Egyptian art exhibit simply "divine"

Crouching jackal statue from the exhibition.

With its Reflection of the Divine exhibition, Geneva's Art and History Museum offers a glimpse into 4,000 years of spirituality and mysticism in the land of the Pharaohs.

This content was published on January 5, 2002 minutes

The Greek historian, Herodotus of Halicarnassus, described the ancient Egyptians as the most religious of all people and the most tolerant of all things sacred. That is borne out in this exhibition, which shows how divine forces were not only portrayed in the popular image of ornate mummies, but also suffused everyday life.

"The life of Ancient Egypt was completely impregnated by religion," says Jean-Luc Chappaz, curator of the exhibition and a leading Egyptologist.

To cope with death, there was the myth of Osiris and the prospect of rebirth and eternal life; there were countless amulets and talismans to ensure fertility or to protect against anything from illness to snakes.

Bearing testimony

"We've tried to show figures that represent official religion and institutional worship alongside objects that bear testimony to a more personal form of devotion," says Chappaz.

"There was no opposition in these different manifestations of religion. They were all part of the same spirituality. We want to show, through these magnificent works, this great quest that man made over the course of thousands of years," he told swissinfo.

This is by no means the first exhibition in Switzerland in recent years devoted to the Ancient Egyptians. Indeed the Art and History Museum itself has the largest collection of Egyptian artefacts in the country.

But all 150 of the pieces displayed in the current exhibition come from a large and very impressive private collection, assembled over the course of many generations. The owner has asked to remain anonymous.

Bronze, earthenware, wood

"These pieces are of an extremely high quality," Chappaz says. These treasures are made from a variety of materials, from bronze to earthenware and amazingly preserved wood - but there is a thematic coherence to the exhibition.

Because the antiquities cover a period of 4,000 years, they afford the viewer an insight not only into how spirituality evolved - from pre-history, through the period when Egypt was in its splendour, to Hellenic times, when Alexander the Great arrived - but they also show how art developed.

The oldest piece in the exhibition is an ivory statuette dating from the reign of Nagada I, about 4000 BC. It is the earliest known representation of a human figure, though whether it depicts a man or a god is not clear. The most recent exhibits date from 300 AD, when Egypt was part of the Roman Empire.

In ancient Egypt, the deities often took the form of animals, and jackals, rams, falcons, geese and cats abound in the exhibition, in the form of small statues given in thanks to a god.

Chappaz says the museum spent a year checking the authenticity of the pieces, as well as whether they had been acquired legally.

The Reflections of the Divine exhibition, which is accompanied by a wide range of workshops and other activities for the public, runs until February 3, 2002.

by Roy Probert

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