Art exhibit explores how different cultures deal with death and what comes afterward
If you’re scared of death, the new exhibit at MU’s Museum of Art and Archaeology might be too unsettling for you.
But if you’re curious about death, then you might find interesting the statue of a priest impersonating the Mexican god Xipe by wearing sacrificed human skin over his own.
“Since death is a universal phenomenon, and I think there’s a fascination with it — there may be a fear, but there’s also a fascination — we knew it would probably draw people to the museum to have a look at our collection,” said Benton Kidd, associate curator of ancient art for the museum and curator of the exhibit “Final Farewell: The Culture of Death and the Afterlife.”
Six months in the making, the exhibit explores 4,000 years of death and burial practices as well as what Kidd called related “sociological phenomenon.” It’s a visual history of death, encompassing practices associated with funerals, burials, mourning, martyrdom, suicide and even human sacrifice.
As is typical, Kidd drew on what the museum owns in deciding on the theme for this exhibit. An alabaster canopic jar, for example, was used to hold organs such as the lungs and liver taken from the newly deceased in ancient Egypt. Ornaments carved of human bone were taken from youths who underwent “sky burial,” a Buddhist ritual used in Tibet and China in which the deceased’s body is skinned, cut up and mashed into paste for the pleasure of vultures.
Three pieces in the exhibit are on loan from other institutions: the painting “Martyrdom of St. Sebastian” from the Samuel Cupples House at St. Louis University; an Egyptian mummy mask from Monmouth College in Monmouth, Ill.; and a 19th-century mourning costume from the Stephens College Costume Research Library.
The cultures featured in “Final Farewell” show a diversity of practices related to death as well as how death is viewed in various societies.
“I did a lot of research about the individual pieces and the cultures that they come from,” said Becky Dunham, a graduate research assistant with the museum who, along with students Sarah Carter and Fred Eagan, worked on the exhibit. “It’s something that anybody can relate to regardless of their age, sex or socioeconomic status.”
Dunham, who will lecture in April on the dead in West African art, helped lay out the exhibit. It’s arranged chronologically and by culture. The Egyptian section includes the sarcophagus of an Egyptian priestess of Hathor, allowing visitors to get close enough to examine the hieroglyphic inscriptions of her name on the lid. A favorite of Kidd’s is the mummy mask, which was expensive in its day and is big enough to cover both the face and the chest.
In the Greek and Roman displays, the practice of suicide is shown, for example, in a melancholy painting of a suicidal woman in ancient Rome; set in a dark background, her face is clearly sorrowful.
“In some cultures of the ancient Mediterranean, it wasn’t a sin to kill yourself, and we hear a lot about suicides
in the ancient world like Cleopatra’s,” Kidd said. “It could be an acceptable way to die if you were facing great public shame, which is quite a contrast with the Judeo-Christian idea that suicide is a sin.”
Also in the exhibit are grisly depictions of human sacrifice in pre-Columbian cultures. Flint and obsidian daggers on display, for example, were most likely used in sacrifice rituals in Mexico.
“The way they used them was to slit open the abdomen and reach under the sternum and pull out the heart while it was still beating,” Kidd said. “What they usually did was burn the heart as a sacrifice to the god.”
Later material is represented by objects dating from the 15th century onward. These include Christian images of martyrdom, examined in a variety of mediums. “The Card Game of Death,” a 17th-century memento-mori, or reminder of death, painting by Giuseppe Erts, shows Cupid playing cards with a skeleton; Cupid represents love, and the card-dealing skeleton represents death. Also in the painting are figures representing time and beauty — all are losing to death.
Other highlights are a reliquary that holds human remains and commemorates three early bishops in the Christian church and an ancient Jewish ossuary, a box used in a practice called secondary
burial. The body was allowed to decompose, after which the bones were collected and stored in an ossuary.
“I think it was a very fascinating piece,” said museum docent Ingrid Headley who attended the exhibit’s reception and preview on Feb. 9. Funding for “Final Farewell” came from the MU Center for Arts and the Humanities, the Museum Associates and the MU Department of Anthropology.
“My first impression is that it is an excellent exhibit,” Headley said. “It really gives a broad overview of different parts of the world and how they view death.”