Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Lecture Six

[The best source of up-to-date information on the material covered in this lecture is the Met Museum catalogue “Egyptian Art in the Age of the Pyramids” (1999).]

The Great SPHINX of Giza (known in Arabic as "The Father of Fear") is a colossal reclining statue, half-human, half-lion, Thought to be the largest monolithic statue in the world, it ia 73.5 meters (241 ft) long, 6 m (20 ft) wide, and 20 m (65 ft) high. Most Egyptologists think that the foreparts of the Great Sphinx represent the likeness of King Khafre. (The ascription to his father Khufu is generally discounted). There may have been an additional association with the lion god Ruti, and in its turn to Atum, the creator god. In later times the sphinx was connected with the sun.

As far as we know, the sphinx form was the creation of the Fourth Dynasty, specifically of Khafre’s predecessor Djedefre.

The Great Sphinx resides within part of the greater funerary complex credited to Khafre which includes the Sphinx and Valley Temples, a causeway, and the second major Giza pyramid. It is generally accepted that the temples, along with the Sphinx, were all part of the same quarry and construction process.

Hewn from the living rock, the sphinx consists of three major horizontal layers (called “members” in the technical literature). These have weathered at different rates, opening the way for some speculation, since discounted, that the sphinx is the survivor of an earlier civilization. At least once the Sphinx had to be rescued in antiquity, when Thutmosis IV had it partly excavated, following a dream.

The one-meter-wide nose on the face is missing. A kind of urban legend holds that the nose was broken off by a cannon ball fired by Napoleon’s soldiers and that it still survives. However, sketches of the Sphinx by Dane F. L. Norden made in 1737 and published in 1755 illustrate the Sphinx without a nose. Writing in the fifteenth century, the Egyptian historian al-Maqrizi attributes the vandalism to Muhammad Sa’im al-Dahr, a Sufi. In 1378, upon finding the Egyptian peasants making offerings to the Sphinx in the hope of increasing their harvest, Sa'im al-Dahr was so outraged that he destroyed the nose, and was hanged for vandalism.

In addition to the lost nose, a ceremonial pharaonic beard is thought to have been attached, although this may have been added in later periods after the original construction.


The fine quartzite head of Djedefre (aka Radjedef) is probably the forepart of a sphinx. Another sphinx was found in the ruins of Djedefre’s pyramid at Abu Roash.

Most likenesses of Khufu are lost to history. Only one miniature statuette has been fully attributed to this pharaoh. Since he is credited with building the single largest building of ancient times, it is ironic that the only positively identified royal sculpture of his is also the smallest that has ever been found: a 7.6cm (3 inch) ivory statue that bears his name. In 1903 Flinders Petrie discovered it not at Giza, but in a temple at Abydos. Originally this piece was found without its head, but bearing the pharaoh's name. Realizing the importance of this discovery, Petrie halted all further excavation on the site until the head was recovered three weeks later after an intensive sieving of the sand. Zahi Hawass thinks that this unusual miniature is in fact a copy of the 26th dynasty, when there was a renewed cult of the king; in this case it would be the replica of a lost monumental statue.

The great Khafre in the Egyptian Museum is one of the most impressive of all Egyptian statues. It is carved of hard stone, now identified as anorthosite gneiss. Apart from the imperious majesty of the monarch, the statue is notable for the remarkable connection, fused yet separate, of the Horus falcon with the human figure. To judge by the surviving bases, it was originally one of twenty-three such figures in the Valley Temple of the king at Giza.

The relatively small pyramid of Menkaure finds its compensation, so to speak, in the wonderful sculptures of the king. The dual portrait of Menkaure and his wife (Khamerernebty?) is in Boston. The two figures connect, but do not interact emotionally. Close-ups show that both share the high cheekbones, bulbous nose, gentle furrows from the eyes, and slightly pouting lower lip.

These family resemblances suggest that the two were related, perhaps half siblings. (There seems no justification for the suggestion that the woman is the king’s mother.) This pair provided the template for many private dyads showing a husband and wife interacting in this way.

There are five surviving triads, all showing Menkaure with Hathor and nome gods for districts in which the goddess was particularly revered (there may have been eight originally). One is in Boston, the others in Cairo. The presentation of the figures shows a remarkable interplay: all are similar, but different. The Boston piece is unusual for the central position of Hathor.
Boston has two other likeness of Menkaure, a colossal statue (restored) and a head.


The pair of Prince Rahotep and Nofret is remarkable for retaining its pigmentation (the dark-light gender contrast, is conventional, not somatic). Rahotep, who held several offices, is characterized as “of the body of the king,” so that he was presumably a younger son of Sneferu. The group therefor belongs to the earlier part of the fourth dynasty.

The bust of Prince Ankh-haf in Boston is special in several ways. The figure displays a light coating in gesso, facilitating the realistic detail. It has been speculated that it originally had arms, but maybe not. Busts are occasionally found in later times (a Tut example was shown).

The 31 surviving reserve heads are also an example of pars-pro-toto. Their significance remains mysterious. Stylistically, they represent an extreme point of the idealization process.

The obese Hemiunu, now in Hildesheim, was a vizier to king Khufu. As superintendent of the king’s construction works, he may have been the architect of the Great Pyramid.

Ka-aper, the “village headman,” was another high official. Again corpulence is permitted to the high aristocracy, while reigning monarchs are never, to my knowledge presented this way.

The Seated Scribe in Paris is a superb example of the squatting type. In addition to being a scribe, Kay (apparently his name) was the governor of a province.

Ranufer, was supervisor of sculpture and painting. Accordingly, his two statues are very carefully executed--but in my opinion a bit dull.


These are found in tombs. Private tombs, even for the most prominent, were mastabas, generally in brick, with offering shrines above and the burial chamber below ground. The Perneb tomb at the Met gives a good idea of the above-ground offering areas and decoration. (Only a portion of this mastaba, which with its ashlar masonry is particularly luxurious, has been transferred to New York. One doesn’t see the air shaft or the underground burial chamber itself.)

The Ti reliefs come from one of the most luxurious tombs at Saqqara, located about 500 yards north of the Djoser complex. Ti was a palace administrator in the early 5th dynasty. One scene shows hippopotamus hunting, another cattle fording a stream. The purpose of the scenes is to recall episodes of the life of a prosperous member of the rural gentry, anticipating the continuation of such pursuits in the life to come.

The geese of Meidum, very carefully executed, are an example of pure painting, using local color within contours (no chiaroscuro).

The small figures of WORKERS reveal a more intimate picture of Egyptian life. Significantly, the sculptors felt free to depart from the strict canons of Egyptian representation.

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