|The Art of Medicine in Ancient Egypt|
|A Special Exhibition Review by Stan Parchin|
About the show:
The perpetuation of the ka (soul) after death through mummification and artistic representation are documented practices of the ancient Egyptians. Less well-known are their medical procedures while they were alive and how they illustrated them. The Art of Medicine in Ancient Egypt, a new special exhibition in The Metropolitan Museum of Art's first-floor Egyptian Art Galleries, explores this neglected subject. On view in an intimate space are some 60 objects from The Met's collection from predynastic times through the Roman Period. They're complemented by the seldom seen Edwin Smith Surgical Papyrus, a 15-sheet medical document on loan to The Met from the New York Academy of Medicine. The show, curated superbly by Dr. James P. Allen of The Museum's Egyptian Art Department, is on view from September 13, 2005 to May 7, 2006. It's not scheduled to travel.
Upon entering the exhibition, the viewer is greeted on each side by two, dark gray seven-foot-tall statues of the lion-headed goddess Sekhmet. Made of diorite, they date from the New Kingdom reign of the Eighteenth Dynasty Pharaoh Amenhotep III (ca. 1390-1352 B.C.), the father of the "heretic king" Akhenaten. This pair of seated sculptures was placed originally in Amenhotep III's mortuary temple in Thebes, along with some 700 of their counterparts. Sekhmet was the goddess of healing as well as pestilence, reflecting the dual nature of many ancient Near Eastern deities. Physicians were members of the powerful one's priesthood.
Before Upper (southern) and Lower (northern) Egypt were united around 3100 B.C., it appears that the ancient Egyptians were already concerned with medicine, evidenced by The Met's famous Bowl with Human Feet (ca. 3900-3650 B.C.). It made the journey from The Met's new Predynastic Art Gallery to the special exhibition. This amusing diminutive sculpture, made from polished, red Nile River clay, is a round bowl supported by two attached feet, tilted slightly forward as if to offer its contents. Probably created for ritual libations such as purified water from the Nile (the source of annual regeneration for Egypt's crops), it's a three-dimensional rebus or representation of the two-dimensional hieroglyph for clean. Early in the Twentieth Century, the footed bowl was thought to signify sculpturally the Egyptian hieroglyph for to bring. This suggested that such objects were used to hold offerings brought to the tombs of the deceased, a funerary custom in ancient Egypt. The downward tilt of the bowl upon its feet, however, warranted the simple artwork's modern scholarly reinterpretation.
Bowl with Human Feet
Predynastic period (Naqada I–early Naqada II)
(ca. 3900–3650 B.C.)
Polished red pottery
H. 9.8 cm (3.9 in.), Diam. 13.5 cm (5.3 in.)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Displayed pristinely for the first time in more than five decades, the Edwin Smith Surgical Papyrus forms the spine of this show. Ancient Egyptians' understanding of medicine involved practical as well as magical matters. Freshly translated by Dr. Allen, the text describes ancient Egyptian medical remedies, including: a treatment for a throat wound; a spell against mental and emotional disorders; and prescriptions for menstrual problems, rejuvenation and hemorrhoids. Nearby are the mummy and sarcophagus of Nesiamun (ca. 700 B.C.). Non-invasive CT-scan images, illuminated for the viewer, reveal that Nesiamun was the victim of a serious injury.
Edwin Smith Papyrus
Dynasty 16-17 (ca. 1600 B.C.)
Papyrus and ink
Courtesy of the Malloch Rare Book Room
of the New York Academy of Medicine
A limestone masterpiece in the show is the Statue of Yuny from the beginning of the Nineteenth Dynasty. Yuny was the son of Amenhotep, a renowned physician and priest of Sekhmet. Dressed in the wig, robe and footwear of nobility, Yuny's shown kneeling and grasping an elaborately decorated shrine dedicated to Osiris, the Egyptian god of resurrection.
Statue of Yuny
Dynasty 19 (ca. 1290-1260 B.C.)
129 x 55 x 90.5 cm
(50 3/4 x 21 5/8 x 35 5/8 in.)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
A Mummy Portrait from the Fayum region of Egypt during the Roman Period rounds out this show. Painted on wood with encaustic (combining beeswax, resin, egg or linseed oil), the imagery is telling and very realistic. Modern science has deduced from the youth's portrait that he had a facial scar. It resulted from a surgical procedure intended to correct his vision from a congenital lesion.
Roman Period (ca. 160 A.D.)
Encaustic paint on wood
H. 35 cm (13 3/4 in.); W. 17.2 cm (6 3/4 in.)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
The Art of Medicine in Ancient Egypt does much to elucidate the ancient Egyptians' interest in preserving life in the here and now as seen through many of its artworks. The show balances out preconceived notions of this civilization's supposed preoccupation with life in the hereafter as represented in The Met's surrounding galleries. This is an exhibition not to be missed.
About the catalogue:
Allen, James P., et al. The Art of Medicine in Ancient Egypt (exh. cat.).
New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2005.
The highly affordable, 116-page paperback catalogue, published in association with Yale University Press, features two introductory essays, color and black & white photographs of the show's objects and the first color images of the entire 15-foot-long Edwin Smith Papyrus, complete with a full translation of the document.
For further reading:
Taylor, John H. and Nigel C. Strudwick. Mummies: Death and the Afterlife in Ancient Egypt -- Treasures from the British Museum (exh. cat.).
Santa Ana, CA: The Bowers Museum of Cultural Art, 2005.
This comprehensive catalogue of a long-term special exhibition in California explores funerary art from The British Museum as it relates to the ancient Egyptian concept of the afterlife and mummification.
Walker, Susan (ed.). Ancient Faces: Mummy Portraits from Roman Egypt (exh. cat.).
New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000.
"The Art of Medicine in Ancient Egypt" is on view from September 13, 2005 through May 7, 2006 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue at 82 Street, New York, NY 10028 (Telephone: 212-535-7710; Website: www.metmuseum.org). The museum is open Tuesday through Thursday and Sunday from 9:30 AM to 5:30 PM and Friday and Saturday from 9:30 AM to 9:00 PM. SUGGESTED admission is $15.00 for adults. Paid parking is available in The Museum Garage.
From your Guide: Stan Parchin, Senior Correspondent for Museums and Special Exhibitions, is a specialist in ancient, late-medieval and Renaissance art and history. His interests include: the art and culture of Old and New Kingdom Egypt; the Italian and Northern Renaissances; Church history; and witchcraft, heresy and social dissent in late-medieval and early Modern Europe.
See all Special Exhibition and Catalogue Reviews from Stan Parchin.