Beautiful people

The art of looking divine in the afterlife

by Victoria James

Men, does your weedy physique or receding hair line make you feel inadequate? Women, do you worry about wrinkles or whether to brave the pain of a bikini-line Brazilian wax? Ever feel that all of us, every day, are bombarded with images of physical perfection that are impossible to live up to?

Relax. In ancient Egypt they had it worse. A slim-waisted, broad-shouldered, muscular torso was the masculine ideal; both sexes wore elaborate wigs and oiled their skin to slow the signs of aging; women opted for total body-hair removal — and wore pleated skirts open at the front to reveal the alluring result.

At first viewing, “Beauty in Ancient Egypt” seems an oddly specific title for the comprehensive exhibition of artifacts that opened Saturday at the Edo-Tokyo Museum. Although the items on display are all exquisite (and all drawn from the collection of the Roemer- und Pelisaeus-Museum, Hildesheim), they run the usual gamut from reliefs and statues, to sarcophagi and grave goods, to gods and amulets. With the exception of some exquisite jewelry and cosmetics cases, there is little here that speaks explicitly of ancient Egyptian culture’s obsession with beauty.

So why the title?

“The exhibition shows how both men and women represented by an ideal beauty still appear beautiful to us today,” said Eleni Vassilika, executive director of the RPMH, in her opening address.

She’s right on that point. The handsome young “Standing Figure of Re-Maat” (c. 2250 B.C.), the nude torsos of “Three Groups of Striding Women” (c. 1340 B.C.) and the elongated, mobile features of Pharaoh Akhenaten’s daughter (shown in relief c. 1340 B.C.) are attractive even to modern eyes. (The mother of Akhenaten’s daughter was Nefertiti — her name means “The Beautiful One Has Come” — who is renowned to this day as one of history’s greatest lookers.)

Ancient Egypt was a society that prized physical beauty and celebrated it in verse.

She is more beautiful than any other . . .
brilliantly white, bright skinned;
with a long neck and white breast
her hair of genuine lapis lazuli;
her arm more brilliant than gold;
her fingers like lotus flowers,

sighs one undated love poem.

But ancient Egyptian depictions of the human form are not beautiful merely because they depict beautiful subjects, nor because the artistic style is itself graceful. Beauty was prized — and portrayed — for religious reasons.

“What the Egyptians sought,” said Vassilika, “was beauty in this life and in the afterlife.”

Vassilika never elaborated, and in the English labeling of exhibits is restricted to name/date/provenance while the information panels in Japanese are not always as informative as they could be.

But as the Egyptologists who created this exhibition most certainly know, any assortment of amulets and sarcophagi can be presented under the theme of “beauty” (or, for that matter, cases of jewelry be displayed under the theme “the afterlife”) because of the remarkably holistic nature of the Egyptian world view — a view that was centered around a belief in rebirth after death.

Ancient Egypt possessed a pantheon of gods; an elaborate mythology detailed the post-mortem fate both of major deities, such as Osiris, and of the individual soul; and, of course, it had the most celebrated funerary culture the world has known.

Most of the Egyptian art and artifacts that survive made it down the years because they were part of that funerary culture. Wall paintings and statues were created expressly to decorate tombs; items of value, such as jewelry and accessories, were customarily buried with their owner.

A treasure trove of cultural information can be found in grave goods and tomb art. And among other things, they show how ancient Egyptian notions of beauty drew meaning from the belief in an afterlife.

Mummification is the simplest expression of the desire to preserve this-worldly beauty even after death. The “Book of the Dead” (composed 1240 B.C.) promised that the spirit would return to its preserved body after death, in “the land wherein [souls] are joined to their bodies in thousands.”

Death masks, like that of Tutankhamen, were placed over the mummy. Sarcophagi were decorated with an anthropomorphic design, such as that adorning the centerpiece of this exhibition, the exquisite and colorful inner sarcophagus (c. 800 B.C.) of a New Kingdom-era temple functionary named Penju. The depiction of the human face supposedly helped a wandering soul to identify its own body. “May [the soul] gaze upon its earthly body; may it take up its abode,” says the “Book of the Dead.”

But the stylized nature of Egyptian art meant that mummy cases and masks did not represent the deceased as he or she had been in life. Rather, they were idealized simulacra of the human form, showing the deceased in the way he or she wished to remain forever. Those wealthy enough to buy a beautiful sarcophagus effectively bought eternal beauty for their reborn body.

Accessories and jewelry, worn in this life and entombed for use in the next, were also about more than simply looking good — though the examples in this show are undeniably eye-catching, a highlight being a lovely pair of 3rd century B.C. golden earrings in the shape of bulls’ heads.

Don’t expect to find a coherent collection of items, though. The first display room contains a number of small amulets, including a figure of Bastet, the cat goddess. Bastet amulets reappear in Room 3, where one is set into an elaborate finger ring (c. 600 B.C.), and amulets are also strung along two of four exquisite necklaces. Another necklace lies in Room 1, a heavy blue collar (7th-8th centuries B.C.) made of threaded Udjat eyes, the symbol of the god Horus. For more Udjat items, though, it’s back to Room 3, where the magic-eye motif is used in two turquoise rings. The two galleries have separate themes (“Land of Gods” and “Beauty in Eternity” respectively), and items seem to be placed at random.

Curatorial indecisiveness? Not exactly. Anthropologists are uncertain whether the Egyptians had a concept of adornment for its own sake, or whether they even distinguished between amulets and jewelry at all. The latter was worn as much for the magical protection it gave its wearer as for aesthetic reasons. And totemic objects such as amulets, possessing power and deserving of respect, were wrought with no less artistry than was used to craft a bracelet or earrings.

The kohl tubes and charming cosmetics cases in antelope, deer and turtle shapes also on show would have held an array of makeup to rival the best of Shiseido. But in ancient Egypt, even makeup had otherworldy properties. The dark-gray lead-ore derivative galena, used to paint eyes, was believed to protect its wearer from the evil eye. Green was another favored color for eye cosmetics and this was obtained from malachite, a copper ore that was identified with Hathor, the cow-headed goddess of love, mirth and dance. Indeed, one anthropoid sarcophagus lid (c. 1800 B.C.) displayed here has a striking, entirely green face.

Other minerals and metal had associations with specific deities — such as gold with the sun god, Ra — or connoted certain virtues. The Egyptian word for lapiz lazuli was synonymous with “joy,” and that for turquoise with “delight.” Even a gold hair ring or an armlet inlaid with lapis lazuli in some way connected its wearer back to the gods and placed him or her under their protection.

Also famously well protected — or so legend has it — were the tombs that contained all these treasures. The very beauty of burial chambers made them a target for robbers and, as recent research has shown, for those who wanted to re-use luxury grave goods. Different preventive strategies were taken and one was to create plain, unobtrusive tombs. By way of compensation, though, the sarcophagi themselves became more beautiful — Penju’s is an example.

Yet the very beauty of Egypt’s cultural heritage placed it in jeopardy. The 19th century brought treasure-hunters, adventurers and even archaeologists who plundered with the best of intentions, but plundered nonetheless. They stripped whole sites; tomb friezes were cut from the rock, the very chambers dismantled.

Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities is currently attempting to trace and reclaim such items, and the country’s laws state that all antiquities belong to the government.

For now, though, Egyptian collections have pride of place in museums around the world. The ancient culture’s graceful artifacts have been consistently admired for almost 4,000 years. In their quest for immortal beauty the ancient Egyptians created immortal art.