Our museum halls are also virtually available. Here you explore the exhibition 'Life and Death'.

Where do we come from? Where are we going? Philosophers and scientists have been looking for answers to the questions about myths and religions.

The meaning of life: every culture tries to understand, to explain, to make sense. The answers vary widely, but there are also similarities. They almost always link death with new life.

Here we reflect on the vision of the Egyptians, illustrate some of the beliefs that live or lived in Africa, Oceania ... We briefly present the ideas about karma and rebirth in the major Indian religions, the expectation of eternal life in the Religions of the Book and conclude with some of the ideas that liberal humanists rely on.

Take a look in the museum hall:

You see the imposing Bardo towers (with transitional visions of the dead), cymbals and trumpets and other ritual instruments, a thangka with transcendent and human Buddhas… 

360 image

Beeld van staande Osiris








For the ancient Egyptians, dying was not the end. They lived on in a world after death and hoped to stay with the gods, such as the sun god Amon-Re and Osiris, ruler of the world of the dead..

Memphis, Late Pharaonic to Greco-Roman (712 BC to 395 AD), Bronze, MAS (AV.1879.001.023)

Fragmenten van het Dodenboek op mummiewindel

Book of the Dead
First, the dead made a long and dangerous journey through the underworld (Doeat). This is why they received the Book of the Dead in their grave, which explained how you best approached the journey. They also received food and equipment in order to have a rich life after death. Until long after dying, the family visited the front room of the tomb to donate food and drink and to pray. 

Fragments of the Book of the Dead on mummy wind, Memphis, Ptolemaic (332 to 30 BC), Linen and Flax, MAS (AV.4943.1-2 and AV.4943.2-2 / AV.4946.1-2 and AV.4946.2-2)




Many African artifacts have a ritual meaning: they bring to life creation myths, ensure fertility and keep the memory of the ancestors intact.  

This Kanaga dance mask of the Dogon was used during remembrance ceremonies of the dead. It helped the souls to attain the status of ancestor spirits. The upper part in the form of the Lorraine cross has an ambiguous meaning: for the (incomplete) initiate it is an animal, for an initiate it represents the creator God pointing with two pairs of arms towards heaven and earth.

Dogon, Mali, 20th century, Wood, pigment, resin and iron, Purchase W. Mestach, 1961, MAS (AE.1961.0067)


Wrijforakel (itombwa) in de vorm van een jachthond


"Rub oracle" (itombwa) in the form of a hunting dog

There is a visible and an invisible world, and an inspiring force connects it together. Communication between people and spirits, the living and the dead, takes place through sacrifices, divination, ritual dances and initiation ceremonies.

Animals are suitable mediators between man and the invisible world. A Kuba fortuneteller used this hunting dog rub oracle to get in touch with the ghosts. With his sharp sense of smell, the four-legged friend was his ideal assistant.

Kuba / Bushoong, Democratic Republic of Congo, Late 19th-early 20th century, Wood, Purchase H. Pareyn, 1920, MAS (AE.0223)


On the islands of Melanesia, there were traditionally countless local ancestor cultures that linked life and death. Rites of death assisted the deceased in their exodus from the society of the living. In this way they could eventually acquire the status of ancestors. The rituals also managed the released and potentially dangerous life force.

This Malanggan sculpture, a bird's head figure, embodies mythical creatures and ancestors. The complex decoration above the head symbolizes growth and fertility.

North of New Ireland, Ca. 1900, Wood, pigment, rattan, bark, shell and marrow of rims, Donation C. Hemeleers, 1925, MAS (AE.0086)

voorouderpaar totok





Ancestor pair totok
This Malanggan ancestor pair also embodies ancestors. The European influences are striking. The statues may have been made for selling them to tourists.

North of New Ireland, Ca. 1900, Wood, shell and pigment. Purchased Van Herck, 1953. Ex-collection Jan De Schuyter, MAS (AE.1953.0006.0001; AE.1953.0006.0002)


India is the cradle of three ancient religions: Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. All three believe in rebirth: after death the spirit lives on in another body. Karma, the actions of past lives, determines the quality of the new life. That is a natural law. So there is no god or judge to judge. Achieving redemption and no longer being reborn is the highest goal.


