Egypt in Rome
After the Pharaohs
As a result of the dry climate, more textiles have survived from Ancient Egypt than from almost any other ancient culture. Unfortunately, we rarely know their exact provenance, though it seems likely that most pieces come from a funerary context, as the deceased were buried in their clothing. However, some of the elaborately decorated tunics were liturgical garments.
The large capitals atop room-high columns, with architectural elements from churches and cloisters behind them, suggest a church. The textiles – liturgical garments and a wall hanging – also came from a sacred context. This room is also used for smaller events (music, readings) suited to its atmosphere.
This exhibition hall presents monuments from the Ptolemaic, Roman and Early Christian Periods, all of which are well-represented in the Munich museum by examples from a variety of object groups: relief, sculpture, architectural elements and small arts. This makes it possible for the museum to illustrate the legacy of the Pharaonic Period as well as the influence of Classical Antiquity parallel to the development of Early Christian art through a reimagination of Antique and Ancient Egyptian motifs.
These fragments came from statues of the goddess Isis, her son Harpokrates, a falcon and a king. They were deliberately destroyed and their patina indicates that they had been under water for a long time. The blue lighting with its ripple effects reflects this without having to resort to a lengthy explanation.
After Egypt was integrated into the Roman Empire, Egyptian traditions became wildly popular – a triumphal march of the Egyptian gods, led by Isis (who had become a universal goddess) and her cultic partner Serapis – all the way to the very edges of the Empire. Starting in the Mediterranean ports, sanctuaries to the cults of the Egyptian gods soon sprang up in a number of other cities. The most important temple was the Iseum Campense, which stood on the Field of Mars in the centre of Rome.
Ein weiteres Element der Rhythmisierung in der Abfolge der Räume ist (neben der Beleuchtung) deren unterschiedliche Höhe und Größe in Bezug auf die Fläche. Je nach Thema wechseln sich große und kleine Räume ab, und den mehr als 6 Meter hohen Räumen im ersten Teil des Museums folgen niedriger werdende Räume im zweiten Teil der Dauerausstellung, die mit diesem Raum beginnt. Another aspect defining the different sequences of exhibition halls (in addition to their lighting) is the height and size of the rooms. They vary depending on the subject; the high-ceilinged rooms (over 6 meters) at the beginning of the circuit are succeeded by lower ones in the second half of the permanent exhibition, starting with this room.
After Octavian (who would later become Emperor Augustus) defeated the allied fleets of Egyptian queen Cleopatra and Roman general Mark Anthony in the naval battle of Actium in the year 31 BC, Egypt became a province of the Roman Empire and its main grain supplier.
The “smaller” gods were the most popular members of the Egyptian pantheon under the Roman Empire; accordingly, their iconography modernised for their new audience. Thus, the popular protective deity Bes could appear as a sword-wielding Roman soldier. Jackal-headed Anubis, originally a psychompomp or soul guide, was also frequently depicted wearing the armour of a legionnaire.
The crocodile symbolised Egypt; the inscription “Aegypto Capta” (“after Egypt’s subjugation”) refers to the Roman victory in the naval battle of Actium. This coin was minted 28/27 BC (before the introduction of the title “Augustus”), and depicts the victorious Octavian as a young man. Coins like this were minted specifically to pay soldiers and were mostly found in Nîmes, where a lot of veterans lived in retirement.
With about 3000 objects on display, the museum has about one third of its collection on view in the permanent exhibition, which, for an archaeological museum, is a lot. However, if only the highest-quality artefacts are taken into account, that number is closer to 95%. The rest are kept in climate-controlled rooms, sorted by material. The magazines mostly hold pottery, faience and limestone reliefs, along with some objects made out of a variety of organic materials such as wood, ivory or papyrus.
In Ancient Egyptian symbolism, the Ankh, as the hieroglyph for the word “life”, illustrated the bond between Man and God and embodied the hope of eternal life and resurrection. It is in this connotation that it was adopted by early Christian art and transformed into a cross. Additionally, the Egyptian legend of Pharaoh’s birth, certain Ancient Egyptian literary works, a belief in resurrection, the idea of a punishing hell all live on as aspects of the new Christian religion.
Individual motifs such as lotus, papyrus, hippopotami, crocodiles or the heads of the gods Hathor and Bes were used as a sort of shorthand for “Egypt” well into the 1st millennium AD (left half of the exhibition case). Similarly, motifs from Classical Antiquity survived in terracottas and ivories as well pottery (centre). The combination of these influences led to the development of a new artistic style designated as “Coptic” (right side of the exhibition case).
In Graeco-Roman times, the typical Ancient Egyptian depiction of the mother goddess Isis with the child Horus was updated somewhat both in iconography and style. It would go on to become Egypt’s main contribution to the early Christian art that arose in the 1st century AD: from the Isis Lactans, the nursing Mother Goddess, came Maria, the Mother of God with the child Jesus on her lap.
The highlight-object in this room is the silver situla from the Temple of Isis in Pompeii, built in 100 AD in a prime location at the centre of the town. The vessel is decorated with motifs from the cult of the goddess, who was particularly popular in Pompeii. Depictions of Egyptian gods and their cults were painted on the walls of many of the villas while floor mosaics displayed idealised Nile landscapes.
The wall mural (an image of the Isis sanctuary in Pompeii) in this small exhibition room makes it appear larger, creating a special atmosphere while imparting information as well. It is an enlarged version of an engraving by Piranesi, transferred directly onto the concrete using silk-screen printing. This technique, along with its muted grey tones, prevents the mural from visually overwhelming the original objects.