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'Gifts of the Nile' a brilliant showcase of ancient Egyptian art

Tuesday, May 26, 1998

By Donald Miller, Post-Gazette Art and Architecture Critic

CLEVELAND-- Ancient Egyptian artists faced a dilemma. Although they had worked in clay for thousands of years, they had not mastered the glazing technique. But a modest material solved that problem and became revered.

With faience they couldn't fail. The dried objects went into kilns looking pale and colorless but emerged a sparkling "Egyptian blue."

Called tjehnet by the ancient Egyptians, meaning that which is brilliant or scintillating, faience was thought to be filled with the undying light of the sun, moon and stars and was symbolic of rebirth. The word "faience," pronounced fyahns or fayahns, comes to us from Faienza, Italy, a town famous for glazed, low-fire pottery before the discovery of porcelain.

The small blue-green objects that ancient Egyptians believed helped prepare them for eternity are on brilliant display in the exhibition "Gifts of the Nile: Ancient Egyptian Faience" at The Cleveland Museum of Art.

Faience, which dates back to pre-dynastic times, of at least 5,000 years, is a glasslike non-clay substance made of materials common to Egypt: ground quartz, crushed quartz pebbles, flint, a soluble salt-like baking soda, lime and ground copper, which provided the characteristic color.

When mixed with water into a paste, faience could be turned into beads by wrapping it around reeds that would burn out when the piece was fired in the kiln. Or it could go into molds or be hand-modeled. However, it was difficult to throw on a potter's wheel.

The Cleveland Museum previously has surveyed the art of the Amenhotep III Dynasty and the pharaohs in two shows over the past few years. It is now offers more than 200 of the small but fascinating items that the Egyptians once used as magical objects directly related to the gods and the afterlife.

The Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, organized this exhibition that has opened in Cleveland before traveling to Rhode Island and the Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas.

Besides offering splendid objects, the exhibition also stresses the social aspects of the craft. A gathering of tiles that once hung in the subterranean tomb of Djoser, pharaoh of the stepped pyramid at Saqqara (about 2650 B.C.), are displayed in rows. Given beautiful turquoise colors, they suggest actual turquoise. That stone symbolized life and good health, probably because its hue suggests the magical and healthful properties of the sky and sun.

Just as the largest ancient obelisk ever made lies broken along a cleavage fault but is still attached to its granite quarry in Aswan, Egypt, this show's last gallery contains objects that were also unfortunate mistakes.

They include potsherds accidentally melted together in the kiln and a processional rattle (sistrum) that slumped while being fired.

But the show's greatest treasures call vividly to the viewer's imagination and sense of design. The outstanding object is an exquisitely sculptured plaque of "Horus the Gold," every pharaoh's divine symbol, with faience inlaid into the god-hawk's carefully delineated plumage.

Another ritual rattle (sistrum again) is given the curious cow-eared human head of Hathor, goddess of fertility. Its crown is a shrinelike opening that once held jangling disks that possibly sounded like reeds blowing in a marsh. This would have been in honor of Hathor, who had as one of her titles "mistress of faience."

But not all objects are beautiful. A small perfume jar in the form of the god Bes, a bestial-looking household deity acquired by The Cleveland in 1995, is quite ugly. With bulging stomach and pectorals, he has an appearance I would associate with the Semitic god Baal. Bes had a benign nature and protected pregnant mothers.

One of the exhibition's finest objects is a pectoral (chest) amulet of Isis, the winged mother goddess, that originally was sewn onto a mummy's linen wrapping.

The crowned Isis is seen sitting in profile with her arms extended as protective vulture wings. Made in three pieces, the delicate feathering of the wings is exceptionally well done.

Another unusual object is a small four-headed ram, two heads looking forward and two backward, of exceptional finesse. Each head represents a Ba, which stands for the power of a god or natural force like the wind and is also the word for a ram in ancient Egyptian.

Many objects in the exhibition recall those in the Walton Egyptian Hall at Carnegie Institute: small statuettes of people (shabtis, ushabtis or shawabtis in different periods) expected to do the work of the deceased in the afterlife. One, of Lady Sati, is exceptionally well done, considered one of the finest funerary statuettes in the world, and clearly not mass-produced as were many routine shabtis.

Readers interested in the monotheist Pharaoh Akhenaten and his short-lived capital of Amarna will find a collection of faience and glass fragments found in 1926-27 in a workshop complex near the royal palace.

This random collection of rings, vessels and scarab amulets strewn together by the hundreds shows the wide and colorful range of items then produced. They may have been done by the same craftsmen producing objects of glass and pottery.

This beautiful exhibition adds considerably to our understanding of how seemingly humble decorative objects played a major part for thousands of years in one of the world's most fascinating cultures.

"Gifts of the Nile" continues through July 5 and is a time-ticketed exhibition. Tuesdays through Fridays adults pay $6; weekends, $8. Tuesdays through Fridays students 12 and older pay $5; weekends, $6. Children 6-11 pay $3; ages 5 and under free. For tickets call 888-CMA-0033. There is fee for phone orders. There is a $4 recorded tour and $59.95 catalog.

Related information:

Post-Gazette's Miller to lead Cleveland tour

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