Hindus worship many gods, but they personify aspects of one absolute force: the All-soul (brahman). For them, redemption (moksha) means that the I-soul (atman) becomes one with these All-soul.

Ganesha, the particularly popular elephant-headed deity, is especially revered for removing obstacles. He brings wisdom and happiness. Hence people call on him at the start of every venture. Ganesha always carries a prayer cord, a prick hook and a bowl of candy. He has a broken tusk which he lost in a fight. A too diligent owner has restored the tusk in this statue.

GaneshaJava, Indonesia, 12th century. Gray lava stone, purchase Walter Tamm, 1963, MAS (AE.1963.0062.0001)





Mother Goddess Mahadevi, source of life and fertility, is extensively revered in India. Her cult is ancient and indigenous, and her many representations show the ideal of Indian beauty: full breasts, bulging belly, wide hips and narrow waist.
Just like the god Shiva, Mahadevi also has terrifying representations, such as Kali or Durga. In those guises she has a protective function. 

Mahisasuramardini, durga as the killer of the buffalo demon. India, early 19th century, bronze. Donation by Friends of the Ethnographic Museum, Antwerp, 1990, MAS (AE.1990.0032.0010)


Buddhism, the road to nirvana

Boeddha Sakyamuni

Buddhism gets its name from Siddharta Gautama, an Indian prince who was later called by his followers the Buddha - "The Awakened" or "The Enlightened". He was looking for a way to escape suffering and the cycle of rebirths.

By living peacefully and detached, one's karma continues to improve and can then achieve enlightenment through proper meditation and concentration. Then after death one will reach nirvana, the infinite nothingness, and will no longer be reborn. One has been freed from the cycle of rebirths.  

Buddha Sakyamuni, Nagapattinam. South India, Vijayanagar period, 14th century. Bronze, Marcel Nies, 2001, MAS (AE.2001.0001.0001.1-2 / 2)


Eerste afbeelding van Negen overdenkingen over de onreinheid van het lichaam: het lichaam als omhulsel


The 'Nine reflections', a masterpiece of the MAS collection, show a beautiful princess in full dress and then the gradual dissolution of her dead body. In the end, nothing remains. The message is: the body is only a temporary shell, only the mind remains and is reborn in a new form. Along with the Chinese verses, these illustrations supported the meditation of monks seeking to dispel their earthly desires.

Nine reflections on the impurity of the body: the body as a shell. Kinugasa Morishige, Japan, 1670-1680. Paper painting, bequest Max Elskamp, 1932 MAS (AE.4552.1-20/20)


Jains: don't kill anything that lives

Samovasarana, prediking van MahaviraJainism is one of India's oldest religions. It is in line with animism: everything in nature has a soul. None of this should be harmed. Jains are therefore absolutely non-violent and have a great ecological awareness.

Jains can redeem their souls, and thus redeem themselves from the cycle of being born again, thanks to the right knowledge, the right faith and the right behavior: the three jewels. They comply to five commandments: do not kill, do not steal, do not lie, do not commit unchastity, and do not attach yourself to property. On this canvas we see Mahavira, a teacher, preaching to monks and nuns, lay men and women. They wear a white mouth cloth that prevents them from inhaling small organisms. The animals around them sit peacefully next to their prey.

Samovasarana, preaching to Mahavira. Rajasthan, India, late 18th century. Gouache on canvas, donation by Friends of Ethnography, Museum Antwerp, 1997, MAS (AE.1997.0029)




Mouth cloth and broom: avoid killing intentionally
A mouth cloth prevents jain monks from inhaling insects, the brush from killing animals when walking. 

India, 20th century. Cotton & wood. Lalit Kumar, 2000, MAS (AE.2000.0596, AE.2000.0578)

Religions of the Book

Judaism, Christianity and Islam are religions of the Book. In the Torah, Bible and Quran, God reveals himself to man. God's guidelines determine what a good or right life is, and death and burial rituals ensure the proper transition to eternal life after death. At the end of time, the resurrection of the dead will take place. God then judges their deeds of life. If that judgment is positive, they are eternally included into His harmony, which is paradise. Or removed from it, and that's hell.

