Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 25, 2019
Jeffrey Spier, Timothy F. Potts, and Sara E. Cole Beyond the Nile: Egypt and the Classical World Exh. cat. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2018. 360 pp.; 322 color ills.; 18 b/w ills. Cloth $65.00 (9781606065518)
J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, March 27–September 9, 2018
Installation view, Beyond the Nile: Egypt and the Classical World, J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, March 27–September 9, 2018 (photograph © Edward Goldman; provided by the Getty Museum)

Beyond the Nile: Egypt and the Classical World of Greece and Rome was the first in a series of exhibitions organized by the J. Paul Getty Museum that put the art and history of ancient Greece and Rome in context by elucidating their relationships with neighboring civilizations of the Mediterranean and Near East. This approach of viewing pre-modern civilizations as part of a global network, in this case interconnected via trade, diplomacy, warfare, and religion, is part of a larger and welcome trend in museum exhibitions worldwide. The Mediterranean Sea has always functioned as both boundary and link between the civilizations that developed along it, and this exhibition highlighted the role of Egypt and Greece in these contacts. The exhibition was diachronic and geographically expansive, which was a large part of its appeal. It was divided into four sections that unfold chronologically over more than two thousand years, with informative introductory panels for each section and clear maps indicating the ancient sites discussed.

The first section of the exhibition, Egypt and the Aegean in the Bronze Age 2000–1100 BC, highlighted contacts between the Minoan and Mycenaean worlds and Egypt, especially the cultural, commercial, and diplomatic exchange between Egypt and the Minoan and Mycenaean palatial civilizations. For example, a group of objects from the Tôd treasure, the name given to a foundation deposit discovered near Luxor in a temple of the god Montu, an Egyptian god of war who gives the pharaoh dominion over foreign lands, shows the reach of Amenemhat II (ca. 1911–1877 BC). A small sample of the more than one hundred silver cups from the deposit could be viewed. These are thought by some to be Syrian imitations of Minoan models. A string of lapis lazuli beads from the treasure demonstrates long-distance trade, as the raw material had to come a great distance from the area of present-day Afghanistan. Also in this gallery were impressive objects from the Aegina treasure, including a pair of gold earrings with two facing dogs, a motif that is found in Egypt. Not mentioned, however, is the elusive nature of this treasure, the findspot of which cannot be proven. This has caused much conjecture regarding the origins of the objects and their motifs and sometimes even their dates. The story behind the acquisition of this treasure would likely be of great interest to museum visitors. Certainly, the difficulty of using style, technique, and iconography to pinpoint the origin of the artworks that make up the Aegina treasure reminds us of the complex cultural contacts in the Mediterranean even at this early date. A great strength of the Bronze Age gallery was the display of groups of objects from the same context together, such as in the case of those from the Tôd and Aegina treasures as well as from a shaft grave from the Egyptian site of Abydos in which elite Minoan Kamares ware pottery was found with an Egyptian kohl pot, Egyptian faience animal figurines, and other objects of clear Egyptian origin. The so-called London Medical Papyrus, a scroll that contains magical healing spells written in Egyptian hieratic script, two with words taken from the language of the Cretans, clearly indicates that contact between Egypt and Crete went well beyond commercial interest.

From the Bronze Age gallery we jump about four hundred years to a section titled, “The Greeks Return to Egypt, 700–331 BC.” Although contacts between Greece and Egypt did not cease completely after the collapse of the Mycenaean kingdoms at the end of the Bronze Age, they were far less intense and no longer direct, usually with the Levant acting as an intermediary. Visitors who were left wondering about this four-hundred-year gap in contact needed to consult the exhibition catalogue, specifically the essay by Alexandra Villing, as she opens with a discussion of the evidence from this period. Direct contacts intensified once again around 700 BC when merchants and soldiers were allowed to return to Egypt. Greek traders founded a colony at Naukratis in the western Nile delta where they were in close contact with Egyptians and Egyptian culture. This section of the exhibition highlighted the influence of Egyptian art on Greece and the hybrid objects that resulted, including figurines and vessels. Egyptian objects dedicated in sanctuaries in Greece were also on display as were Greek vessels discovered in Egyptian temples. Most visually striking, however, was the monumental sixth century BC kouros, or young man, discovered in the sanctuary of Apollo at Ptoon in Boeotia, Greece, displayed next to a seventh century BC Egyptian sculpture in the same stiff, frontal pose, with clenched hands held tightly at the sides and one leg forward. This illustrates the important point made in all art history textbooks, that the tradition of Greek monumental figural sculpture in stone was influenced by exposure to a millennia-old stone sculpture tradition in Egypt. But the story told by the basalt sarcophagus of Wahibreemakhet, an Egyptian who lived around 600 BC, provides even more insight into the complex world of Greeks living in Egypt. The deceased was buried in Egyptian manner fitting of a courtier, and his name, indicated in hieroglyphic on the sarcophagus, is in fact Egyptian, however, the names of his parents are Greek, making Wahibreemakhet the son of immigrant parents from Greece who adopted Egyptian cultural traditions, a scenario that may be familiar to modern visitors.

