Throughout history, events uncontrollable and unforeseen have intervened to derail our best-laid plans. One of my favorite objects in the MFA’s collection of ancient Egyptian art is an interesting example of this. Around 360 BCE, a high-ranking Egyptian clergyman commissioned a statue of himself to be placed in one of the temples of Memphis, near present-day Cairo. The statue would serve as a place where the priest’s immortal spirit could manifest itself to share in daily offerings of food and drink presented to the gods. With its exceptional workmanship, high degree of realism, and compelling individuality, the statue was bound to attract the attention of priests making rounds through the temple. But things did not work out as planned; in 343 BCE, the temple was sacked by invaders, the statue broken in pieces, and the building left in shambles. After driving out the invaders, the Egyptians collected the remnants of shattered statues, including this head, and, during a nationwide program of repair and renewal, buried them in the foundations of another temple as an act of piety. It wasn’t until centuries later, in the late 1850s, that the head was discovered during an excavation at Saqqara, an important ancient cemetery west of Memphis. The ruler of Egypt presented it to Prince Napoleon, the cousin of Napoleon III of France, as a diplomatic gift. After the prince’s collection was dispersed, the head was acquired by a Boston collector who sold it in 1904 to the MFA, where it was immediately recognized as a masterpiece—indeed, the great masterpiece of late Egyptian sculpture.
Since the lower part of the statue, where the subject’s name and titles would have appeared, is lost, we do not know his name. We assume he was a priest because his head is shaved—Egyptian priests were required to do so for ritual purity. The fragment is known as the Boston Green Head after the color of the stone and the city where it now resides.
The portrait’s unknown subject, its strange route to the MFA, and its worldwide fame only add to its appeal today, and viewers are apt to read a variety of personality traits into its facial features. Personal responses are valid but they do not tell us what the portrait meant to the artist or the subject. What values do those features embody? What message were they meant to project to the people of the subject’s time? A priest by the name of Petosiris who lived at the same time as our subject built a magnificent tomb for himself and his family, inscribed with lengthy biographical texts that provide some insight into the priest depicted in the Green Head. Petosiris tells us how he provided for his family, maintained the temples, and supported his community in times of need. These are the qualities a responsible Egyptian official would have taken pride in and wished to be remembered for—the same ones we look for in a civic leader today to reassure us in trying times.
Ironically, fate has once again intervened in the story of the Green Head, this time in the form of a global pandemic. When the MFA temporarily closed in March, we were on schedule to open two new Egyptian galleries, one devoted to masterpieces of sculpture from the Museum’s excavations by the Giza pyramids and another showcasing portraits from different periods in Egyptian history. We would have been installing these galleries right now and the Green Head would have been the star of the portrait gallery, appearing as the culmination of a long tradition of portraiture in Egyptian art that stretches back over two thousand years to the Pyramid Age. Like so many other plans, however, this one will have to wait—but hopefully not too long.