The Minneapolis Institute of Art (MIA) currently is hosting an exhibit entitled “Egypt’s Sunken Cities” composed of many rooms filled with artifacts many of which have been discovered by oceanic archeologists led by Franck Goddio. The cities, which turn out to be one large cosmopolitan metropolis, are Thonis and Heracleion, and the exhibit is terribly impressive. I’ve just spent time going through the rooms with two friends and marveling at the scope of what has been found and by the sheer magnitude of this undertaking. There are statues rising 17 feet into the air, some perfectly in tact, others missing an arm or part of a leg, yet others pinned together because found in fragments at the bottom of the sea.
As usual at such exhibitions, there comes a point for me when I can’t concentrate on each isolated object and so I begin to browse amongst the show cases, stopping only when something strikes my fancy. This stage of my observations in museums always interests me because it casts light on my own attitudes and approaches to life’s infinite variety. So I want to talk about two pieces from the MIA show because they claimed my full attention as I saw them and they linger in my mind’s eye now that the experience is over.
One is mammoth while the other is infinitesimal. The mammoth item is a life-size statue of a bull called Apis, made from a stone native to Egypt called dionite. There is not a single blemish or sign of wear or tear. Rather the figure commands his room in the museum much as he must have done in his original shrine. The story of Apis appeals to me because it involves a culture’s assigning huge spiritual importance to a creature not from the human realm. It seems that the people worshiped Apis and so always had a single stunning bull to fill this iconic role. Once the current bull died, there would be an elaborate process of finding the next one, akin to what happens in some Eastern cultures when the head lama dies. The particular animal made into the statue I witnessed is stunningly beautiful, exuding contained energy in his flanks and torso. After I’d stared as close to the figure as the exhibit allowed me to do, I moved to stand before his face and suddenly the icon took on an entirely different mien. The eyes are soft and inviting, the nose downright aquiline. And his little head is topped with a few strands of intricately curled hair above which is a mirror-like crown denoting his importance. Finally, standing facing this giant creature, I notice that his right hoof is poised like a ballerina who is about to move weightlessly ahead. The sheer delicacy of the hoof itself reinforces the sense of delicacy and grace. I was in awe of the sculptor’s ability to give me such oppositional feelings depending on where I stood in relation to Apis.
The other item that drew and kept me so long I’m sure people wondered if I’d fallen into a momentary trance. Perhaps I had done. What I was glued to was an amulet the size of a child’s “pinky” fingernail, as my friend suggested. Mounted on the thinnest of metal sticks with its own, small circular magnifying glass, the object depicts in minute detail the Eye of Horus or wedjat eye. Horus was the son of Isis and Osiris, the Egyptian equivalent of Zeus and Hera. It seems Horus’ uncle, Seth, god of Chaos, gauged out Horus’ left eye as they fought over the throne of Osiris. The god Thoth restored most of Horus’ eye and Horus promptly offered his eye to his father, Osiris, to restore him to life. These little amulets came to symbolize body wholeness and health, associated with the moon that recovers its wholeness over fourteen days of waxing. Appropriately, then, when Osiris died, his corpse was cut into fourteen pieces to help him achieve wholeness. It seems these finger-nail sized tokens were offered for thousands of years and somehow the archeologists managed to find the one I gawked for so lons (and one other in another room of the exhibition) unharmed by centuries of being submerged in sea water. If I try to fathom why this particular bit of culture fascinated me so completely, I just come up with how we humans can put so much meaning into such small packages sometimes. My friend likened the little amulet to netsukes, those similarly tiny figures held in such high regard by Japanese worshippers.
So, my time at the MIA, ambling through this impressive example of passionate attention to the detailed work of archeological discovery and recovery has rewarded me with at least two memories I can reclaim any time I look back on the morning in the gallery rooms. And I will feel closer to those Egyptian worshippers when next I am my own church filled with its art objects reflecting awe over something ineffable but powerfully attracting over centuries of contact.