BRUNSWICK — On the outside wall of the entrance to the Bowdoin College Museum of Art’s current exhibition “Aegyptus: Egypt in the Greco-Roman world,” are mounted huge stone palace bas-reliefs of Assyrian kings and gods — figures which are not part of that exhibit — but still a very fitting opening into it — relatively late products (875-860 BCE) of a civilization with a Mesopotamian ancestry even older than that of Egypt.

Open door between them into the next room is the entrance to the artwork of three “later” civilizations — Egypt (Assyria was still around for quite a while into Egypt’s history), Greece, and Rome. The entire show is displayed in one large room — hardly large enough, you’d think, to fit in all this history and the ideas behind it — but it works, and it works well. 

The curator of this production, Associate Professor of Classics Jim Higginbotham and his supporting students, have brought that interlocking history of these three civilizations —and the ideas formed by them — to life via relics of their dead, and the close study of the period(s) of association between those civilizations.

The start of those periods was the peaceful Greek settlement of Haveratis in Egypt in the 7th century BCE, when their first cultural interchanges began. Those interchanges continued for the next four centuries in small and peaceful ways until Alexander the Great’s outright conquest of Egypt in 332 BCE. After Alexander’s death, Ptolemy, one of his generals, seized control, creating the Ptolemaic dynasty that ruled Egypt through the next three centuries.

From its capital, Alexandria, blossomed an open culture drawing in, blending and exchanging values, ideas and customs in religious and cultural beliefs that spread throughout the eastern Mediterranean region and then westward from there. All of this carried on into — and beyond — the Roman defeat of the Ptolemaic empire in 31 BCE, and from there those ideas, images, religious beliefs, and even replicas of Egyptian architecture (see below) were spread throughout Europe by the expansive movements of the Roman Empire.

“But for the moment,” if I dare say that, pulling you back here a few millennia into this one-room exhibition, it’s time to begin your own explorations of the evidence provided. You’ll find interest, variety and depth in this show. Start on the left side, and you’ll find the true beauty of the wondrous image that’s been used to draw you into this exhibit: the “Portrait of a Youth Wearing a Gilded Wreath” – (Roman Egypt, second century CE). This piece was probably created as a memorial to a young boy — an image seeming strongly immediate, open and true — beauty and depth developed through wax-based paint and gold leaf on wood,. It is an image that will stay with you long after your visit to these wonders.

To the left of that portrait, leaning against the wall, you’ll see “Mummy of a Falcon.” Yes, that’s what it says and that’s what it is.  A little over a foot high, wrapped in straps of brown linen treated in resin and animal tissue accompanied here by an observation of the ancient Greek historian Herodotus regarding the custom of common Egyptian townspeople preparing mummies of cats, ibises— and especially falcons—the most religiously valued of these animals—as gifts to the gods Horas or Soka.

Two glass-encased displays stand nearby, the first holding, among other things, three mummy masks—one of a seemingly small man; the mask and its colors very well preserved, but its artistry not, unlike the others here, of a wealthy, refined nature: the death-mask, I assume, of a lower order—wood, plaster and paint, its colors still strikingly bright. The other two masks are of women, one of them not really a “mask”— not simply the cover of a face, as we would think of that word — but a full head unto itself, its colors now faded, its details almost disappearing.

The other is amazingly well-preserved, well-developed and obviously of a higher social order. It is the very model of all those golden-faced Egyptian tomb masks we’ve all seen in pictures ever since we were in grade-school. Her face has all those classic accentuations of details that we would expect — but to be seeing them here, in person, really carries them well beyond the expectations risen from those childhood memories. We’re looking at the real thing. Nothing between us here and now but two thousand years and this plate of glass. The headdress above her face is composed in many minuscule details in many colors.

 But even that beauty is decidedly outdone by the woman’s mask in another display beside hers — that face even more strongly preserved. Its details seem deeper, and its accentuations beyond the others — her “mask” going well beyond a mere mask, stretching well beyond the back of her head, and even more detailed, more colored in its tiny particulars — beginning with an almost microscopic line of cobra heads across the lowest line of the very front, leading back into what might seem to a modern imagination to be an endlessly changing tale formed by even more minute images, as though — if we could read them —( but as mere onlookers here, we can’t — we’re stuck with our own mental inventiveness in this situation)—creating a personal mythos of all the gods, goddesses, and the thousands of years preceding her own entombment.

More displays carry on from there; more details, more elements, more mini-fragments of history: On the next table back, a woman’s full costume and wardrobe made to be worn into her passing, all of it elaborate — the head-dressed golden mask, a collar, the golden orbs of her breasts, a color-designed apron, amulets, scarabs, and even art-worked pads for the soles of her feet.

Farther down the room are more tables, one containing dozens of tiny amulets of the gods, and below them a detailed explanation of the fitting-in and interchange of those gods from Greek to Egyptian, Egyptian to Greek, Egyptian to Roman, and the mix of them all. Near them there is also a table of everyday amulets, statuettes, bottles, flasks and another of coins — Greek and Roman currency coined in or concerned with Egypt. .

On the wall behind this section is a large-print four-paragraph summary of the historic background of the blending of civilizations from which all of the materials of this exhibit came.

On the opposite wall, on either side of the door through which you entered, are two large etchings by a man who — in our own time — is classified as a “modern” artist, Giovani Battista Piranesi, 1720-1788. The etchings are of people who, in Piranesi’sown time are wandering ecstatically and spellbound amid ruins inspired by visions of Egyptian architecture brought into western Europe by ancient Romans through that very cultural and religious interchange that this exhibition is about. One is of the Pyramid of Gaius Cestius, built just outside of ancient Rome. The other is the Temple of Isis which was built in ancient Pompei, and buried in the ash of that city’s volcanic demise. Its presence there was not discovered until the 18th century, when those ruins first began to be exhumed.

A few tables past that pyramid etching, you will have reached the other end of this exhibit. On a small table in one corner stands a very voluptuous statuette of a Ptolemaic queen in the guise of the goddess Isis, and in the opposite corner a (more realistic) statuette of Aphrodite, both of them reminding us of the intimate immediacy of our own everyday and all-around experience as human beings, and that common humanity risen —and still rising — within and all around us.

The present flows ever from the past, is created by it. And “I” flows ever from “we”. Every artifact in this room, no matter how distant in time or place or religion or outlook or attitude, becomes part of our own history —o ur own being and understanding as the world’s other histories  are discovered and pulled into the one that we inhabit.

There is much to look into here; much to learn from, much to be open to. Much to enjoy, appreciate, understand — and —d espite the many centuries that separate us, much to identify with.

The exhibit is on display at the Walker Gallery at the Bowdoin Museum of art through July 15, 2018.

“Mummy Portrait Mask,” Egyptian, ca. second century CE, painted on wood with applied gilt leaf. Museum Purchase, Adela Wood Smith Trust. Bowdoin College Museum of Art.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.