  • 1. Life: doing what is right

Earn your heaven’: this expression indicates that something beautiful awaits after the temporary human existence. And that you have to make an effort. Obedience to God's laws will be rewarded with eternal life in paradise. Going against God's will is a sin. 

Weergave van Adam en Eva volgens Jodendom, Christendom en Islam

Adam and Eve disobeying God represent the original sin of man. So, to earn your heaven, don't follow the example of this couple. Even though sin seems attractive.

Left: Adam and Eve and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Jewish representation, Antwerp, 2018 (after the original pillowcase of the Jewish Historical Museum, Amsterdam, Alsace, 18th century, M000998). Cotton. On the right and left of the tree is the name אדם (Adam) and וחוה (Eva).
Center: Adam and Eve, the snake and the forbidden fruit. Christian representation, Germany, 2nd half of the 16th century. Iron stove plate, MAS (AV.2260)
Right: Adam and Eve in paradise. Muslim scene (Shia tradition), 20th century, print on paper, MAS (AE.1973.0030.0013)

  • 2. Death: transition to eternal life

The approaching death is the ultimate moment when believers contemplate their lives to come to terms with it and to ask forgiveness for mistakes against God and their fellowmen. The care of the deceased is a spiritual and physical purification: it prepares the soul for the afterlife, the body for the funeral.

  •  3. The eternal life

Depending on the period and religion - and the many tendencies within each religion - life after death is not represented in an abstract or imaginative way. Jews traditionally do not depict "the world to come." Christians and Muslims do, in different ways and in our time much less "literally".

Retabel van Averbode


Christianity: Retable of Averbode: the Lamentation of Jesus

This altarpiece is a Flemish masterpiece. It depicts Christ's death on the cross, the sadness about it and his resurrection. Jesus 'sacrifice frees mankind from the consequences of original sin and heralds a new covenant of God with people who believe: mankind, thanks to Jesus' sacrifice, regains access to paradise. The consequences of the sin of Adam and Eve are undone.

Sculptor: Jacob van Cothem. Painter unknown. Antwerp, 1514, Oak, oil paint, MAS (AV.0887)


Tempelberg (Haram al-sjarief) en eindtijdsymbolen


Islamic image with the Temple Mount (Haram al-Sjarif) and end-time symbols

At the back of the walled square is the Dome of the Rock, on the left the mausoleum of David (Dawud), on the right that of Moses (Musa). In front of the Dome of the Rock, the scales represent the weighting of the deeds of the deceased, and underneath it runs the narrow path they must walk: believers reach paradise, unbelievers fall into hellfire. Right below the Well of Souls, where the Prophet will gather his fellowship at the resurrection.

India, c. 1900, on loan from the National Museum of World Cultures Foundation, The Netherlands (7031-15)

Liberal Humanism
Liberal humanists strive for a good and meaningful life together. There is no afterlife. Keywords of liberal humanism are: autonomy, human reason and self-development, free research, justice, human dignity, responsibility. Man has his own life and death. Decent death is the culmination of the pursuit of a good life, for oneself and for others.
This liberal humanistic attitude to life stems from a long tradition of Greek, Roman, Jewish, Christian and atheist thinkers. Some of the thinkers in the exhibition:

Some liberal humanists today tell how they view life and death in this clip.

And there's more ...

Our museum hall is of course still full of other objects. During a real visit to our expo you will discover, among other things, a real sarcophagus, a print of Marc Chagall with Moses and the Ten Commandments, the masterpiece of our Africa collection: a Hemba statue of a waking ancestor from Congo and even more lived testimonies of people looking for in-depth answers to questions about 'Life and Death'.

See also
Take a look around the different rooms thanks to the 360 ° photos. And we present some remarkable objects to you.
Foto Filip Dujardin
Gods and mankind
Don’t be afraid of death: find out how others experience and approach the end of life. Across the boundaries of time, culture and religion.