Opulence in Ancient Egypt may have had its heyday in the late Ptolemaic Kingdom, a critical transition period between the pharaonic kingdom’s Hellenistic rulers and their subsequent Roman conquerors. The Metropolitan Museum of Art once had a critical gap in its otherwise incomparable collection of artifacts detailing Egyptian historian until it recently acquired the illustriously gilded coffin of Nedjemankh, a high-ranking priest of the ram-god Heryshef of Nen-nisut.
After months of planning, curators have reorganized one of its central Egyptian galleries for an exhibition celebrating their new golden masterpiece, purchased in 2017. Attracting museumgoers with its glittering title item, Nedjemankh and His Gilded Coffin outlines how the polytheistic ancient Egyptian religion survived three centuries of foreign rule before fusing its formal traditions with the aesthetics of Coptic Christianity.
Conquered by Alexander the Great in 332 BCE, Egypt’s ruling class already had followed Greek customs for centuries before Cleopatra’s death and the Ptolemaic dynasty’s capitulation to Rome in 30 BCE. Nevertheless, ancient customs continued to influence Egypt’s broader population, during the Ptolemaic period, especially with regard to religious practices.
The gold-sheathed surface of Nedjemankh’s mummiform coffin portrays scenes and texts that serve to protect the deceased as he ventures into the afterlife. Unique to the coffin are thin sheets of silver plastered onto its interior meant to guard the priest’s face. These precious metals would have also represented the eyes of the deity Heryshef who Nedjemankh served. And although it resembles the stone sarcophagi of centuries past, Nedjemankh’s coffin is actually made of cartonnage, a composite material composed of textile layers stiffened with animal glue and covered by layers of gesso. Although the coffin’s base is simply decorated, a long, exclamatory inscription covers the lid: “O gold! O gold! […] O flesh of the god! O flesh of the god! O fine gold! O fine gold!” Associating precious metals with divinity is evident in many Ancient Egyptian texts, but it’s rare to find such a stunningly preserved example.
Nearby, curators have included an approximation of what Nedjemankh might have worn during sacred rituals. As illustrated in wall reliefs and artifacts, the regalia of the Egyptian priesthood was highly specific. The headdress and “leopard-skin” robe (actually made of linen) both date from the first century CE and are unique examples of religious dress from the period. The headdress bears a strange resemblance to a tightly curled wig, but is actually created with cartonnage. A priest would have worn it during rituals for revivifying a mummified body so that the dead could live eternally.
Another element of priestly fashion on display are the enticingly named “mummy pectorals,” which are actually faience pottery depicting Nut, goddess of the sky, who spreads her wings across the deceased’s chest as protection. A nude depiction of the goddess can also be seen in the interior of Nedjemankh’s coffin.
The second half of the exhibition shifts from the fineries of religious life to the sacred iconography of death. One of my favorite objects is a solemn baboon statuette from the 13th century BCE. Ancient Egyptians viewed these monkeys as prototypical worshippers of the rising and setting sun, itself a religious metaphor for the cycles of life and death, destruction and restoration. Baboons lifting their hands in adoration also appear on a handful of other artifacts throughout the exhibition, including the lid of Nedjemankh’s coffin.
Including objects like the baboon statuette is somewhat of a cheat for the exhibition’s curators who promised a show embellishing the world in which Nedjemankh lived. Still, it’s a little mind blowing to consider how a 13th-century BCE image of a monkey goes almost unchanged for more than a millennium. In many ways, this pattern demonstrates how the Ptolemaic Kingdom — despite its Greek roots — largely abided by Egyptian custom in its visual culture. Stepping outside the exhibition into an adjacent Egyptian gallery, though, we see just how quickly Roman rule transformed Egyptian art. “Mummy with Inserted Panel Portrait of a Youth” (80–100 CE) is roughly two centuries removed from Nedjemankh’s coffin, yet a world removed from its iconography. Instead of sculpture or a painted relief, this Coptic mummy includes an encaustic portrait of a youth rendered in the image of the Roman god of wine, Bacchus. The abstract patterning of the mummy’s wrappings also mirror Roman design. Actually, it looks exactly like the coffers of Rome’s Pantheon, consecrated in 126 CE. Seen in context, Nedjemankh’s coffin really does represent a missing link between Egyptian customs and Roman influence. The iridescence of its gold veneer is a last gasp for a burial style three thousand years in the making.