of the Sun
at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts
Recently the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston
has been holding an exhibition called The Pharaohs of the Sun
dealing with Akhenaten, Nefertiti and Tutankhamun. It is a stunning
(for more information see exhibition
book, upcoming events)
The overall layout and content of the exhibition is for the most
part very well thought-out. You enter in Amenhotep III's reign,
viewing a myriad of statues and reliefs showing trends in artistic
expression leading up to the Amarna period. This was a very pleasant
surprise. They took the time to teach you to recognise Amenhotep
III's facial features, something I hadn't learned before, and
which quickly gave a great sense of intimacy.
the end of this dark-walled room, two huge colossal heads of Akhenaten
guard the door to the true "Amarna period," which begins just
beyond with a 15-minute video including some computer simulation
and some shots of the landscape around present-day Akhet-Aten.
The video is pretty standard, having some overlap with "Egypt's
Lost City" seen on TLC recently.
colossi are anything but standard -- they are in themselves motivation
enough to see the exhibition. They are huge and much more impressive
in real life. In fact, that's what I'll find myself repeating
again and again: that the pictures I've so often borrowed from
the library are only pale ghosts of the real thing. I wasn't prepared
for the emotional effect of seeing the pieces in the "flesh."
The audio-guide tells you that the colossi were found in pieces
and reassembled with super-glue (or something), though you can
hardly tell. I went back to see these several times.
the next room, which is cheerfully lit and painted yellowish,
if I recall, are the real treasures. Here we see Nefertiti in
various sensuous stones. The materials are so much more impressive
than you would imagine - the yellow jasper fragment of a queen
is really very colourful, with speckles of green and red, and
an almost organic quality. The quartzite head of Nefertiti sparkles
under the lights like snow. And the pieces are mostly under life-size,
which makes their detail all the more impressive. The head of
Queen Tiye is only as tall as my thumb, which seems to give her
expression a very concentrated intensity.
other thing that you can only catch in real-life is the feeling
of the sculptor's presence -- you can imagine how it felt to carve
the lines of Tiye's mouth when you see them in three dimensions,
and you can almost feel the textures of the materials. The materials
themselves, in most cases, are beautiful of their own right, something
of which I was never really aware. Also, there are details of
the shape of the chin or cheekbones that you don't notice in the
pictures. One of the statues of Nefertiti has lips ever so slightly
I returned several times to see these pieces again, where they
were prominently displayed at the entrance to the room. The rest
of the room housed sculptures and reliefs, many of which I was
familiar with, a few which I was not. They very sensibly placed
the floor frescos at your feet for viewing -- the attention to
details like this was impressive. There were a great many pieces
here, which is why I spent a good two hours in that one room,
making my way through the growing crowd to see each little statue
and fragment of tile.
the highlights was the little wooden Tiye with one foot forward
(this was actually in the first room). She never impressed me
in the books, but I was astonished by the detail in person --
she is glorious! There was also a tiny Akhenaten which I had never
seen, an absolutely magnificent copy of the early colossi, holding
forward a small stela. Despite its size, it was still impressive
I was also pleased by the many little bits of tile and other
artistic pieces, such as the glass grape bunches. These lesser
pieces are not praised often enough - they give such a feel for
the city and its decoration. One inaccuracy in the computer animation
in the video is that they frescos are shown as sparse block-colour
things, which I can't imagine - the pieces we have show lively,
busy scenes. To one side of the room several paintings and architectural
elements are collected, giving you the impression of standing
in Akhet-Aten (well, okay, if you concentrate, and you're a fanatic
like me). These
included the floor frescos, a slice of a column decorated with
relief. The colour and ornamentation are very impressive. The
famous relief of Akhenaten worshipping Aten followed by Nefertiti
and Meretaten (which I still think is from the "alien period"
of Egyptian art) is actually a part of a sloping ramp of some
sort, which gives it more context and somehow makes it more interesting.
As I stood looking in one of the many display-cases along the
wall, a couple of seven-year-olds ran up and stared wide-eyed
into it, one of them (correctly) gasping in awe, "The Blue Crown!"
In fact, there were quite a few children there, many of whom seemed
to know more than the adults, at least judging by their running
play-by-play. It was quite crowded, but the exhibit was for the
most part roomy enough so that you never had trouble seeing (even
if lack of oxygen was a problem). In a later room, a blue vase
was attracting the attention of some middle-aged men with conference-tags
who were discussing the translation of the hieroglyphs on it --
this impressed me.
