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A spectacular mummy coffin debuts at the Met Fifth Avenue


  • Diana Craig Patch, Lila Acheson Wallace Curator in Charge of the Egyptian Art Department. Photo courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

  • Gilded coffin of the priest Nedjemankh, late Ptolemaic period (150-50 B.C.). Cartonnage, gold, silver, resin, glass, wood. Photo: Adel Gorgy

  • Nedjemankh was a priest in the service of the ram-headed god, Heryshef. Photo: Adel Gorgy

  • Statuette of Anubis, the chief god of embalming, Egypt, Ptolemaic Period, 332–30 B.C. Photo: Adel Gorgy

  • The gesture of covering the head or face, as seen in the female figure here, said Patch, signifies mourning. Photo: Adel Gorgy

  • A wooden figure of a jackal from ca. 1070 – 664 B.C., Egypt, reminds us of how familiar a distant culture can be. Photo: Adel Gorgy

If you go

WHAT: Nedjemankh and His Gilded Coffin

WHERE: The Met Fifth Avenue

WHEN: Through April 21, 2019

By Mary Gregory

In the Met Fifth Avenue’s exhibition, “Nedjemankh and His Gilded Coffin,” a door opens into a darkened space. A golden figure stands, life-sized, as if to welcome visitors. The coffin bears a likeness of the priest Nedjemankh, who lived in Egypt in about 150-50 BC. It’s burnished by spotlights, covered in precious metals and holds the viewer with a piercing gaze. After 2000 years, it’s as though not a day has passed since it was made. The Coffin of the Priest of Heryshef, Nedjemankh, was purchased by the museum in 2017. Who was Nedjemankh? What does his coffin reveal about an ancient culture? How does it still speak so engagingly to us?

Diana Craig Patch, Lila Acheson Wallace Curator in Charge of the Egyptian Art Department at the Met, talked with us about the exhibition, which is designed to highlight some 70 seldom-seen works, present a remarkable civilization and introduce a new star to museum audiences. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Who was Nedjemankh and how did this piece survive?

He was a priest of Heryshef of Herakleopolis Magna ... I don’t think he was just in the ground. I think he must have been in a tomb ... He does have some water damage, but given the fact that he’s made of linen and glue and plaster it’s pretty amazing he survived ... What’s particularly impressive about the coffin in terms of manufacture is the raised declaration, the volume of it. It doesn’t generally cover the entire coffin. That’s what’s quite amazing. And it’s been done quite carefully and with a lot of detail. There’s a whole series of vignettes with whole scenes, not just simple rosettes or decorative elements. Anubis embalming, the deceased being judged before Osiris — things you see in papyri is being done here in raised decoration, not just ink ... But it’s the hymn at the bottom that really makes it. It’s about gold and silver ... and the flesh and the bones of the gods. What he has done is covered the outside of the coffin in gold and the inside of the coffin in silver. So he’s actually taken the hymn and translated it into the materiality of the coffin.

Is it known who the artist was?

No. The Egyptians never documented that. When I say “he,” Nedjemankh commissioned it. I assume he told the overseers of the workshops, which were quite often attached to the temples, what he wanted.

Most pharaohs we’re familiar with are buff and chiseled and looked down imperiously. He’s a bit pudgy and softly smiling.

If you look at the Ptolemaic kings, they all have little bellies and the women have large round breasts which you don’t see in earlier pharaonic kings and queens. The Ptolemaic period is soft and pudgy. Sorry. They’re just softer and rounder.

The major takeaway for me from the show was not how distant and foreign all of this seems, but how familiar to our own lives it is. It’s a long time ago, a very different culture, lots of gold and shiny things in a language we can’t read, but it’s really about laying out people that you care for with great dignity and love. Tucking little things that may mean something to you or to them into the burial, when they go.

You got it. That’s what we try to do, is help people see that this culture, although visually very different, actually worried about the same things that we all worry about. What they did is to try to cope with that worry in their way, just as we cope with it in ours, and often those ways overlap.

What’s the magic in ancient Egyptian culture that so mesmerizes us still?

Yeah [laughs]. There are a number of things ... It’s a very early civilization so that’s very fascinating. I think there are certain things that people find interesting; mummification is one of them. The Egyptians dealt with death openly, in what seems like a very tangible way. I also think people just love the architecture, the pyramids, huge temples. They’re visible. They’re still there. In many ancient cultures what’s left is not that big. I think the mixture of animals and religion people find fascinating — the animal-headed gods.

Art from many ancient societies is a little bit scary. Egyptian art is elegant. Everyone looks like a supermodel.

The Egyptians didn’t do realism. The way they did their art was they communicated information very stylistically ... I think that makes it easier, especially for children, to like it and get attached to it.

What would you like audiences to remember when they leave the show?

I would love to have the audience realize that the Egyptians were people just like us with the same worries, the same cares, the same desires in life that we all have. They just got to it in different ways and those are interesting ways to understand.

If Nedjemankh could whisper to each visitor, which he looks like he’s about to do, what you think he’d say?

I think he’d say don’t forget me, because that’s what all Egyptians wanted.

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