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'Egypt's Mysterious Book of the Faiyum' opens Sunday at Walters Art Museum

Henry Walters and J.P. Morgan were frenemies.

Both were the sons of powerful fathers. They didn't come into their own until they reached middle age, when they were widely acknowledged as two of the premier financiers of the Gilded Age. Both displayed an inclination toward collecting art as children. As grown-ups, the two titans competed over who would acquire the next painting or objet d'art.

So it's only fitting that portions of a 2,000-year-old Egyptian papyrus known as "The Book of the Faiyum" belonging to institutions founded by each mogul are being displayed for the first time in 150 years in a new exhibit opening Sunday at the Walters Art Museum.

"There was this kind of early-20th-century friendly rivalry between J.P. Morgan and Henry Walters," says Julia Marciari-Alexander," the director of the Baltimore museum.

"They were constantly vying to see who could put together the best art collection. It's not surprising that we have half of the Book of the Faiyum, and that the other half is in the Morgan Library in Manhattan."

Marden Nichols, the Walters' assistant curator of ancient art, has surrounded the papyrus with nearly 100 other artworks — sculptures, statues, coffin paintings — that have been borrowed from 10 museums around the world. These objects help to expand upon and illustrate the story being told in the manuscript of the enigmatic tale of Sobek, the crocodile god thought to bring the sun to the Faiyum, an oasis to the west of the Nile River and south of Cairo.

Nichols, who helped put the exhibit together, emphasizes that "this is a different side of ancient Egypt" without the pharaohs, mummies and pyramids that most people associate with that ancient culture. There's just one mummy on display, on loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The tiny, exquisite crocodile shrouded in linen lived sometime between 400 B.C. and A.D. 100.

Another highlight is a nearly 2-foot-tall limestone sculpture of the bust of Sobek dating from about 1800 B.C., which is owned by a British museum.

"It is the most amazing piece," says Betsy Bryan, a professor of Egyptian art at the Johns Hopkins University.

"It really makes you stop and turn your head. I can't believe that the Ashmolean Museum [in Oxford, England] was willing to loan it. I think people will look at it and realize that these artists who lived a very long time ago could carve like nobody's business."

But the centerpiece of the exhibit is the length of very old paper suspended between two scrolls. The paper roll is crammed with elaborate miniature drawings in a dark ink that, despite the passage of two millennia, remains remarkably dark and vivid.

The exhibition is called "The Mysterious Book of the Faiyum" because there are so many unanswered questions about the manuscript, according to Nichols.

It's not known, for instance, who made up the audience for the document, or how it was used. Chances are that the book served multiple purposes that don't necessarily correlate neatly with modern practices. But from one perspective, the book seems to be part creation myth, part travel brochure and part blockbuster.

"The Book of the Faiyum brings together all the myths and legends of Egypt and puts the Faiyum oasis in the center of it," Nichols says. "It's an attempt to create a local culture around the Faiyum that's similar to the culture around the Nile. It's saying, 'The Faiyum is the place to be.' "

Richard Jasnow, a professor of Egyptology at Hopkins, says that the number of times that the Book of the Faiyum was copied demonstrates its popularity. About 30 copies survive.

"You find it quoted on temple walls around the Nile valley," he says. "It must have been a very popular and important composition. New versions and other fragments still are being found."

But not all of those copies are illustrated, as is the papyrus on display in Baltimore. Many are composed of myriads of tiny fragments, while the sections owned by the Walters are mostly intact.

What sets this copy apart, Nichols says, "is that it has the most illustrations and it is the best preserved."

Even without the drawings, the papyrus would be gorgeous in its own right. The fibers of the original plants still are visible, giving the manuscript a nubby texture reminiscent of raw silk, and the dried pulp has turned nut brown.

For visitors of a certain age, reading glasses will be required to marvel at the artistry of those long-ago scribes (there were at least four) and the skill with which they captured the tail scales and blunt, powerful toes of the crocodile god.

As Marciari-Alexander studied the papyrus and the depiction of Lake Moeris that takes up the center, she found herself reflecting on how similar human concerns had remained over two millennia. A thriving economy, the necessity of integrating religion into daily life, the precious value of water in deserts (Marciari-Alexander spent the last several years in drought-ridden California) still make headlines in 2013.

"That's why museums remain so important to society and culture today," she says. "We can look at fabulous works of art and realize that it didn't just start with us."

The manuscript's appeal was immediately recognized in 1859 when it first appeared on the world antiquities marketplace. Beset by many interested buyers, the unknown seller maximized his profits by dividing the papyrus into four segments. Eventually, two large sections ended up in Maryland and New York, while the two smallest segments, comprising a total of 7 feet, or roughly a quarter of the entire manuscript, reside in Cairo's Egyptian Antiquities Museum.

Because of political realities and the difficulties of transporting such fragile treasures around the world, Nichols says, it's unlikely that the complete, 27-foot long scroll will be displayed in the foreseeable future.

Henry Walters was less inclined than Morgan to collect works on paper than bronzes, so it's intriguing that the Baltimore museum ended up with the more visually appealing papyrus.

Gary Vikan, the Walters' former director, said in a talk recorded in 2009 that the two captains of industry crossed paths frequently in the financial world, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and at the New York Yacht Club, where both men were members.

"Whether these two very private people ever became real friends is impossible to know," Vikan said. "But certainly they were close."

On the tape, Vikan tells a story that illustrates both the competitive relationship between the two men and their mutual respect. The anecdote describes how Walters shamed a reluctant Morgan into pledging $100,000 to the American Academy in Rome, a training ground for aspiring artists.

"J.P. Morgan balked at the new request," Vikan said — until he learned that Walters had already agreed to donate his own $100,000.

"Only then, and with some clear irritation, did Morgan agree to match it," Vikan said.

"Clearly, Henry Walters had drawn that $100,000 gift out of a reluctant J.P. Morgan. And then, the ever self-effacing Walters characteristically insisted that Morgan's name precede his at the head of the list on the founders' plaque."

For Marciari-Alexander, there's a poetic justice in displaying the scrolls owned by the Morgan and Walters museums side by side. Now they can be compared with and contrasted against one another — as the two financiers surely would have been eager to do.

Now, a motif that begins in one scroll is developed in the other. It seems fitting that when the papyrus sections are viewed together, they exert a greater impact than either accomplishes on its own.

"In reuniting the papyrus," Marciari-Alexander said, "we're also kind of reuniting the two men."

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

If you go

"Egypt's Mysterious Book of the Faiyum" runs through Jan. 5 at the Walters Art Museum, 600 N. Charles St. Tickets cost $6-$10 for adults; children and teens admitted free. Call 410-547-9000 or go to thewalters.org.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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