Egyptian antiquities from the Louvre
journey to the Afterlife
At the National Gallery of Australia 17 November 2006 – 25 February 2007
Visit the exhibition website nga.gov.au/Journey (Requires Flash 8)
Late Period, 26th Dynasty, 664–525 'Ushabti troop of Nefer-ib-Ra-em-heb' faience, Department of Egyptian Antiquities, Musée du Louvre, Paris Photograph © Georges Poncet, Musée du Louvre, Paris
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This summer in Canberra the Australian public will have the opportunity to see an extraordinary collection of art and artefacts from one of history’s most enduring civilisations. Over two hundred objects will go on show in Egyptian antiquities from the Louvre: journey to the Afterlife. This momentous event is the first exhibition the Louvre has sent to Australia in nearly two decades. Many of the works are drawn from the permanent display of Egyptian antiquities at the Louvre, while others have never been on public display.
The ancient Egyptians saw life as a continuous process, in which mortal existence was only preparatory to the transformation brought by death, a mere shadow of the delightful world to come. A life lived morally and in accordance with the Egyptian commandments would allow a soul to pass through the final gate from the Underworld to the paradise of the Field of Reeds after judgment by the god Osiris.
The journey between death and the Hall of Judgement was, however, lengthy and fraught with danger. The deceased had to set out equipped with amulets, magical spells and blessings from the gods. Egyptian antiquities from the Louvre; journey to the Afterlife draws its narrative from the Book of the Dead, a compilation of spells and incantations to secure protection against the perils of the journey. The manuscripts were often illustrated with scenes of the stages of the journey, or the rewards awaiting those who completed it successfully and gained entry to the Field of Reeds. Known to the Egyptians as the Book of Coming Forth by Day, visitors will have the pleasure of seeing a number of these painted papyrus manuscripts in the exhibition.
Third Intermediate Period, 21st–25th Dynasties, 1096–664 BCE 'Qebehsenuef' of the 'Dummy canopic jars of Padiouf' painted wood, Department of Egyptian Antiquities, Musée du Louvre, Paris Photograph © Christian Décamps, Musée du Louvre, Paris
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Egyptian antiquities from the Louvre: journey to the Afterlife includes a broad range of subjects and themes in a variety of media, showcasing the incredible skill and virtuosity of ancient Egyptian artists and craftspeople. We will see major sculptural works in stone and bronze, illustrated manuscripts, painted chests and mummy cases, low reliefs, jewellery, ceramics, and fine wood carving.
The smallest objects in the exhibition are amulets and jewels for adorning and protecting mummies, made from ceramic, carnelian, and other semi-precious stones. An army of over two hundred faience ushabti figures stands to attention, ready to act as deputies for the deceased in the afterlife, performing on his or her behalf any duties required. Hieroglyphic inscriptions on illustrated stelae invoke the gods to grant favours and safe passage to donors on their travels through the afterlife to the Hall of Judgement. Painted scenes on canopic chests and mummy cases show vignettes from the journey of the dead, as they travel beyond the mortal realm towards eternal life with the gods. Lifelike sculptures and mummy portraits ensure the survival of the physical form, the eyes of the deceased gazing at us across the millennia. Throughout, the sublime, impassive faces of the gods watch over the progress of souls through the rigours of life and the Underworld’s dangers.
Although ancient Egyptian art is often perceived to be about death and the tomb, Egyptian antiquities from the Louvre; journey to the Afterlife shows that the elaborate funerary preparations and mummification rituals were actually only the first step on the path to eternal life. The Field of Reeds was a paradise imagined by a simple, agricultural society: tilling fertile fields, tending fat livestock, hunting in a countryside teeming with birdlife and game, dancing and listening to heavenly music, and fishing in swollen streams.
It was a life like that along the Nile, but brighter, more beautiful, and more restful, where magical servants carried out the more tiresome tasks, and everyone was comfortable and happy. This was not only a paradise for the upper classes, but one to which every Egyptian aspired. Some of the works in the exhibition depict the world to come; others serve as reminders of it, such as a blue glazed bowl decorated with the water lilies that symbolise rebirth and the fecund splendour of the afterlife.
Ptolemaic Period 332–30 BCE 'Mummy mask' plastered, painted and gilded linen, Department of Egyptian Antiquities, Musée du Louvre, Paris Photograph © Christian Décamps, Musée du Louvre, Paris
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Among the most spectacular objects in the exhibition are the sarcophagi, coffins and cartonnages – mummy cases made of linen or papyrus strips held together and hardened with plaster and resin then covered in painted decorations. To enter the Field of Reeds, it was not just necessary for the soul to pass the final judgement before the god Osiris. The body must remain intact for the soul to be reunited with it and these coffins protected the mummified remains from physical damage. Together with the accompanying wall paintings, low reliefs and portrait sculptures inscribed with the names of the deceased, they also allowed the soul to find and recognise its body more easily and substituted for it in the case of loss or damage.
One of the most exquisite examples of painting to be seen in the exhibition is the Cartonnage of Djedkhonsouioufankh which combines a portrait of the deceased with a scene in the Hall of Judgment, a variety of talismanic motifs, and symbols of the afterlife and the journey of the soul.
Pharaonic culture lasted in ancient Egypt for well over three thousand years, gradually evolving over this time as the kingdom was conquered, divided, reunited, and transformed. The exhibition imparts an understanding of how these changes affected religious belief and art production over the millennia, from the Old Kingdom when the pyramids were built to Cleopatra, last of the pharaohs, and the Roman conquest two thousand years ago.
Egyptian antiquities from the Louvre: journey to the Afterlife is unlike any exhibition of Egyptian art and culture ever seen in Australia. Visitors will gain an appreciation of Egyptian artistic traditions and the enormous skill of the ancient hands that fashioned the works on display, and an understanding of their functional context. Egypt holds a perennial fascination, one that this exhibition will reignite in anyone who has a memory of a school project on the pyramids, or a first encounter with a mummy on a museum visit. The exquisite workmanship of the objects in the exhibition grants the ancient Egyptians their longed-for immortality, bridging the intervening millennia and allowing visitors to accompany them on their journey through the Underworld.
New Kingdom, 18th Dynasty 1550–1295 BCE 'Water lily vessel' faience, Department of Egyptian Antiquities, Musée du Louvre, Paris Photograph © Christian Décamps, Musée du Louvre, Paris
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The National Gallery of Australia is proud to be the first venue to host this outstanding exhibition from one of the foremost collections of Egyptian art and antiquities in the world.
Egyptian antiquities from the Louvre: journey to the Afterlife is organised by the Musée du Louvre, Paris, Art Exhibitions Australia and the National Gallery of Australia, in association with the Art Gallery of South Australia and Art Gallery of Western Australia.