Like some 24-carat Band-Aid, the finely worked gold plaque, inscribed with animal-headed gods and a giant eye, once covered an incision in the abdomen of Psusennes I of Egypt’s 21st Dynasty. Through the cut 3,000 years ago, embalmers removed the pharaoh’s internal organs for safekeeping; the king would need them again in the afterlife. The plaque’s mysterious eye certified that no evil spirits had entered the pharaoh’s body.
When found in 1939, the mummy of the dead king, who reigned from 1039-991 B.C., was fairly heaped with such amulets—bangles, armbands, rings, and a fabulous pectoral of gleaming gold, turquoise and lapis lazuli. Even his toes were protected by thimbles of gold. For good measure, the mummy lay in a silver coffin, inscribed with hieroglyphic texts of protective spells, inside a basalt coffin that, in turn, was sealed in an immense red-granite sarcophagus.
Egyptian art was always both beautiful and, in a magical sense, useful. These dual characteristics are the hallmarks of a gorgeous five-year traveling exhibition now on view through September 14 at the KimbellArt Museum in Fort Worth, Texas. Psusennes’ plaque, pectoral and “toe stalls,” as the gold thimbles are called, are among 115 objects on loan from the government of Egypt for “The Quest for Immortality: Treasures of Ancient Egypt,” which opened last summer at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. and travels from Fort Worth to the New Orleans Museum of Art, where it will be from October 19 through February 25, 2004. Nearly all the objects in the show come from the EgyptianMuseum in Cairo, which recently celebrated its centennial. The new exhibition is twice the size of the 1976 blockbuster of Egyptian art, “Treasures of Tutankhamun,” also loaned from the Cairo museum.
“The Quest for Immortality” focuses largely on the New Kingdom (1550-1069 B.C.), Egypt’s grand imperial age. Beginning with the 18th Dynasty, this 500-year span was the era of ancient Egypt’s greatest wealth and power, when the empire’s army dominated a territory stretching from Syria to Sudan. The heart of the kingdom was Thebes, now Luxor, 400 miles up the Nile from the old capital of Memphis, now Cairo. Tribute from neighbors who chose not to fight, and spoils of war from those who did (and invariably lost), flowed into Egypt and its cosmopolitan new capital. The booty enriched the pharaohs, their courtiers, and the temples and priests of Amun, who became the nation’s central deity.
The New Kingdom’s affluent and fashion-conscious elite were probably history’s first leisure class. A highlight of the show is a late 18th-Dynasty limestone statue (c. 1336-1323 B.C.) of the wife—her name is lost to history—of the renowned General Nakhtmin. With the eyes and cheekbones of a fashion model, the young woman wears a formfitting dress of pleated linen and an enormous wig with cascades of individually crimped braids ending in tassels (p. 57). Like most of the objects in the show, the sculpture was found in a tomb—in this case, the couple’s—where placing images of the deceased was a pious act.