To Die For

Exquisite Egyptian funerary art graces the Denver Museum of Nature & Science.

Among the first chapters in the history of Western art is the one devoted to Egypt, with much of the subsequent story tracing its origins to the objects and buildings produced in the Nile Valley more than 3,000 years ago. This was long before -- millennia before, as it happens -- the Greeks or Romans. The Egyptians of that time lived in cities, grew crops, had a written language and highly organized political systems, and embraced elaborate spiritual beliefs. But if it weren't for the Egyptians' pursuit of eternal life, which led them to build elaborate tombs filled with artifacts, we surely wouldn't know so much about them.

Many of their tombs were raided and pillaged in ancient times, as the treasures inside proved to be too great a temptation for thieves and conquerors. But some burial sites remained intact, and with the rise of the field of archaeology in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, scientists began excavating them. The resulting tomb art, in stone, gold, wood and paint, is what makes The Quest for Immortality: Treasures of Ancient Egypt, the blockbuster currently on display at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, something that absolutely shouldn't be missed.

The Quest for Immortality is a traveling exhibit that's about midway through its coast-to-coast American tour after an extensive schedule of stops in Europe. It was organized by the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., in collaboration with Copenhagen's United Exhibits Group and Cairo's Supreme Council of Antiquities. All the pieces come from institutions in Egypt, mostly the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. A veritable army of scientists, curators and scholars worked on the show, headed up by Betsy M. Bryan, a professor of Egyptian art and archaeology at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

"Funerary mask of Wenudjebauendjed," gold in 
repoussé.
"Funerary mask of Wenudjebauendjed," gold in repoussé.

The blockbuster begins on the first floor of the DMNS in the Morrison Atrium, where the museum's longtime staff designer, David Pachuta, has created an indoor garden. This was no casual decision on Pachuta's part: Egyptians believed they would live in a garden after they died. A series of stone sculptures are used to introduce viewers to the Egyptian belief system. It's a complicated story, and the exhibit illuminates five themes. "The first is the Egyptian's quest for immortality, which is colossal," says Ella Maria Ray, the curator of anthropology at the DMNS. "Then there's the mummification of the body, because the spirit needed to have a place to come to; there's the understanding of hieroglyphics, which is a combination of text and aesthetics; there are the earthly rituals and objects that would be important on the other side; and all of this led to a garden in the afterlife."

A number of incredible things are included in the introductory area, but none are as eye-catching as the "Colossal head of Ramesses II," 1279-1213 B.C., an architectural element that's made of red granite. There's evidence, Ray points out, that the piece has been reworked and was once a much older sculpture, dating from 1956 to 1911 B.C., depicting the head of Senusret I. By today's standards, for Ramesses II to replace the older sculpture with his own image would make him an egomaniac, but Ray says that at the time it was actually a respectful attempt by Ramesses II to call on Senusret I -- who was, after all, still around, living in a garden somewhere.

The show proper begins on the third floor, in the Phipps Gallery. The main exhibit is divided into four sections: "Journey to the Afterlife," "New Kingdom Visions," "The Golden Age of Thutmose III" and "Ensuring Immortality." Each part is in a separate space, and all of these have been painted different colors to distinguish one from the other.

One of the first things inside the entrance is "Osiris resurrecting," 664-525 B.C.; it will be familiar to many because it appears in publicity photos. The figure of Osiris, made of gneiss, is in a supine pose and is depicted as a mummy, but his head is up, which is indicative of his reawakening. His face shows an expression of contentment, and his wide-open eyes suggest that the garden on the other side must really be something. On his head is a crown in gold and electrum.

Stone and precious metals are the materials associated with ancient Egyptian art, but objects done in carved and decorated wood were also important. In a showcase nearby is a remarkable example: "Boat from the tomb of Amenhotep II," 1427-1400 B.C. The royalty needed boats so they could travel throughout the kingdom. Sometimes full-sized boats were used, but in this case, it's a model. The overall form of the craft is extremely elegant, sort of like an elongated canoe. The surfaces have been painted with religious symbols and decorative bandings. The colors are remarkably clear and bright, because the boat has spent most of its time in total darkness and thus didn't fade.

Although it's a model, "Boat" is still pretty big, as are many of the pieces in the show, so it's easy to overlook some of the small things -- and that would be a mistake. For example, there's the "Pair of wedjat eyes," circa 1800 B.C., which are among the most beautiful objects in the show. Made of bronze and blue calcite, they represent the eyes of the god Horus, who took the form of a falcon.

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