Quest for Immortality: Treasures of Ancient Egypt

Quest for Immortality: Treasures of Ancient Egypt

May 4, 2003 to September 14, 2003


The Quest for Immortality: Treasures of Ancient Egypt
brought the largest and most comprehensive selection of antiquities ever loaned by Egypt to the Kimbell Art Museum from May 4 through September 14, 2003.

The exhibition featured sculptures, jewelry, and other masterpieces of funerary art from Egypt’s golden age, much of it never before seen outside of Egypt. Over 100 artifacts, from the first and second millennia B.C., rich in artistic and historical importance, dramatically illustrated the ancient Egyptians’ beliefs in the afterlife and the journey of the pharaoh’s soul into the “field of reeds.”

Commented Dr. Timothy Potts, director of the Kimbell Art Museum, “There have been a number of other Egyptian exhibitions since the famous King Tutankhamun exhibition in the 1970s, but this is clearly the most important. The great Egyptian museums have all been extraordinarily generous in lending their most important works of art, many of which have never before been allowed to travel. It will be a breathtaking experience and one very unlikely ever to be repeated.”

The Quest for Immortality: Treasures of Ancient Egypt provided a fascinating glimpse into ancient Egyptians’ beliefs about the world to which they journeyed after death. From the earliest times, Egyptians denied the physical impermanence of life. They formulated a remarkably complex set of religious beliefs and funneled vast material resources into the quest for immortality.

This exhibition featured sculpture, sarcophagi, jewelry, reliefs, and other objects—artworks that facilitated communication with the gods, magical guardians, and other intermediaries—made to guarantee an eternal and organized world. It focused on the period of the New Kingdom (1550–1069 B.C.) through the Late Period (664–332 B.C.), the zenith of Egyptian art, which witnessed the erection of Egypt’s greatest monuments, temples, and burials. The New Kingdom marked the beginning of an era of great wealth, power, and stability, and was accompanied by a burst of cultural activity, much of which was devoted to the quest for eternal life.

The exhibition featured works found in the royal tomb at Tanis in northern Egypt (21st and 22nd Dynasties), acclaimed as the most significant royal burial site since the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922, including gold masks, precious jewelry, richly decorated sarcophagi and coffins, sculptures, and other lavish tomb furnishings from the royal pharaohs’ burials at Thebes and Tanis. Highlights included the stunning gold Funerary Mask of Wenudjebauendjed, one of the few surviving examples of the funerary masks made for kings and great nobles.

Gold represented the solar, the imperishable, and the flesh of the gods, and the solid gold mask therefore helped to represent the deceased as a transfigured spirit eligible for eternal life. Numerous works of royal and noble jewelry, intricately worked in gold, carnelian, lapis lazuli, turquoise, and other semiprecious stones, were on view.

Among the many outstanding sculptures in the exhibition was a unique representation of Osiris Resurrecting (26th Dynasty). The prone figure of the god of the dead is shown wrapped as a mummy with a gold headdress, lying on his stomach with his head lifted in the process of resurrection.

Also featured was the Boat from the Tomb of Amenhotep II (18th Dynasty), an 8-foot-long wooden model of the pharaoh’s river ship that used to sail on the Nile, brilliantly painted with detailed scenes of the god Montu smiting the enemies of Egypt. The tombs of kings contained boats, either life-sized or models, from as early as the First Dynasty. The ruler traveled by water, whether it was to inspect his lands, visit the temples, or in the afterlife, to journey through the heavens. In the New Kingdom, the ships placed in tombs were elaborate models of these royal vessels.

Made for pharaohs and their senior nobles, the works of art that were in this exhibition are of the finest quality and materials, each piece a reminder of the supreme importance of the quest for immortality in ancient Egypt.

Another highlight of The Quest for Immortality: Treasures of Ancient Egypt was a life-sized facsimile of the burial chamber of the New Kingdom pharaoh Thutmose III, who ruled Egypt in the 15th century B.C. (1479–1425 B.C.). The original chamber is part of the pharaoh’s tomb complex in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings.

The chamber measures approximately 50 x 29 x 10 feet (15.2 x 8.8 x 3 meters), and its walls are fully covered with the first known complete copy of the Amduat, an illustrated funerary text intended as a guidebook to the afterlife, primarily for pharaohs. Amduat means “what is in the netherworld,” and it was believed that by describing the afterlife it would aid the king, for to possess knowledge of something was to have power over it.

Written in hieroglyphs and depicting hundreds of images of deities, demons, and the blessed dead, the Amduat is divided into the twelve hours of night. The text relates the events during the sun’s nocturnal journey from dusk to dawn, from death to resurrection. A deceased pharaoh was believed to descend into the netherworld, where he would board the solar boat and unite with the sun god Re. Together they would travel through the underworld, described as a larger-than-life real world, with a Nile, a desert, and fields.

Traveling through the night, the sun god encounters numerous enemies that threaten his quest for immortality. But with the help of hundreds of deities, his body and soul reunite at midnight, giving him the strength to overcome the obstacles that remain in his path. The journey—a metaphor for the eternal life sought by all Egyptians—ends at sunrise with the pharaoh’s resurrection as the sun god Re. All this ritual takes place under a ceiling painted as a blue sky full of yellow stars.

The objects in The Quest for Immortality: Treasures of Ancient Egypt were loaned by the Egyptian government and come from the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, the Luxor Museum, and the sites of Tanis and Deir el-Bahari, near Luxor. The exhibition was organized by United Exhibits Group, Copenhagen, and the National Gallery of Art, Washington, in association with the Supreme Council of Antiquities, Cairo.

The exhibition traveled to the United States and Canada for a period of five years. The Kimbell Art Museum was the third venue for the exhibition, following presentations at the National Gallery of Art, Washington (opening June 30, 2002) and the Museum of Science, Boston.

Erik Hornung, professor emeritus of Egyptology at the University of Basel, Switzerland, conceived the exhibition. Betsy M. Bryan, Alexander Badawy Professor of Egyptian Art and Archaeology and chair of the department of Near Eastern Studies, The Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, was the guest curator for the exhibition.

The 256-page exhibition catalogue, co-published by the National Gallery of Art and Prestel, is richly illustrated with some 190 color photographs, including multiple details of many objects. The catalogue, which was co-edited by Hornung and Bryan, contains essays by them and Fayza Haikal, professor of Egyptology at the American University in Cairo; entries on each object; a selected guide to the gods; a chronology; a glossary; and a bibliography.

Promotional support of this exhibition in Fort Worth was provided by American Airlines, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, and NBC5.

Caption: Anthropoid Coffin of Paduamen, with Inner Board and Lid (detail), Twenty-first Dynasty, 1069–945 BC, painted and varnished wood. From the tomb of Bab El-Gusus, found in 1891 in Deir el-Bahari. The Egyptian Museum, Cairo. CG6233-6235