To Die For

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

Around the corner, the second section, "New Kingdom Visions," begins. This is the smallest part of the show, with only a handful of pieces. Mounted high on a stand, to suggest its placement on the outside of Wadjyt Hall in Karnak, is "Head of Thutmose I," 1504-1492 B.C. The king is depicted as a smiling youth with a long ceremonial beard. The sandstone face is painted red, with traces of blue on the beard and eyebrows. Just to the right of it is a defaced object, "Tomb statue of General Nakhtmin's wife." The woman in the sculpture has lost her nose, which is not uncommon for ancient sculptures, but in this case it was purposely removed. In fact, the General himself was once part of the piece, but his figure was smashed away by political enemies. This vandalism was meant to negatively affect the general and his wife in the afterlife because, according to Egyptian beliefs, the general was entirely eliminated and his wife was forever denied breath.

The third section, which Ray calls "the heart of the exhibit," is titled "Golden Age of Thutmose III." It includes objects found in the king's tomb as well as a digital re-creation of the tomb itself, which is astounding even if it is a reproduction. Scientists used a three-dimensional camera to perfectly record the contours of the tomb and the paintings on its walls. The paintings of figures and hieroglyphics are the "Amduat," the Egyptian Book of the Dead, which explains the journey the spirit takes to the underworld.

The final section, "Ensuring Immortality," begins with a bang with the "Anthropoid coffin of Paduamen" standing on end in a case. The coffin, inner lid and lid are all made of carved wood that has been heavily decorated with paint. On the liner and the lid, it's the image of Paduamen; on the coffin, scenes from the afterlife. On all three, there are extensive texts written in hieroglyphics. Again, as with the boat, it's astounding how well the colors have aged and how bright they are.

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

Of all the sections of the show, this part is the most explanatory, because it includes many of the somewhat practical objects that accompanied the dead in the tomb -- and presumably beyond it. In the first showcase is the "Canopic chest of Queen Nedjmet," 1087-1080 B.C., and in the second are four vessels, the "Canopic jars of Prince Hornakht," 874-850 B.C. The chest is made of painted wood and a carving of Anubis, a god symbolized by a jackal. The jars, in alabaster, each have a sculptural lid that depicts one of four sons of Horus. The chest and the jars are essential components of the mummification process: Certain organs were removed from the body and separately mummified and placed in jars, which were in turn placed in a chest.

At the end of the show are many gold pieces of stunning beauty, including a "Bead net and gold mask of Hekaemsaef," 664-525 B.C., that were once draped over a mummy, and the "Funerary mask of Wenudjebauendjed," 1039-991 B.C., which covered another mummy's face. The mask looks incredibly modern in its simplicity. In fact many of the objects, especially the jewelry, are surprisingly forward-looking. Then again, artists, especially in the twentieth century, have responded to Egyptian art in their work -- particularly in the art deco of the 1920s and '30s, a style that has been revived during the past twenty years or so.

Visitors are dumped into the gift shop at the end of the show, though it is possible to bypass it and exit down a corridor. I don't think I'd recommend buying any of the trinkets on display, but the sumptuously illustrated catalogue, edited by Erik Hornung and curator Bryan, is definitely worth getting. The publication is invaluable in explaining the objects included, and that's important, because the show itself is hard to follow despite extensive wall copy and the efforts of scores of volunteer docents to explain the material.

The Quest for Immortality at the DMNS got off to a slow start, but substantial advertising and a positive buzz have brought the crowds in. The place was jammed when I was there on a weekday morning. So I'll say it as clearly as I can: Don't let all the people -- or the steep ticket prices -- dissuade you, because this is one show that you've really got to see to believe.

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