This middle large area also housed the model of Akhet-Aten (the
central city, mostly). This was impressive, but too large and
small to really be able to examine (the buildings were small and
all but the outer ones were too far away from you to really examine).
It is extremely detailed and carefully done, and an impressive
By the time you leave this room, you have a much better developed
intuition for the royal faces, and you begin to believe that they
are true-to-life depictions because of their consistency in features.
Several times, Kiya was re-worked (badly, I might add) to be a
princess, her wig becoming a side-lock. Some reliefs show evidence
of erasure. These changes are so much more obvious in reality,
where you can see the three-dimensionality. I've spent a lot of
time examining such things in books, and never really understood.
A few pieces quite made me wonder. There is a little sphere in
blue glaze showing Akhenaten sitting on a boat, reaching out to
a disc resting on the bow. Nefertiti does the same on the opposite
side of the sphere. I thought it was an intriguing little thing,
which if I recall was labelled "religious relic" or something
enlightening of that sort. I was also confused by a little wooden,
somewhat mangled piece labelled a "beer strainer," and depicted
in a nearby relief as a sort of straw for drinking beer, which,
looking at the thing, didn't seem very practical or possible at
all. Certainly interesting, though.
the end of the room, however, the curators started to run out
of steam, it seems, or at least space. Several houshold items
were displayed in boxes along one wall, but so many objects were
shown in the ceiling-high displays that you had to stand in line
to circulate past them. There were some of my favourites there,
though, including a figurine of Bes and another of Seth (I think).
There were a few stools, a window-grate, some pottery and glass.
I was impressed by the glass, though the fish they show on the
isn't as impressive in real life. Here they also show the plaster
casts from Thutmose's workshop showing some ordinary-looking people.
from this, is a tiny, far too tiny room showing a few items of
the tombs, including a corner of the sarcophagus. This room had
a lineup extending out of it, which you had to join to circulate
(and when you got in the limited oxygen cut short your stay).
This was an unfortunate arrangement. I would have liked to look
more closely at these pieces, which included the MET canopic jar
For a little world-context, they showed some reliefs of Nubians,
which were fascinating - they certainly have distinctive facial
features. They also displayed a few of the Amarna letters! They
are also surprisingly tiny, and loaf-shaped. Along with these
was a little explanation of their significance, but mostly the
history played a secondary role to the art in this exhibition,
which suited my tastes well. However,
they were unnecessarily vague on some of it, especially the turmoil
after the Amarna period. I'm not sure Smenkhkare was mentioned
at all, and Aye and Horemheb's roles were never fully explained.
There was a concentration on Tutankhamun which seemed more aimed
at attracting crowds than explaining the history. There were none
of his tomb treasures on display, and only a few sculptures. These
made up the last room, which seemed a hodge-podge of afterthoughts.
I was, unfortunately, rushed through that room, however, as I
had a mere 15 minutes before I had to meet my friends (in total,
I spent about 3 1/2 hours in the exhibit, but I would have spent
more if I could have).
I learned some new things, such as that the depiction of all
five toes in relief was reserved for royalty alone. And I saw
some pieces I've wanted to see for years. There is quite some
overlap with the Royal Women of Amarna exhibition from a few years
ago, which pleased me quite a bit.
Through all this, the audio guide was very useful, with occasional
tangents and excerpts from explanations by various scholars. It
was well-designed and easy to use. But I really think the Hymn
to the Aten should have been included on it. An excerpt was displayed
on the wall in a corner, but if we are examining the splendid
art of the period, it's only fitting to include what little we
have of the literature, especially so beautiful a piece.
The other unfortunately absent item was Nefertiti's famous bust.
Though there were a great many wonderful items from the Aegyptisches
Museum und Papyrussammlung, Berlin, I was sad not to see her there.
It would have been spectacular to see a full-size colossus of
Akhenaten as well, but I can imagine that may present some difficulties
in transportation (and I don't think the ceilings were high enough
The exhibition is not to be missed even if you have to,
like me, beg a friend to drive you down for the weekend in a two-door
compact with four people (one of whom is 6'5"). It was not a disappointment
in the least -- in fact, I plan to do everything in my power to
see it again in Chicago when it is there July-September. I really
didn't stay long enough this time around.
I went to Boston for the weekend with my friends,
and among the other things worth seeing are the New
England Aquarium, Museum of Science
and the Blue Man Group. Among
the things not worth seeing is T-Rex: Back to the Cretaceous.
Here we are at an e-mail photo booth at the Museum of Science: