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Tiny Treasures from Ancient Egypt

amulet leg

Microscopic ornaments bedazzle a Lilliputian Christmas tree. A tiny dreidel is tucked into a box. Miniscule mistletoe hangs from a chandelier. For the holidays, tiny festive additions have been added to the Thorne Rooms, which delight in their miniaturization of period rooms, to greet the season. In the galleries of European art, a masterwork of miniatures unfolds in the Neapolitan Crèche. But further into the Art Institute, another set of tiny treasures is debuting for the holidays.

heart amulet

For the first time in over 50 years, 38 ancient Egyptian amulets are on view in When the Greeks Ruled: Egypt After Alexander the Great, a special exhibition in gallery 154 of the Mary and Michael Jaharis Galleries of Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Art. Despite their diminutive size, these amulets pack a lot of power and magic. For the ancient Egyptian, one prepared for life after death by providing all the accoutrements of daily life and assurances for rebirth into the afterlife in the tomb, one’s eternal home. One also needed to guarantee that the body itself would be in working order in the afterlife. The two-centimeter long leg (top image) and foot amulets were typically encased in the wrappings of the mummified body at the ankle to assure the ability to walk. Likewise, a glass heart amulet (image immediately above) was placed on the upper torso to protect what Egyptians considered to be the most important organ of the body. To them, the heart was the origin of thought, emotions, and a storehouse for memories; the heart amulet takes the form of a vessel.  One of the most popular amulets was the wedjat (image below), or Eye of Horus, that has the iconic markings of a falcon. In a divine battle the god Horus was blinded by the god Seth, however, the eye of Horus rejuvenated and became a symbol of rebirth. Amulets were also worn by the living as protective, and even magical, talismans.

Amulets wedjats

While a group of spectacularly small amulets glitter in the galleries, there are over 700 Egyptian amulets in the Art Institute’s collection, including a one-inch silver hatchet, many half-inch stone headrests, centimeter-long animals such as cows, frogs, geese, and rabbits. Each of these, though seemingly mundane, carried symbolism of power or regeneration. Amulets were so popular that they were made and used continuously from around 3000 B.C. to the Ptolemaic period (330 B.C.-30 B.C.), which is the focus of the exhibition, and even into the Coptic Christian period in the 4th century A.D.

Amulets Egypt of godesses

Because of their minute size, these amulets are actually some of the most complicated types of artworks to display. For the exhibition, each amulet received a custom-made mount, or apparatus that securely holds the object while carefully placed padding protects their delicate surfaces. These mounts are tightly fitted into holes drilled directly into the back of the case. For the smallest amulets, such as the golden Eyes of Horus seen in the above photo, pins coated in plastic to protect the artwork hold the amulets in place. When working on such a small scale, exact measurements are key!

Amulets Egypt Mary and Lorien

Stop by the exhibit When the Greeks Ruled Egypt, which is open through July 27, and explore the myriad of amulets, including a pantheon of Egyptian gods and goddesses that can fit in the palm of your hand. But don’t let their diminutive size fool you, the ancient Egyptians made amulets with the design that their power would last unto eternity.

—Terah Walkup, Research Associate, Department of Ancient and Byzantine Art

Image credits:

Leg and Foot Amulet. Egyptian, Late Old Kingdom - First Intermediate Period, Dynasties 5-11, (about 2494-2055 B.C.). Carnelian; 2 x 1 x .25 cm (3/4 x 3/8 x 1/8 in.). The Art Institute of Chicago, gift of Charles L. Hutchinson, 1894.861.

Heart Amulet. Egyptian, New Kingdom, Dynasty 18, (about 1550–1295  B.C.). Glass, rod formed technique; 2.1 x 1.9 x 0.6 cm (7/8 x 3/4 x 1/4 in.). The Art Institute of Chicago, gift of Charles L. Hutchinson, 1894.855.