Thursday, April 30, 2009

Exhibition: Gates of heaven

Al Ahram Weekly

An article which I missed, about an exhibition at the Louvre which will be open until the end of June:

Ancient Egyptian concepts of this world and the next are the focus of this spring's major exhibition at the Louvre in Paris, writes David Tresilian

This spring's major exhibition at the Louvre museum in Paris brings together a variety of ancient Egyptian artifacts -- sculpture, fragments of papyrus, tomb furniture, mummy cases and mummies -- and uses them to illustrate the ways in which the ancient Egyptians thought about the world and their place within it. It will be very welcome to anyone who has ever wandered through museum Egyptology galleries and been struck by the impressive scale and detail of the materials on display but felt rather lost when it comes to making sense of them.

Entitled Les Portes du ciel, the "gates of heaven," the exhibition investigates the division in ancient Egyptian thought between the visible and the invisible world and the ways in which the ancient Egyptians thought about the boundary between life and death and between the world of the gods and the human world.

Ancient Egyptian tombs and mortuary temples usually featured stone stelae, or markers, which were carved to resemble doors or gateways, and these seem to have had a symbolic function as ways of access to the dead. Investigation of the function of such gateways is one part of the exhibition's remit, but the general idea is much broader than that. Beginning with such points of access between the worlds of the living and the dead, Les Portes du ciel examines many of the basic oppositions that structured ancient Egyptian thought, including the ancient Egyptians' famous preoccupation with preparation for the afterlife.

The exhibition is presented in the Louvre's main temporary exhibition gallery in the Hall Napoléon and is arranged in the form of a loop that takes the visitor through four main parts. Boundaries are established between each as if to underline the exhibition's preoccupation with symbolic lines or crossing points, and the overall design changes as the visitor proceeds through the galleries.

There are some 370 objects on display culled from the major European museums as well as from the Louvre, and these range from sculptures made to a larger than human scale to tiny amulets and various kinds of tomb goods. The exhibition will certainly be a haven for all devotees of ancient Egyptian materials. Families with young children were much in evidence on a recent visit, along with the Louvre's more familiar middle-aged audience, children perhaps always being fascinated by dinosaur bones and ancient Egyptian mummies.

The exhibition's first room, entitled "'first time': the creation of the world," examines ancient Egyptian creation myths, looking in particular at the ways in which the ancient Egyptians seem to have carved up the cosmos into adjoining spaces and how they conceptualised the boundaries between them.

Writers in the characteristically sumptuous catalogue accompanying the exhibition stress what the ancient Egyptians seem to have conceived of as the paradoxically fragile nature of the apparently solid world around them. This world, created according to myths whose details change from place to place and from period to period in ancient Egypt's exceptionally long history, rested upon another, invisible world, the boundaries of which seem to have lain beyond the horizon, in the skies, or beneath the earth. While there was a kind of permanent connection in ancient Egyptian thought between the visible world and this other world, which was the world of the gods and of the dead, there was also a need to foster and strengthen this connection. Ancient Egyptian religion was the principal mode in which such contact and strengthening took place, and a vast priestly caste provided the necessary mediation.

A special role seems to have been played by the ancient Egyptian king or pharaoh, who was seen as the living person closest to the gods. Various materials in the first room of the exhibition illustrate this idea, one of the most striking being a temple relief from the Karnak temple complex in Luxor dating from the Ptolemaic period.

As is well known, the Ptolemaic kings, Greek- speaking descendants of a general of Alexander the Great who conquered Egypt in 331 BCE, took over the role previously played by the Egyptian pharaohs, even presenting themselves in Egyptian guise and maintaining the Egyptian religion. In the relief included in the present exhibition, now itself in the Louvre, Ptolemy VIII Euergetes (reigned 170-163 and 145-116 BCE) is shown making an offering to the god Amun-Re, something which, the catalogue note explains, was part of his "mission to maintain the initial dynamism involved in the creation of the world, as conceived by the ancient Egyptians."

The first room of the exhibition is painted bright yellow in reference to the role played by the sun in ancient Egyptian thought, particularly when conceptualising the solid, visible world. From here, the visitor moves to the second room, darkened throughout, which is given over to the world for which the ancient Egyptians are most famous, that of the dead.

However, "far from being fascinated by death," as popular impressions of them might suggest, writes curator Marc Etienne in the exhibition catalogue, "the ancient Egyptians wanted to be able to do everything in the afterlife that they had been accustomed to doing in this one." The idea was to make all the preparations they could in this life for the life that was to come, though the ways in which they ancient Egyptians thought about the afterlife, particularly their ideas about its topography, seem to have altered over time.

See the above page for the full story.

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