The Secret History of the Boston Green Head

BOSTON, MA (May 26, 2015)—Tucked away in the Art of the Ancient World galleries in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), resides the finest Late Period Egyptian portrait sculpture in the world. Carved of dark green-gray stone, and wonderfully lifelike and individual, from its crow’s feet and furrowed brow to the small wart on the left cheek, the head of this unknown Egyptian priest, a “jewel the like of which exists in no other collection,” has become known around the world as the Boston Green Head. Surprisingly, though, its exquisite execution is not the only reason for its significance. As Lawrence M. Berman, Norma Jean Calderwood Senior Curator of Ancient Egyptian, Nubian, and Near Eastern Art, tells us in his new book, The Priest, the Prince, and the Pasha: The Life and Afterlife of an Ancient Egyptian Sculpture (MFA Publications, May 26, 2015), “the story of the Boston Green Head reaches back to the beginnings of Egyptian archaeology. The successive stages of that history reflect the reception of Egyptian art in the modern era.”

The story of how this sculpture was discovered—and came to effect a major change in how the West perceived Egyptian art—combines history and mystery, intrigue and diplomacy, pomp and politics. Told through five major characters in the object’s journey through time, this book will cause us to look at Egyptian art and preservation in an entirely new light:

  • The Archaeologist, Auguste Mariette: passionate and self-taught Egyptologist. Mariette first traveled to Egypt in 1850, under commission from a French government still smarting from the loss of the Rosetta Stone to the British in 1801. While there he uncovered the find that would make him famous: the Tomb of the Apis Bulls in the Saqqara Serapeum. It was there that the Boston Green Head surfaced when Mariette resumed excavations in 1858. Mariette played a significant role in changing western attitudes about the discovery and recovery of ancient works of art away from plunder and toward preservation. In 1858 he entered the service of the Pasha, Muhammad Said, achieving his goal of establishing a service for the protection of the ancient monuments in Egypt.
  • The Pasha: genial Ottoman ruler of Egypt. Muhammad Said was a skilled diplomat who used permits for the excavation of Egypt’s precious antiquities—and outright gifts of them—to secure amicable relations with European powers. Said’s request that Mariette put together a collection for His Imperial Highness Prince Napoleon sent the Green Head on its way to Paris.
  • The Prince, Napoleon-Joseph-Charles Bonaparte: known as Plon-Plon (read the book to find out why!). A nephew of Napoleon I, a gourmand, and a bit of a playboy, Plon-Plon was also a fervent art lover who shared Mariette’s goal of protecting ancient monuments. The prince proudly displayed his gifts from the Pasha, including the Green Head, in his faux-Pompeian palace in Paris. As the head became more widely known to French scholars, it began to challenge long-held views about the supremacy of Greek art. But when Plon-Plon auctioned off his antiquities in 1868, the Green Head was conspicuously absent from the catalog.
  • The Collector, Edward Perry Warren: aesthete, collector, Boston Brahmin. Brought up surrounded by art, Warren became entranced by classical sculpture, in particular nudes, during his European travels. With no interest in working at his father’s paper mill, Ned settled in Oxford, England, where he established a community of some half-dozen like-minded homosexual or bisexual men who shared his aesthetic tastes. It was there that he met his soul mate, John Marshall. Together they became avid collectors of Greek art, with the MFA as their main beneficiary. Warren’s sometimes erotically charged gifts raised eyebrows and sent shockwaves through Puritan Boston—as he put it, “The collection was my plea against that in Boston which contradicted my (pagan) love.” The Green Head came from Warren to the MFA in 1904, curiously with no indication of when or where it had been for the previous 32 years.
  • The Priest: of the person portrayed by the sculpture we know tantalizing little. But we do know about the life a priest might have led during the time the Green Head was created, in the last century of Egypt’s Late Period, which ended in the fourth century BC. When his portrait arrived in Boston in 1904, the MFA had the largest and most important collection of Egyptian art in America. The Green Head, however, was dramatically different from other objects in the collection. Why? Because it didn’t look Egyptian. The debate over its origins sent tremors through the scholarly art establishment and unseated long-held prejudices about the place of Egyptian art in antiquity. It also helped establish Boston, and the MFA, as a major player in the international world of art appreciation, instruction, and aesthetics.

It’s amazing that an object so small, and about which we know so little, can tell us so much about the history of taste, the changes in perceptions of art, and the struggle to get Egyptian art recognized on its own rather than as it related to Classical art. The mysteries that remain about the Boston Green Head are equally fascinating, and may one day prompt us to find answers to these questions: Who was the subject? How did the head leave the Prince’s collection?  Where did Warren acquire the head? Whether or not these mysteries are solved, the Boston Green Head will continue to be an object of exquisite beauty, one that delights, informs, and piques our curiosity.

Support for this publication was provided by the Egyptian Publication Fund at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The Author

Lawrence M. Berman is Norma Jean Calderwood Senior Curator of Ancient Egyptian, Nubian, and Near Eastern Art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Dr. Berman received his Ph.D. in Egyptology from Yale University. He is the author of numerous books and scholarly articles and is a frequent lecturer and contributor to public educational television. From 2005 to 2009 he visited Egypt annually as Egyptological consultant for the Pacific Lutheran University Valley of the Kings Project. He was curator of the 2008 MFA exhibition Art and Empire: Treasures from Assyria in the British Museum, co-curator of the 2010 MFA exhibition Secrets of Tomb 10A, and is co-author of Arts of Ancient Egypt in the series MFA Highlights.

The book

The Priest, the Prince, and the Pasha: The Life and Afterlife of an Ancient Egyptian Sculpture
Lawrence M. Berman
MFA Publications
208 pages – 50 color ills. – ISBN 978-0-87846-796-9 – $24.95
Also available in epub and Kindle editions

The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), is recognized for the quality and scope of its collection, which includes an estimated 500,000 objects. The Museum has more than 140 galleries displaying its encyclopedic collection, which includes Art of the Americas; Art of Europe; Contemporary Art; Art of Asia, Oceania, and Africa; Art of the Ancient World; Prints, Drawings, and Photographs; Textile and Fashion Arts; and Musical Instruments. Open seven days a week, the MFA’s hours are Saturday through Tuesday, 10 am–4:45 pm; and Wednesday through Friday, 10 am–9:45 pm Admission (which includes one repeat visit within 10 days) is $25 for adults and $23 for seniors and students age 18 and older, and includes entry to all galleries and special exhibitions. Admission is free for University Members and youths age 17 and younger on weekdays after 3 pm, weekends, and Boston Public Schools holidays; otherwise $10. Wednesday nights after 4 pm admission is by voluntary contribution (suggested donation $25). MFA Members are always admitted for free. The Museum’s mobile MFA Guide is available at ticket desks and the Sharf Visitor Center for $5, members; $6, non-members; and $4, youths. The Museum is closed on New Year’s Day, Patriots’ Day, Independence Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. For more information, visit or call 617.267.9300. The MFA is located on the Avenue of the Arts at 465 Huntington Avenue, Boston, MA 02115.




Karen Frascona