talking with curator Robert Steven Bianchi, I know what's in it and how it is presented. It sounds terrific.
The exhibition's arrangement avoids a march through the ages that can make such shows read like a textbook. Instead of the typical chronological approach, five galleries are designed to highlight the spiritual and symbolic nature of various categories of objects, so representatives from many dynasties are in the same gallery.
This is neither a show with startling revelations nor a bloated blockbuster. It comes from a single private collector, Swiss entrepreneur Jean Claude Gandur, who quietly assembled more than 800 antiquities over several decades. The group is now considered to be among the finest of its kind in the world.
Bianchi, who has worked with Gandur, culled about 100 from the collection that were representative of the Egyptian empire's history and the show's theme.
As with most exhibitions of ancient Egyptian culture, this one contains mostly funerary objects from tombs including fragments of carved stone panels, statuettes, objects for personal use after death, alabaster containers for oils and lotions and two dramatic mummy cases. And, no surprise, all were for the elite; poor people couldn't have afforded them.
What was included in a person's burial varied over time but the basic idea was to provide protection and sustenance in the afterlife.
Despite a sense of consistency running through its history, Egypt had plenty of bloody wars, invasions and revolving-door leadership. Yet even through great conflict, the area we now define as ancient Egypt remained bound, though sometimes tenuously, by a religious system based close to the land, the way of all Egyptians, rich and poor. Unlike many great civilizations, religion in Egypt didn't evolve into abstractions; it remained rooted in the rich loam of the Nile Delta and the vast deserts that stretched from it.
Pharoahs had their agendas and built new cities, introduced new gods or favored an old one above another, but the fundamentals continued. Faith was expressed in concrete ways. It lived everywhere. Every material — stone, gem metal — was animated with power waiting to be harnessed.
Stone, for example, was valued for its permanence. It was mined in what the Egyptians called the Red Land, the desert where evil and its fearsome creatures lurked. In the Black Land, named for the deposits of silt along the Nile River's banks where people lived and order reigned, hieroglyphics were carved into the stone, stories told, charms and prayers invoked, so it became a controlled substance, something humans could manipulate to their own end.
Animals, too, had importance beyond their roles in the natural world. Gods and goddesses assumed their forms, totally or in part, and could exchange one for another because the functions of a deity could change. The mother goddess Isis, who usually appears in full female form, is also shown in a statuette with the body of a scorpion, which was usually associated with the goddess Selket.
"In all Egyptian imagery," Bianchi writes in the catalog, " . . . one image may represent several competing and perhaps contradictory concepts."
Isis was considered to be a nurturer. In assuming the form of a scorpion, she became a protector, too, as Selket was. Associating the deadly scorpion with a deity was a way "to convert the malevolent characteristics of potentially dangerous animals into benevolent characteristics," he writes. So Selket, for example, could either help or hurt you as the deity in charge of poisonous or venomous animals.
Visual portrayals were simplified and have in the past been considered unsophisticated and inferior to other antiquities such as Roman or Greek. For centuries, Egyptian language was primarily pictorial and so everything was distilled to a simple, immediately recognizable form. They became institutionalized over time — notice that a person always walked with the left foot leading. They weren't considered art and individual expressiveness was not allowed.
Language had power, too. "The hieroglyphic images could come to life by virtue of simply being represented or by being pronounced," Bianchi writes. A typical prayer in a tomb for "a thousand loaves of bread, a thousand jars of beer" would, it was hoped, become literal food and drink.
Tombs were stocked with everyday objects to allow daily life to continue after death, but special ones made just for burial were also included. A mirror was not part of a vanity set but created to commemorate the image of the rising sun, which was associated with resurrection. Shabti were statuettes that would come to life and perform the mundane tasks required of the deceased by the gods such as harvesting grain. (No nobleman would ever do this and there was no problem with supplying substitutes to propitiate a religious requirement.) A charming statue of a goose likely wasn't for fun; it personified a deity (probably Amun who, with Osiris, was the supreme god).
Coffin texts contained rituals to be performed and spells to be repeated for safe passage from this world to the next. One codified text, used during the New Kingdom and called The Book of the Dead, contained about 200 spells and sometimes was personalized for an individual. They could also be purchased "off the rack." In this show, the page detailing the ceremonial Weighing of the Heart is pictured. It was a moment of reckoning when the dead person testified that he had not sinned and his heart was put on a scale. If it weighed less than the goddess of justice and truth (or her stand-in, an ostrich feather), then the dead man was being truthful and would be taken to a happy afterlife. There was also a spell to go with the ceremony and one that allowed the supplicant to subvert the process. That seems cynical but there was no mechanism to confess one's sins and seek forgiveness or expiation, so "insurance" was considered necessary. There was a subtle overlay of pragmatism in the Egyptians' relationship to the divine.
That is a reminder that these people were in many ways like us. Different, too, at least in the way they seemed to face death. They lived on the principle that you could take it with you. There was no great secret to eternal life. And you had better be nice to animals.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8293.