As I crouched over the old tombstones, I managed to get lost for a moment. I brought one of my ears closer and waited. I thought I might hear afterlife confessions, or the resurrected murmurs of this Pliny’s dying wishes.
Overshadowed by the (deserved) fanfare of Alice Neel’s exhibition, “The Good Life: Collecting Late Antique Art at The Met” (running through May 7 2023) contains an abysmal, dizzying question, which, asked as we turn our backs to a dull pandemic winter seems both newly approachable and vastly confounding.
“The Good Life” is an exhibition of in-betweens—offering glimpses of what happens in the stretch between birth and death, in a Roman/Byzantine Egypt at the confluence of religious worlds. The setting itself (Gallery 302) is niched just below the Great Staircase. It’s a cozy, dimly-lit nook, away from the returning museum crowds which suggests the welcomed atmosphere of a sepulcher or a vault (and indeed known as the “Byzantine Crypt”).
The exhibition presents objects from late antique Egypt (spanning from 200-700 CE), displaying vivid portraits, textiles, prayer beads and other ritualistic items, fragments of friezes, and funerary artefacts.
Straddling between classical and medieval times, I could see why Roman/Byzantine Egypt would not quite belong in the Greek/Roman nor Egyptian galleries, and why the Met settled for a Byzantine label (with this imperfect spatial choice already conveying meaning). Behind them are the days of the Ptolemaic Pharaohs—their rule ended when the armies of Augustus defeated Queen Cleopatra and annexed Egypt as a Roman province. Ahead, is the Islamic conquest and the fall of Alexandria in 641 under Arab commander ʿAmr ibn al-ʿAs.
The exhibition places Egypt, and beyond it North Africa, within a connected and interwoven geography. While the contemporary legacies of Western colonialism and Orientalism continue to ‘other’ any place east of Greece and south of Sicily, “The Good Life” indirectly recontextualizes Egypt for the Mediterranean melting pot of cultures it was, a magnetic place of experiments and influences—from the emergence of hybrid divinities such as Serapis, to foundational scientific contributions led by geometrician Euclid, geographer Ptolemy, and mathematician Eratosthenes to cite only a few.
Even so, at the turn of the 4th century, Alexandria’s light as a radiant, world-city of knowledge with its Great Library, a place where Jews, worshippers of the old Egyptian, Greek and syncretic cults, and Christians once lived together in relative harmony, was already waning in a long, sleepy sunset.
In a nod to these changes, a bone statuette of Silenus, the tutor of Dionysios, and other objects associated with the cult of the bon-vivant god of wine, fertility, and sensuality, interact at a close distance with a rock crystal necklace supporting a Christian pendant cross. Faces from the past are perplexingly relatable, such as in the wonderfully well-preserved encaustic portrait of a man, reminiscent in style and technique to the “Fayum Portraits” one can admire at the Met’s Egyptian galleries steps away. These portraits accompanied mummies of the rich in their next journey.
The exhibition also recalls the Greek-inherited paideia school of teachings, which saw the burgeoning of intellectual minds studying subjects such as physics, mathematics and poetry, flourishing under the ruling Ptolemies who consecrated Alexandria as an influential city of boundless scholarly curiosity.
Yet this diverse juxtaposition of objects and concepts misses historicity and passes over deep fractures and tensions. Far from peaceful, the coexistence of old and new beliefs led to persecutions, pogroms and massacres and nowhere was this more apparent than in Alexandria. A 4th-century medallion of an upper-class mother with her child, likely originating from the city, stares defiantly. From the wealth she exudes, we suspect that she married well, and her son by her right-hand side no doubt represents a personal accomplishment and a collective future. What we are not told is that behind the seemingly picturesque matron, the streets of Alexandria provided the backdrop of a violent spiritual-turned-temporal contestation. By the early 5th century, pagan woman philosopher Hypathia and books of unfathomable scientific, literary and artistic value would perish at the hands of the Christian Coptic establishment (Theophilus then Cyril) and radicalized mobs enforcing their view of the world on non-believers. In its presentation, “The Good Life” semi-concedes the victory of the austere and “Apollonian” in society, incarnated in recent monotheistic piety and the remnants of devotion—Homer’s Iliad can resist in ostraca (texts written on pottery) but the Bible won.
“To understand the meaning of these images, one needed to be well educated,” the curatorial statement writes. And this is problematic in a way. We are examining a one-sided view of a “good life” exclusively through the vantage point of the privileged, those who can afford opulent textiles, sophisticated jewelry and elaborately-carved, decorative friezes. In the same vein, a monochromatic photo from the 19th century shows (white) art dealers and collectors dining expansively on an Egyptian archeological site, stopping mid-course to turn their faces to the camera with a safari hat in the forefront—a reminder of colonial violence and the objects’ provenance. The Met’s shyly describes them as “wealthy New York City families and dealers” who “began collecting and trading the valuable material and visual culture” and proceeds to thank them in a gesture appreciative of both objects and foreign patrons. A tone-deaf, missed opportunity to address museums as temples and trophies of the rich and acknowledge—at long last—their role as guardians of elite definitions of “culture” with superimposed storytelling, which instead glamorizes inequitable bygone times.
Reduced to wealth, privilege, and amplifying the life experience of the elites, this exhibition fails at questioning asymmetrical power dynamics and what remains hidden, namely to interrogate the mirror of self and deconstruct perspectives—which are at the core of determining life’s possibilities. Where is the good life of masses, regular people, who formed the backbone of Egyptian society since time immemorial? One 6th-century fragment on display hints at the centrality of the Nile floods on the everyday life of Egyptians, which meant abundance or famine, and I craved for more, to immerse in their prayers, rituals and festivals.
Even the rich carry their past into the future. The funerary stelae on display are intimate and mesmerizing in their commemoration of faith. On them, Christian representations mix with other symbols of polytheistic mythologies such as the ankh, phoenix-like birds or eagles, wheels and solar references in what aspires to be a visualization of paradise. Despite erasure, old beliefs do accompany the dying and the dead. Asking about a good life is another way to probe what we value most and this narrow window into the life and minds of late antique elites points out to material safety and spiritual comfort. Instead, I see space for a deeper dialogue on defining identity and embracing transience. To what extent are inherited versus acquired traditions and culture engaging with truth, representation and our desire to make this life mean something?
As I walked away from the stelae and left a late antique parenthesis to sit by Cleopatra’s Needle in Central Park, I chose to briefly defend that there’s nothing wrong with leaving nothing behind.