Gifts of the Nile: Ancient Egyptian Faience

Gifts of the Nile: Ancient Egyptian Faience

January 24, 1999 to April 25, 1999

The first major exhibition devoted to the artistic medium of faience in ancient Egypt was on view at the Kimbell Art Museum from January 24 through April 25, 1999. Gifts of the Nile: Ancient Egyptian Faience assembled over 200 small-scale masterpieces from 30 Egyptian collections, both public and private, in North America and Europe.

Faience was a porcelain-like substance used by the Egyptians to create some of their most memorable art, including exquisitely modeled statuettes of kings and gods, delicate inlaid figurines, charming animal sculptures, and amulets and jewelry. The objects ranged in date over 3,000 years, from Pre-Dynastic times through the reigns of the pharaohs and into the Greco-Roman era.

Faience (pronounced “fie-ahns” or “fay-ahns”), one of the world’s most beautiful forms of ancient ceramic, is as Egyptian as the pyramids. The Egyptians called it tjehnet, meaning “that which is brilliant,” like the light of the sun, moon, and stars. In their eyes, the temple offerings, palace decorations, royal vessels, and mummy trappings in this exhibition shimmered with undying celestial light and offered the brilliance of eternity to all who used them. The very material itself became a metaphor for life, rebirth, and immortality.

Although the basic ingredients, water and sand, were not in themselves precious, the mysterious recipe for combining, firing, and carving them transformed base elements into a substance simulating precious gems. Blue and blue-green shades dominate the range of colors of faience objects. The palette eventually expanded to include saturated velvety blues, greens, white, yellows, reds, and even marbleized browns, blacks, and other hues.

The Egyptians prized blue-green colored stones from prehistoric times, and experimented with techniques of replicating their effects through artificial materials from as early as 3,000 B.C. Apparently thought to have magical qualities, the blue-green color is known from later texts to symbolize life and good health. This same color was prized in turquoise, a semiprecious stone mined in the Sinai peninsula, and in lapis lazuli, a rock obtained by trade from distant Afghanistan. Faience may originally have been developed to imitate these stones’ naturally occurring blue tones.

The first objects made of faience in ancient Egypt were beads, soon followed by hand-modeled figures of human, animal, and other forms that were offered as dedications in sanctuaries throughout the land. At the same time, small faience plaques to be inlaid into furniture were produced for grave gifts, while larger wall tiles were made for temple and tomb decoration, the most dramatic example being the 36,000 faience wall tiles that lined several underground rooms of King Djoser’s step pyramid at Saqqara.

The exhibition was organized by the Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, Providence, with major support from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Carl and Carolyn Haffenreffer, and the National Endowment for the Arts. Additional funding was provided by the Joukowsky Family Foundation, The RISD Museum Associates, Textron Inc., and anonymous donors. The exhibition was supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.

Caption: Spacer Bead for a Necklace, Egypt, Third Intermediate Period, 9th to 8th century BC, possibly from Tuna el-Gebel, faience. The British Museum, London. © The Trustees of the British Museum. EA 14556