“If your dream of heaven is eternity spent with the pets you love, Divine Felines: Cats of Ancient Egypt at the Brooklyn Museum is your exhibition. All of its 30 objects, sifted from the museum’s Egyptian collection, are of cats, big and little, feral and tame, celestial and not. Whether cast in bronze or carved in stone, their forms were to outlast time, and so they have.
Although it’s often assumed that the domestication of cats began in Egypt, archaeology suggests that Mesopotamia was the place. And despite the feline presence in religious contexts, Egyptians didn’t worship cats per se, but created gods that had their physical features, their expressive moods and their near-supernatural intelligence.
The great solar deity Re had many children, several of them daughters. The daughter with the most complex and difficult personality was the one named Sakhmet, who served as the sun’s personal guardian and was usually depicted with a woman’s body and a lion’s head.
Ancient Egyptians adored the world, but they could be remarkably unromantic about it, and they were clear-eyed about the feline temperament. They had no illusions about its volatile, aggressive side, which Sakhmet personified. Her dutiful protection of her father could turn loose-cannon deadly. When Re, in a fit of pique at the human race, asked her to teach it a lesson, the ferocity of her response surprised even him. It was only by getting her drunk on beer dyed the colour of blood that the slaughter was stopped.
In a constantly mutating pantheon of divinities, other Egyptian goddesses also assumed feline attributes but were more benign. So it was with Bast, or Bastet, who started out as a “cave felem” case but eventually exchanged a lion’s mane and snarl for the trim profile of a domestic short-hair and channelled her belligerence into maternal warmth.
The show, which opened on Thursday, has several wonderful small sculptures associated with her. In one, from the Ptolemaic period (332-30 B.C.), she is a tiny bronze cat-woman; in another, the human features vanish, and the cat stays, perched, as if for worship, atop a lotus-shaped column.
To find a more stable and conventionally humane presence in the leonine line presented by the show, you have to look to male deities, and particularly to the dwarfish god named Bes.
Possibly a sub-Saharan import, with his lion’s mane, toothy grin and bandy-legged body, Bes was no beauty. But he too had links to the sun deity, manifested not in fits of fury but in the steady beat of a heart of gold.
Like the other complex, composite beings that surround him, he puts a winning foot forward in the Brooklyn show, which has been impeccably installed by the museum’s associate curator of Egyptian art, Yekaterina Barbash, and will be on view for more than a year. Though confined to a single, narrow, red-painted room at a far end of the Egyptian galleries, it doesn’t feel like an annex to those galleries. It feels like a destination. After you’ve wandered through thousands of years of art in the permanent collection, with cats scattered here and there, you arrive at this feline sanctuary and, if you’re the person I think you are, you’re home” – via The New York Times.