The Egyptian Collection at the Museum of Fine Arts: Boston, MA

While we’re engineers by training, we like seeing art from around the world as we visit places. If you’re in Boston, consider visiting the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA). Drawing from art around the world, you will find a section that appeals to you. My personal favorite collections are the Art of Ancient Egypt, Nubia, and the Near East; Europe; and the Americas; but there are many more collections than these.

As the first of several posts dealing with this delightful museum, we will cover highlights of the Art of Ancient Egypt, Nubia (Northern Sudan and Southern Egypt), and the Near East (Middle East).

The Logistics

Location: The Museum of Fine Arts is located right next to the Back Bay Fens at 465 Huntington Ave, Boston, MA 02115

Cost: Tickets currently cost $25/Free for Adult/Child(0-17), plus extra if you want to see special exhibitions.

Covid Restrictions: If there are still Covid related restrictions in place at the time of your visit, you will need to reserve admission tickets in advance.

Getting There by Subway: If you are traveling by public transportation, you can take the MBTA Green Line E train to the Museum of Fine Arts stop, or the Orange Line train to the Ruggles stop. There are also several bus options.

Getting There by Car: Alternatively, you can park in one of the Museum lots or garages (museum members get a nice discount), use the Spot Hero app to find a different garage, or hope that a meter is available. You can pay for most meters by using the Park Boston app.

The Egyptian Collection

When our family traveled to Egypt and visited the Giza Pyramids, we learned that Egypt had a real problem with random people looting the pyramids and walking off with priceless treasures (things that should be in a museum), building materials (the stones that made up the pyramids), and more.

At one point the Egyptian government decided that enough was enough and they invited Italy, Germany, and the United States to join them in an excavation where they would be permitted to keep a portion of the findings. In comes George Andrew Reisner to head up the American division and many of his findings ended up at the MFA and comprise the vast majority of this collection of the museum.

Mummies and burial rituals

When you think of Egyptian artifacts in a museum, the first item that might come to mind are mummies and sarcophaguses. While sarcophaguses are coffins made of stone, the coffin of Princess Henuttawy is made of wood, and therefore does not have the title of sarcophagus.

Often times a person would first be mummified, then would be further wrapped inside a cartonnage – which is made of papyrus, linen, and plaster, and then would be placed inside a coffin or sarcophagus. Below is the cartonnage case containing the mummy of Tabes. It’s interesting to think that what you are seeing is basically really fancy paper mache, with the addition of a fabric.

The thing you should notice is that most coffins and sarcophaguses in the museum are elaborately decorated. First, the cartonnage is made to resemble the person, and then images would be added to both the cartonnage and the outer coffin to show the person’s accomplishments, as well as various prayers, offerings, and other funerary symbols. It was believed that if a person’s body was preserved and their name was remembered in this life, that they would continue to live on in the next life, so you can imagine the importance that the people would put on this process.

Above is the cartonnage of Hapi-men and the outer coffin of Governor Djehutynakht. About the cartonnage, the plaque in the museum states that:

This mummiform coffin has a finely featured, gilded face and elaborate wig and collar. The rest of the coffin is divided into horizontal bands filled with traditional funerary scenes and symbols, as well as prayers for Hapi-men’s safe journey to the next world. In the first horizontal band, the winged scarab beetle is shown rolling the sun disc before it. The kneeling goddess Isis, with protective outstretched wings, appears in the second band. The third shows Hapi-men himself making offerings to an enthroned Osiris, lord of the Netherworld. In the fourth band, the winged vulture goddess, Nekhbet, appears, while the fifth band shows Anubis, protector of the dead, performing the last rites of mummification. The mummy is lying on a funerary bed with four canopic jars below; the mourning goddesses Isis and Nephthys stand at the ends.

In some cases, the entire body may not be elaborately covered. Instead, the body may be wrapped in linen, and a mummy mask might be made to show what the person looked like. The mask on the left is somewhat elaborate with a little bit of gilt, the one on the right is fairly elaborately decorated while the one on the middle is a simple encaustic (pigment and wax) mask.

The museum also has a few examples of false doors, which are a stone carvings of doors placed inside a tomb that were believed to allow a person’s spirit to cross from the tomb to the afterlife.

And there are tons of other statues, paintings, and more that are often placed inside a tomb. Visit the MFA to learn more!

More Egyptian Artifacts

There is much more to the Egyptian exhibit than just the afterlife. Below is a statue of an Egyptian man and woman. It is interesting to note that red pigment was typically used for men, while yellow pigment was for women.

Here are two statues of King Menkaure, grandson of Khufu and the builder of the third Giza Pyramid. In the left, he is posing with the goddess Hathor and the Hare Nome. In the right, he is posing with his queen.

James really liked the carvings of Egyptian boats:

The Near East

While most of the artifacts in this section of the museum are dedicated to Egypt, they also have a few pieces from the Near East. I particularly liked this glazed brick Babylonian lion that was created curing the reign of Nebuchadnezzar I, which is a different Nebuchadnezzar than the one in the Bible:

This is an Assyrian stone carving found in Ashurnasirpal II’s palace located in modern day Iraq.

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