Another section, “Ptolemaic Egypt 323–30 BC,” focused on art under the powerful Ptolemaic dynasty. Ptolemy I was one of Alexander the Great’s generals who became governor of Egypt after Alexander’s untimely death in 323 BC and by 305 had proclaimed himself king. The Ptolemaic dynasty is known for its wealth and the splendor of its art, which could be Greek or Roman in style, or characterized by a hybrid style, depending on the political or religious needs at the moment. For example, an impressive limestone relief depicts Ptolemy I in Egyptian fashion wearing a wig with the royal uraeus and a broad collar. What’s more, the Hellenistic pharaoh is shown in the typically Egyptian composite view, and he is making an offering of burning incense to the Egyptian goddess Hathor. A sculpted bust of a youthful Ptolemaic king carved in granodiorite, a green stone used by Egyptian sculptors, shows the king in the pharaonic nemes headdress with a uraeus, but his round eyes and the curls across the top of his head are characteristic of Hellenistic sculpture rather than canonical Egyptian works. Although tiny, the artworks from this section that perhaps best allude to the splendor of Hellenistic art are the gems, cameos, and rings made of a variety of materials, including lapis lazuli, garnet, chalcedony, sardonyx, gold, and agate. For example, a relief portrait of a Ptolemaic queen depicted as Isis has impressively naturalistic corkscrew curls carved into the chalcedony gem. Toward the end of the Ptolemaic gallery was an impressive over-life-size sculpture bust believed to represent Julius Caesar, who defeated Ptolemy XII. The portrait, which emphasizes Roman realism, specifically Caesar’s portrait features, is notably carved from greywacke from the Wadi Hammamat in the Eastern Desert of Egypt and is an excellent transition to the Roman galleries beyond.

The final section of the exhibition, “Egypt and the Roman Empire 30 BC–AD 300,” highlighted artworks after the Roman conquest of Egypt under Octavian (soon to be the emperor Augustus) who defeated Cleopatra VII and Marc Antony around 31 BC. Rome had always borrowed freely from the cultures she conquered, adopting and adapting religious and artistic practices, and she was especially enamored with Egyptian traditions. Roman artworks influenced by Egyptian landscapes, religion, and more are well represented in the galleries in the form of paintings, sculptures, mosaics, ceramics, and luxury objects. A portion of an impressive approximately 270-square-foot mosaic from ancient Praeneste begun around 100 BC depicts, with great skill, a view of the Nile and its environs. The cult of Isis in Italy figures prominently in the exhibition. For example, a granite obelisk from a large temple dedicated to Isis in Beneventum was displayed in the Getty’s entrance hall, luring museum visitors into the exhibition. Also present was a statue of Isis from her temple at Pompeii, which was fittingly described as “eclectic” by the curators due to her typical Egyptian attributes—an ankh and sistrum—combined with a hairstyle that reflects those of archaic Greek sculptures, perhaps alluding to the antiquity of Egyptian religious practices. A marble slab with a relief depicting an Egyptian festival in a sanctuary of Isis brought the worship of Isis in Italy to life for the museum visitor. Egyptianizing frescoes from Roman villas in the area of the Bay of Naples also demonstrate the influence of Egypt on wealthy Romans well beyond the sphere of religion. Finally, like the Ptolemies before them, Roman emperors did not hesitate to depict themselves as pharaoh, as seen in the exhibition in impressive sculptures of Domitian and Caracalla. The head of Caracalla with a uraeus was carved in Egyptian granite and originally belonged to a colossal statue located in the Temple of Isis in Coptos, Egypt. The emperor Hadrian was also enamored with Egypt, a fact highlighted in the exhibition in a subsection titled “Egyptianizing Sculpture from Hadrian’s Villa.” Among the works in this section from Hadrian’s expansive Villa at Tivoli is a striking portrait of his lover, Antinous, who tragically drowned in the Nile in AD 130. He is depicted wearing the pharaonic nemes headdress with uraeus.

The strength of the Getty’s Classical art collection is well known, and the ambitious project of the Getty to place the Classical worlds of Greece and Rome in their broader context highlights the complex interconnections of the ancient world. This first installment of the project seen in the exhibition Beyond the Nile: Egypt and the Classical World of Greece and Rome, as well as the impressive catalogue and additional programming that accompanied it, highlight many themes that are relevant to us today—trade, diplomacy, warfare, religious practice and freedom, and immigration—providing museumgoers with a deep historical lens through which to view contemporary issues of our global society.

Cynthia Colburn
Professor of Art History, Pepperdine University