Alexander the Great seized Egypt on his mission to conquer the Persian Empire in 332 B.C.; when his general Ptolemy came to rule Egypt, he found it wise to adapt to the much older culture. His dynasty, which ruled for the subsequent 300 years.
When the Greeks Ruled Egypt begins with a range of works created in the 3,000 years before the arrival of Alexander the Great in Egypt. Centered on the belief of a real and tactile afterlife that mirrored life on earth, sculptors, painters, goldsmiths, scribes, glassmakers, and architects created beautiful funerary goods to serve rich and poor in eternity. Religious belief that had changed very little in over three millennia meant artwork was remarkably consistent and abided by time-honored traditions that carried forward the distinctive visual culture of past generations, including the iconic Egyptian convention of representing the human body.
Wall Fragment from the Tomb of Thenti (Egyptian, Old Kingdom, Dynasty 5, 2504–2347 B.C.) is just such a representation that simultaneously depicts the frontal and side views of the body; the eye and shoulders are frontal while the head, nose, and mouth are shown in profile. Other artworks show meat, vegetables, vessels full of libations, and inventories of linen to assure abundance for the deceased in life after death. To ensure protection in the afterlife, Egyptians stocked their tombs with security-giving amulets and figurines like the Ushabti of Nebseni (at left; Egyptian, New Kingdom, early Dynasty 17, about 1570 B.C.), which were thought to act as helpful servants.
The exhibition moves from such representative Egyptian expressions to the intermingling of artistic traditions under Alexander the Great and his successor in Egypt, Ptolemy. The Greek rulers in Egypt claimed kinship with the Greek Zeus and the Egyptian Amon and also invented a totally new god, Serapis, who oversaw Egyptian grain production so crucial to Greeks and later, the Romans. The exhibition showcases the fusion of two artistic traditions with works that incorporate the Classical (Greek and Roman) interest in naturalism with millennia-old Egyptian practices. Reliefs from the Ptolemaic period in When the Greeks Ruled Egypt show subjects that are traditionally Egyptian, yet subtly introduce the true-to-life style of the Ptolemies. New coinage, modeled on Greek standard weights, used classical imagery but with Egyptian characteristics like the ram’s horn of Zeus Amon curled around the ears of the rulers depicted.
The exhibition also includes works from the Roman period, which began in 30 B.C. after Octavian’s defeat of Mark Antony and Cleopatra, the last actively ruling pharaoh of the Ptolemaic dynasty. Mummy portraits painted during Roman rule adhere to Roman tastes for realistic portraiture, but indicate how assimilated into Egyptian life some Greeks and Romans became by practicing mummification, albeit with the slight variation of a portrait as face cover.
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