Monday, October 31, 2011

Royal Statuary through Old and Middle Kingdom Egypt

This article covers the trends through Egyptian royal statuary through the Old and Middle Kingdoms. It shows how the changes in society, in attitude and structure, drove these artistic trends.

by Lorna Phillips

Many changes occurred in the Old and Middle Kingdoms in Egypt, especially in relation to the attitude of the people towards the king. The trends in royal statuary during this time reflect these fluctuations in society, both physically and in their purpose. One of the main physical changes in royal statues was the development of portraiture. The sculptors had to try and accomplish a sense of naturalism yet still show the magnificence of the king.

Throughout Egyptian history, the statuary of royals has had a firm funerary grounding. This is definitely true for the Old Kingdom, as it was still strongly believed that the statue could hold divine power and was a place for the king’s ka (spirit) whilst he was in the afterlife. As they were sacred items, most were hidden away, often in a serdab, and were the focus for the cults of the dead kings as a link between the living and the dead. Although they could not see the statue, it gave them something solid upon which to focus their worship. According to Cyril Aldred, the statues were purely practical, not aiming to be emotional for the viewer, as the viewer was not for whom the statue was made. The statuary of this time was focussed only on the deceased and their needs.

Even though the statues continued to be associated with the king after his death, during the Middle Kingdom they also began to represent the king while he was still alive. The kings of the Middle Kingdom had not emerged from the unrest of the First Intermediate Period with full support. Statues were therefore placed in temples around Egypt as monuments, aiming to remind the people of the king’s dominance. Through this worship, the bonds between the king and the local communities strengthened.

There are many physical features that remain the same throughout the Old and the Middle Kingdom royal statuary. One of these is the cubic nature of the statues. From the start of the Old Kingdom the sculptors strive to show the king as god-like and free from the emotions that plague the common people. The royal statues are therefore motionless and aloof in their “hieratic, semi-abstracted pose”. This set the template for future royal statuary. An example of this cubic nature of Old Kingdom statues is the life-size statue of King Djoser. This style was used much during the Middle Kingdom. Aldred believes that this is due to the Egyptians losing confidence after the First Intermediate Period. It seems more likely, however, that the kings wanted to be perceived once again as gods and untouchable, and the best way to do this through statuary would be to be portrayed as motionless and powerfully built, released “from all irrelevancies”. Another part of this image was the size of the statues. At the start of the Old Kingdom the statues, such as the granite head of Userkaf from his mortuary temple, were enormous. Khafre’s sphinx on the Giza Plateau is another example of this desire for size. This diminished over the course of the Old Kingdom. However, with the need to re-assert their power after the First Intermediate Period, the royal statues of the Middle Kingdom were often large, even colossal.
King Djoser
Another physical feature that remained the same in royal statues throughout the Old and Middle Kingdoms was the hands. If not flat, they were clenched around either a staff or what appears to be a handkerchief. It is not certain whether this was because of a limit of technique or whether it always served a symbolic purpose. In the standing dyad of Menkaure and his wife, Menkaure is clutching the ends of poles in both of his hands. In the right hand of Senwosret III, in one of his seated statues, he is holding a piece of cloth that looks like a modern day handkerchief.

Part of what makes studying Old and Middle Kingdom royal statuary so interesting are the developments and trends that occur as different features change fashion with the kings and their sculptors. One of these developments is that of the nemes-headdress. It has become one of the most famous images that people associate with Egypt, and its origins can be seen as early on as Djoser’s serdab statue, with its shaped piece of cloth over the wig. The motif of portraying foreigners with facial hair saw the use of moustaches and natural beards on royal statues fade. In the Old Kingdom statue of Rahotep and Neferet, Rahotep has a moustache. In the Middle Kingdom, however, royal statues do not have moustaches. As religious focuses changed in the Middle Kingdom, an increasing number of royal statues had an amulet around their neck. This amulet can be seen on the statues of Senwosret III from the funerary temple of Mentuhotep II at Deir el Bahri. After the unrest of the First Intermediate Period, the kings seemed determined not to show themselves as too mortal. This included showing their body or even the shape of their body. In the Old Kingdom this did not worry the royals and they refrain from clothing their statues in anything that would conceal their figure. This is shown in the dyad of Menkaure and his wife, where she is wearing a tight fitting dress and he wears a small quilt. The Middle Kingdom however uses the cubic style and presents the human body as a block: For example, the crouched statue of Si-Hathor, with his cloak wrapped around him.

One of the major developments in royal statues over the Old and Middle Kingdoms was the move to statuary in the round. The chairs in royal statues of the Old Kingdom look like they have backs to them, however, they do not, or if they do they are very small. This is in fact the back board of the statue. According to Aldred this is for aesthetic reasons, although it could also be because they were using soft stones, such as limestone, and did not know how it would react. Even standing statues of this time, like the six statues of Sneferu in his bent pyramid, are still attached to the wall behind them. The Middle Kingdom sees the introduction of some free-standing statues from as early as Mentuhotep II. Although this particular statue was made of sandstone, the increase in free-standing statues may have been influenced by the increased use of harder stones such as “granite, quartzite, basalt and diorite”. With stronger stone, sculptors could produce the large statues wanted by the king and have them free-standing without the visual interference of a back board.

Over the course of the Old and Middle Kingdoms, the overall image of the king as a god waned and with this, came the advancement of portraiture. Although portraiture in the Old Kingdom was not exact, as it did not need to be, the idea was there and a new expression emerged. Instead of the “impassive stare of the god looking into eternity”, the expression became more like the self-satisfied gaze of a lord looking down on his subjects. With this development, the king became less like a god and more like a “mere feudal overlord”. This look is apparent in the statues of Menkaure, especially in the dyad of him and his wife, where he looks almost like a normal human. The increase in portraiture also occurs in the Middle Kingdom, as each royal becomes recognisable not just from their inscriptions, but from their face. The shapes of the faces of the kings are largely the same, with big eyes, straight eyebrows and thick lips, but each king has at least one facial characteristic that sets them apart from the others. Once a king’s face had been chosen, it did not age or change for the rest of his life, even if the body of his statue did. A good example of this is the portraiture of Senwosret III and his son Amenemhat III. They are very similar, both having big, “low-set” ears and a strong mouth. Senwosret III however can be immediately recognised by his lips, which turn down at very sharp angles. Amenemhat III had the same image as his father’s until he developed his own, with lips that did not turn down and eyes that were “more shallowly set”.

In the Old Kingdom, the statues were mainly for funerary purposes. For the house of the royal ka, the sculptor had to accomplish a strong bodied representation of the king. They also had to make statues that looked powerful, as focal points for worship. In these aims, the sculptors of the Old Kingdom were largely successful. The Middle Kingdom sculptors also had to accomplish the same powerful figures. At the same time they were trying, on behalf of the king, to improve the power of the monarchs after the drop in their authority in the First Intermediate Period. To achieve this they created colossal representations of the king. They also developed more life-like portraiture. This did not have the desired effect of increasing the king’s image as a god however, but diminished it, making them look more like men.

Changes in attitude toward the king during the Old and Middle Kingdoms can be traced through the trend in royal statuary. As the portrayal of foreigners as well as focuses in religion changed, so too did the physical features and purpose of royal statues. As the king’s image as a god weakened, statues tended to increase in size to remind the people of the king’s dominance. The statues also became more widespread, being placed in local temples while the king was still alive, to strengthen the bonds between the king and his people. The decline in the king’s divine image saw an increase in royal portraiture as he was shown individualised and thus mortal.

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