Has there ever been an artist not smitten with the wonders of Egypt? Like so many, an early inspiration has been Egypt and from what I have ascertained, the Greco-Roman world was equally enchanted . Currently the Getty is offering eager visitors the opportunity to examine, through art and material culture, the aesthetic conversation between Egypt and the West in their comprehensive exhibition Beyond the Nile, Egypt and the Classical World.
It is perhaps best to start with the eternally youthful and vibrant Alexander (the man perhaps most responsible for the anxious vanity of gay men ever since), for after this great conquerer with the bee stung lips, began the Ptolomaic Kingdom (link: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ptolemaic_Kingdom) which a great deal of this collection is devoted .
But the Greeks weren’t the only ones to grace this enticing land, the Romans were soon to follow suit, and with that, pretty Roman boys prancing about in Egyptian drag.
I feel as if I know this hipster boy (above).
Frivolity aside, the conquering of a people (and spectacular resource of riches ) is a serious matter. And what is more important than one’s very soul. Conditional religious tolerance was a hallmark of the Roman Empire, pay tribute to Caesar and pray to whatever god you wish ( those stubborn Christians caused quite a stir in this matter). But what I found so astonishing with the Roman occupation of Egypt was not only a tolerance for the faith traditions of the Nile but a whole hearted embrace. Perhaps not unlike our own spiritually weary privileged society, the eastern exoticism of Egypt was too alluring to resist. For soon Romans were embracing quite a few Egyptian deities, synthesizing them into their “spiritual practice” ( I was amused to see quite a few fashionable looking Egyptomania religious paraphernalia – hard not to be reminded of our infatuation with the “namaste” East). This embrace wether through sincere faithfulness or fashion is nonetheless in stark contrast to the conquest of Christian nations who felt called upon by the Almighty to not only conquer the body but to convert the soul.
Of the gods most popular with the Greco-Roman world , Isis and Serapis seemed to have reigned supreme. The Greeks most enchanted with the lithesome Isis.
The Romans seems taken with Serapis and imagine him rather predictably as a comely virile god.
But given we are speaking of Romans, the austerity of Isis and Serapis might need a licentious interlude with the great ( and ithyphallic) god Bes. A rather randy little bugger the Romans seemed to embrace with gusto.
Classical mythology began acquiring narrative elements of Egyptian mythos as in this beautiful fresco with that most iconic beast, the crocodile underfoot.
Once again, speaking of Romans, we can’t imagine every moment devoted to worship, for the spirit of pleasure must be served and the Romans were devoted attendees . In fact I acquired a new word with this exhibition , “Nilotic”, which apparently means pertaining to the Nile or the fantasy of this fabled place. I confess these Nilotic decorative schemes gave me the greatest delight.
These odd little pygmies, as un-PC as can be imagined remind me of our society with its unrepentant amusement with dwarves in popular culture.
Even the coins of the realm featured the crocodile.
This image was perhaps one of my favorites and I imagine it will soon feature in my own Nilotic fantasy.
Like chinoiserie of the 18th and 19th century, the impression of a culture was far more important than any sort of authenticity. Roman decorators weren’t any more scrupulous than the courts of Europe , inventing psuedo-hieroglyphs as handily as the ornamental faux chinois script found at Brighton Pavilion.
I will close this rather lengthy post with a detail from the first image, a gorgeous Roman masic, it captures the spirit and romance of the Nile.
Actually I am going to close with my favorite piece in the exhibition, a pair of serpentine gods. Extraordinary in their strange beauty. And with that, good night, wishing sweet Nilotic dreams.