Robin Simon

Bringing the dead to life

Robin Simon on a magnficent exhibition of objects from ancient Egypt

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Osbert Sitwell tells a story in Left hand! Right hand! about visiting a country house and sitting on a hall chair which promptly collapses. 'Don't worry, Osbert,' his hostess tells him, 'it was a very old chair.' Indeed it was, as Sitwell later discovers: Egyptian and about 3,000 years old. Fortunately, more 'very old' objects have survived from ancient Egypt than from any comparable period, because the Egyptians set such store by filling the tombs of their pharaohs with chairs, sculpture, jewellery, wall paintings, gold, alabaster, model boats, board games - anything that might come in handy for the after-life in which they so firmly believed.

The magnificently conceived exhibition The Pharaohs, at the Palazzo Grassi, Venice (until 25 May 2003), has hundreds of such artefacts on view, a third of them on loan from the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. It sets out to bring the pharaohs to life, something which, although they anticipated it in a rather different way, so preoccupied their waking thoughts as they contemplated eternity. Like all the exhibitions in this Fiat-inspired series devoted to ancient civilisations, The Pharaohs is not for the faint-hearted. The materials on view are ravishing but the exhibition is very large and serious in intent, although displayed with exemplary clarity. If, for example, a frieze or papyrus records the use of a musical instrument such as the 'sistrum', a nearby case will be sure to display a surviving sistrum, or even two. Records of warfare are accompanied by the gold or bronze daggers belonging to the pharaoh or general mentioned. A fascinating section on scribes, who were vital to the documentation and archival programme of the court, is accompanied by shrewdly chosen examples of their palettes, brushes and pens.

It is a far cry from a recent Timewatch programme on the subject, judging by the blurb in the Times, in which we were promised insights into the lost capital city of Akhenaten and his wife Nefertiti. 'Via historical recreations and footage of the discovery [of the city] shown for the first time on television,' we were told, 'Timewatch tells how the power-crazed couple managed to turn themselves into living gods.' I never saw the programme so I do not know whether this crude publicity accurately reflected it. Of course, Akhenaten (who ruled 1350-1333 BC) may indeed have been 'power-crazed', and Nefertiti too; but there is no evidence to suggest that they were. What seems certain is that no pharaoh ever turned himself into a 'living god'.

Unlike the Roman emperors, they were quite clear on the distinction between gods and men, as were their subjects. It was understood by all concerned that the pharaohs were mortal while acting as the gods' representatives upon earth. The closest parallel might be with the theories of James VI and I expounded in Basilikon Doron, a book which opens with the sonnet:

God gives not Kings the style of Gods in vaine

For on his throne his scepter do they sway.

Similarly, if pharaonic rule resembled the 'divine right of kings', it did not protect the pharaohs any more than the Stuarts from the reality behind the myth of dynastic succession. Usurpation was frequent, and the three millennia of the Egyptian empire saw about 33 dynasties, a rate of change roughly comparable to the last millennium in Britain.

Akhenaten directed worship towards a monotheistic religion focused upon the sun, a god (Aten) who revealed himself in his creation, rather than (as hitherto) through the pharaoh and a related pantheon. There was thus an increased emphasis upon the individual's life on earth, and it is no coincidence that the most striking likenesses to be found in Egyptian art are those of Akhenaten. He had by no means perfect features: a pronounced nose and mouth, a long jaw and big ears, which are visible in a life-size plaster portrait (Berlin) and even in a monumental bust from Karnak (Cairo). In this respect he was far from 'power crazed', because the images of most pharaohs, in contrast, conform to accepted norms of beauty. One intriguing aspect of this brief period of naturalistic portraiture (Akhenaten was subsequently condemned as a 'heretic') is that Nefertiti's claims to have been one of the most beautiful women who ever lived can be judged by visual records that are likely to be reliable, including a sensitively carved diorite head (Berlin). Akhenaten and Nefertiti are also unusual in showing themselves playing with three of their six daughters clambering about their knees, a startlingly endearing scene.

Yet the notion of what constituted Egyptian beauty can be baffling to modern eyes. The Egyptians seem never to have gone as far, say, as the Maya, who pressed their children's heads with boards to create the desired degree of deformity. But they did shave their heads - men, women and children wore formalised wigs; and what they admired most was an egg-shaped head that sloped back at an exaggerated angle, balanced upon a slim neck. Eyes and lips were heavily outlined with kohl. Over three millennia, artistic styles and aesthetic criteria changed little.

One reason for the stereotyped representations of the human figure in Egyptian art is that such images were themselves akin to hieroglyphs. Poses were limited because they had precise meanings, and in practice pharaohs were depicted in only three ways: standing/walking; seated; and kneeling. The same constraints applied to other motifs: baboons tend to be shown one way, jackals another, flies another, each immediately recognisable, whatever the context or medium, as in a wonderful golden necklace that belonged to Queen Ahhotep (Cairo).

There are striking moments, however, when the brilliance of an individual artist working within these conventions is apparent. One such example is the sculpture of the important court official Ramessnakht as a scribe (Cairo). Improbably enough, a protective baboon sits on Ramessnakht's head, and both it and the features of the sitter are depicted with precision and individuality. The even more extraordinary aspect of this sculpture, which dates from between 1279 and 1213 BC, is the way in which the form of the baboon and the texture of its fur become conflated, in a visual pun, with the head and wig of the sitter. It is possible to read each element as part of the other or as distinct and separate. Furthermore, this dazzling trick is played out in one of the most intractable of materials, granite. Like most of the stone favoured by the Egyptians, it was immensely hard and difficult to work, but it could be relied upon to endure.

The dramatic climax of the exhibition reveals another masterpiece of individual genius. The penultimate room (of over 30) is dramatically darkened and dedicated to tomb rituals. In one glass case are three wooden sculptures: a seated lion deity and a walking figure of Amenhotep II, both of which conform to type; and then a breathtakingly naturalistic panther, every centimetre of which, paradoxically for a tomb ornament, is instinct with life. Its head is thrust forward, its muscles relaxed but gathered for action, its long, heavy tail dragging on the ground behind it. Our sudden awareness of the breathing reality of the artist who observed this animal, and who carved this wood, reminds us of the power of art, more than of any ritual, to bring the dead to life.