LION-HEADED statuary and 7,000-pound sarcophagi notwithstanding, a small fragment of faience tile may be the single most impressive item in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts' "Splendors of Ancient Egypt" exhibit. Against a muted green background, round, white-petaled flowers with bumpy yellow centers are intertwined with layered blue blossoms and spindly, leaved stems.
One's reaction is less likely to be "Wow, that's nice decorative tile," than awe that 4,000 years ago there existed a culture advanced enough to conceive and create not only tile, but decorative tile. Consider the cultural data encoded in this fragment: Here is a society eons removed from requiring mere shelter, one with the leisure and skill for what can only be called interior decorating. Indeed, it can almost be said that the real measure of a culture is its advancement to the Decorative Tile Stage.
Its tenure at the Virginia Museum is the only East Coast stop of "Splendors of Ancient Egypt," a traveling exhibition of more than 200 works from the celebrated collection of the Pelizaeus Museum in Hildesheim, Germany. The exhibit's oldest artifacts are more than 5,000 years old; in all, they span the immense breadth of ancient Egyptian history.
There is a lot to see; the exhibition comprises 14 small to mid-size galleries. And because it contains items from every phase of a culture that had what we are reminded was "the longest continuous history on Earth," the exhibit is the museum-going equivalent of a survey course.
It's not easy to put it all in perspective (to wit: scholars date Egyptian civilization from about 3000 B.C. to 395 A.D.), but a concurrent IMAX film at the nearby Science Museum of Virginia offers some help. "Mysteries of Egypt" is the first IMAX production from National Geographic Films. The film's framing device, in which a grandfather played by Omar Sharif explains Howard Carter's 1922 discovery of King Tutankhamen's tomb to his granddaughter, may be a little corny, but it doesn't detract from breathtaking aerial photography of such vistas as the pyramids of Giza, the Valley of the Kings and the Nile River. It's an appropriate introduction to the show because Egyptian artifacts, perhaps more than others, suffer greatly from the incongruity of a museum setting.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of "Splendors of Ancient Egypt" is its testimony to the sophistication of ancient Egypt. Its culture, much of which looks surprisingly familiar to modern eyes, seems far less alien than that of, say, Colonial America. The Egyptian government is evidenced here by the exhibit's many burial treasures from the tombs of officials. The official title of one of these, "Overseer of the Granary for the Divine Offerings," combines the mystical and the mundane in a matter-of-fact way. There is much else with contemporary resonance -- down to the culture's interest in cosmetics. The collection includes several delicate palettes for mixing them, in particular the Egyptians' kohl "eyeliner," made from the soot of burned almond shells, fat and malachite.
Much of the fine statuary here is impossibly regal, like the alabaster "Head of Khafre (Chephren)" -- better known as the model for the Sphinx. Though reconstructed from fragments, in its simplicity it is far more powerful than much of what was to follow. (And Richmond, it should be noted, is a city that knows something about statuary.) Though the figures are, indeed, regal, they are not without realistic flourishes. A close look at the sandals of "The Goddess Sakhmet" reveals that her second toe is longer than her big toe. A wooden "Standing Figure of the Lady Senabi" depicts her sunken pelvis and knobby knees.
Though most of us associate the Egyptians with Giza-scale monuments, ancient Egyptian art can change scale without sacrificing impact. The show's small, bronze "Sacred Cat of Bastet," for example, sits with its tiny, elegant paws placed side by side. Other small figures in the exhibit document the everyday as well as the celestial: Wooden figures make beer, grind grain and operate a plow pulled by skinny, spotted cows.
The ancient Egyptians had no word for "art," and were, to all appearances, a relentlessly practical people. This practicality never flags, especially when planning for the afterlife, which they did as though they were planning for a long trip. Of course, this is not so different from contemporary Christian beliefs -- except for the fact that the Egyptians assumed they had to pack. Which is why tombs contained so many everyday items, like the headrests, hairpins and amulets that populate this show.
"Offering Relief of Iunu" contains an orderly list noting the linens, loaves of bread, figs and cuts of meat offered on behalf of the deceased. Shabtis, small figurines placed in tombs that represented the workers that the deceased would have at his disposal in the afterlife, were meted out with exactitude. There were more than 400: 365 plus 36 overseers, one for every squad of 10 workers. Organ storage, too, was meticulous: sets of four "canopic jars" held the deceased's liver, lungs, stomach and intestines, respectively. (And the Container Store was still centuries away.)
If the mark of an effective show is arousing visitors' desire to know more about the subject at hand, this one may be counted a success. Many of the asides in the accompanying wall text could serve as starting points for entire exhibitions. Take the "Seated Figure of Hatshepsut," one of the few female rulers of ancient Egypt. We learn that the Egyptian vocabulary did not contain the phrase "Her Majesty," so they simply addressed her as "His Majesty" and depicted her wearing the same ceremonial false beard the male rulers did. This is one show that will have visitors scrambling for the catalog's bibliography.
Still, whatever curiosity it may arouse and wonders it may hold, most visitors will have only one question of an exhibition of Egyptian antiquities. And to them we say, yes, there is a mummy.
SPLENDORS OF ANCIENT EGYPT -- Through Nov. 28 at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, 2800 Grove Ave., Richmond. 888/EGYPT-VA (888/349-7882). Open Tuesday through Thursday from 10 to 5 and Friday through Sunday from 10 to 6. $15 for adults, $8 for children 13-18 and $2 for children 4-12; tickets not required for children 3 and under.
MYSTERIES OF EGYPT -- Through Dec. 3 at the Science Museum of Virginia, 2500 W. Broad St., Richmond. Films are at 10:30 a.m., noon, 1:30, 2:30, 3:30 and 5 p.m. Monday through Thursday and at 10:30 a.m., noon, 1:30, 2:30, 3:30, 5, 7, 8, and 9 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. Sunday showtimes are noon, 2, 3, 4, and 5 p.m. Admission to both the IMAX film and Science Museum exhibits is $8 for adults, $7.50 for seniors and $7 for children 4-12; tickets not required for children 3 and under. Film-only tickets are $4. For IMAX ticket information, call 800/659-1727.
A combination ticket to both "Splendors of Ancient Egypt" at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and the IMAX film "Mysteries of Egypt" at the Science Museum of Virginia is available for $24 for adults, $17 for children 13-18, $10 for children 4-12 and $23.50 for senior citizens. Call 888/EGYPT-VA (888/349-7882).