Roll Over, Beethoven . . . and Cats?
When my cat Smudge developed cancer a couple of months back and we had to put her down, I wrapped her in a towel and held her close to me, stroking her and talking softly while the vet injected her with the drugs that stopped her heart. When he asked us if we wanted to have her cremated and take her ashes home, for a nominal fee, we declined. He left us to grieve with her corpse. I took a picture of her, eyes closed, still in her swaddling, and we left her body at the clinic.
The Brooklyn Museum's terrific exhibition "Soulful Creatures: Animal Mummies In Ancient Egypt"—thoroughly curated by Edward Bleiberg, Ph.D., and now on display at the Bowers Museum—reveals the ancient Egyptians took burial rituals more seriously than I did, sparing little cost to make sure their animals were as pampered in death as they were in life. While pets were routinely buried with the kings who owned them, it wasn't just royalty who preserved the bodies of animals and wrapped them in linen as they did their human counterparts. The Egyptians believed animals had souls and that, in the afterlife, they carried messages to the gods, so it was spiritually important to treat them with the necessary respect.
Bleiberg's engaging curatorial notes remind us of the presence of animal imagery throughout Egyptian religious worship, with many of the gods appearing in half-human, half-animal forms. The suggestion is that the gods (and, by inference, the humans who worshipped them) were better for the mix: Sekhmet, the goddess of war and healing, has the head of a lioness, suggesting ferocity and gentleness; there's the omnipresent uraeus, a rearing cobra, symbol of the goddess Wadjet, a snake head joined to a woman's body and protector of kings; Bastet was the cat-headed goddess of the arts; and Anubis was the jackal-headed god of the dead; among others. According to Bleiberg, the special mix provided metaphor and symbol, the positive (and negative/dangerous) qualities of the animal accentuating the god's power. Everything went south when Christianity became the predominant religion, and the subjugation of animals became the norm through Biblical "directive."
Austerely displayed, with a respect befitting the Egyptians' reverence for animals, are mummies of crocodiles, birds, shrews, cats, dogs, snakes and lizards, propped up or lying down, graphics providing x-ray views inside the often oddly-shaped funerary packages. Memorable sights: An elongated, rather large cat mummy in a colorfully decorated coffin called a cartonnage; the tiny, beef-jerky-brown and black head of a crocodile poking out from its burial shroud; the even tinier bronze coffin of a shrew; a forearm-sized snake sarcophagus; mummy images of Osiris made from grain, wax and earth, the corn used to create it a compelling symbol of resurrection and new birth. Make sure to take a few minutes to watch Nico Piazza's entertaining video interview with Dr. Salima Ikran, discussing the labor-intensive work behind the mummification process (and why you should never ever leave fish mummies on your balcony).
"Beethoven: The Late Great," located in one of the smaller galleries, tangentially ties to the funereal objects of "Soulful Creatures": There are locks of the composer's hair removed while he was on his deathbed; his last quill pen is framed (alongside a cutting of hair from the novelist, poet and playwright Goethe); Beethoven is quoted speaking about the "Elysian Fields"; and there's a bronze reproduction of a pouty life mask taken of the composer around 1812. There are other items of interest—first-edition scores from the Library of Congress, a signed letter addressed to Prince Ferdinand that begs for space to play in—most of which gets lost among the ephemera: dull engravings of coffeehouses, Viennese paper money, a zograscope (basically an 18th-century View-Master), and lobby cards and props from a 2006 movie about Beethoven that no one has ever heard of.
There's an attempt to provide context to a world outside Beethoven's studio, but Dr. William Meredith's curator notes are vague, spotty and confusing. As he is director of the Beethoven Center at San Jose University, it may be that Meredith's perspective is just too insular, operating on the presumption that an attendee to the exhibit has a fundamental understanding of both music theory and Beethoven's history. It's an unrealistic presumption, at best, and it's easy to imagine viewers won't always be able to connect the dots in the notes or differentiate between movie props and actual historical articles. What was really called for here was to give old Ludwig van the full biographical treatment afforded Benjamin Franklin a few years back, not just an exhibit meant to be a kind of lazy commercial for the Philharmonic Society of Orange County's three-year celebration of Beethoven's work. Perhaps, if he'd been an ancient Egyptian, more attention would have been paid.
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