Egyptian antiquities from the Louvre:
journey to the Afterlife
21 July – 28 October 2007
In July 2007, the West Australian public had the opportunity to see an extraordinary collection of art and artefacts from one of history’s most enduring civilisations. Over two hundred works, comprised of more than 500 precious objects, went on show in 'Egyptian antiquities from the Louvre: journey to the Afterlife'. This momentous event was the first exhibition the Louvre had sent to Australia in nearly two decades. Many of the works were drawn from the permanent exhibition of Egyptian antiquities at the Louvre, while others had never been on public display.
The ancient Egyptians saw life as a continuous process, in which mortal existence was only preparatory to the transformation brought by death; a mere shadow of the delightful world to come. A life lived morally and in accordance with the Egyptian commandments would allow a soul to pass through the final gate from the Underworld to the paradise of the Field of Reeds after judgment by the god Osiris.
The journey between death and the Hall of Judgement was, however, lengthy and fraught with danger. The deceased had to set out equipped with amulets, magical spells and blessings from the gods. 'Egyptian antiquities from the Louvre; journey to the Afterlife' extracted its narrative from the Book of the Dead - a compilation of spells and incantations to secure protection against the perils of the journey. The manuscripts were often illustrated with scenes of the stages of the journey, or the rewards which awaited those who completed it successfully and gained entry to the Field of Reeds. Known to the Egyptians as the Book of Coming Forth by Day, visitors had the pleasure of seeing a number of these painted papyrus manuscripts in the exhibition.
'Egyptian antiquities from the Louvre: journey to the Afterlife' included a broad range of subjects and themes in a variety of media, which showcased the incredible skill and virtuosity of ancient Egyptian artists and craftspeople. The exhibition contained major sculptural works in stone and bronze, illustrated manuscripts, painted chests and mummy cases, low reliefs, jewellery, ceramics, and fine wood carving.
The smallest objects in the exhibition were the amulets and jewels used to adorn and protect mummies, made from ceramic, carnelian, and other semi-precious stones. An army of over two hundred faience ushabti figures stood to attention, ready to act as deputies for the deceased in the afterlife; prepared to perform any required duties on his or her behalf. Hieroglyphic inscriptions on illustrated stelae invoked the gods to grant favours and safe passage to donors on their travels through the afterlife to the Hall of Judgement. Painted scenes on canopic chests and mummy cases showed vignettes from the journey of the dead, as they travelled beyond the mortal realm towards eternal life with the gods. Lifelike sculptures and mummy portraits ensured the survival of the physical form - the eyes of the deceased gazing at us across the millennia. Throughout, the sublime, impassive faces of the gods watch over the progress of souls through the rigours of life and the Underworld’s dangers.
Although ancient Egyptian art is often perceived to be about death and the tomb, 'Egyptian antiquities from the Louvre; journey to the Afterlife' showed that the elaborate funerary preparations and mummification rituals were actually only the first step on the path to eternal life. The Field of Reeds was a paradise imagined by a simple, agricultural society: tilling fertile fields, tending fat livestock, hunting in a countryside teeming with birdlife and game, dancing and listening to heavenly music, and fishing in swollen streams.
It was a life similar to that along the Nile, but brighter, more beautiful, and more restful, where magical servants carried out the more tiresome tasks, and everyone was comfortable and happy. This was not only a paradise for the upper classes, but one to which every Egyptian aspired. Some of the works in the exhibition depicted the world to come; others served as reminders of it, such as a blue glazed bowl decorated with the water lilies that symbolised rebirth and the fecund splendour of the afterlife.
Among the most spectacular objects in the exhibition were the sarcophagi, coffins and cartonnages – mummy cases made of linen or papyrus strips held together and hardened with plaster and resin then covered in painted decorations. To enter the Field of Reeds, it was not just necessary for the soul to pass the final judgement before the god Osiris. The body must remain intact for the soul to be reunited with it and these coffins protected the mummified remains from physical damage. Together with the accompanying wall paintings, low reliefs and portrait sculptures inscribed with the names of the deceased, they also allowed the soul to find and recognise its body more easily and substituted for it in the case of loss or damage.
One of the most exquisite examples of painting seen in the exhibition, was the Cartonnage of Djedkhonsouioufankh. It combined a portrait of the deceased with a scene in the Hall of Judgment, a variety of talismanic motifs, and symbols of the afterlife and the journey of the soul.
Pharaonic culture lasted in ancient Egypt for well over three thousand years, gradually evolving over this time as the kingdom was conquered, divided, reunited, and transformed. The exhibition imparted an understanding of how these changes affected religious belief and art production over the millennia, from the Old Kingdom when the pyramids were built to Cleopatra, last of the pharaohs, and the Roman conquest two thousand years ago.
'Egyptian antiquities from the Louvre: journey to the Afterlife' is unlike any exhibition of Egyptian art and culture before seen in Australia. Visitors gained an appreciation of Egyptian artistic traditions and the enormous skill of the ancient hands that fashioned the works on display, together with an understanding of their functional context. Egypt holds a perennial fascination for anyone who owns a memory of a school project on the pyramids, or a first encounter with a mummy on a museum visit. The exquisite workmanship of the objects in the exhibition not only granted the ancient Egyptians their longed-for immortality, but it has bridged the intervening millennia and allowed visitors to accompany them on their journey through the Underworld.
'Egyptian antiquities from the Louvre: journey to the Afterlife' is organised by the Musée du Louvre, Paris and Art Exhibitions Australia, in collaboration with the Art Gallery of Western Australia, National Gallery of Australia and Art Gallery of South Australia.