Sunday, December 14, 2014

Museum Pieces - Diorite bust of Horemheb

Photocredit: Nicholson Museum

Diorite bust of Horemheb

Collection: Nicholson Museum: Stone Artefacts, Ancient Egyptian
Object Category: Sculpture - Bust
Name/Title: Fragmentary statue of the pharaoh Horemheb as a kneeling scribe
Media: Stone - diorite
Measurements: 45.5 h/l x 40.0 w x 26.0 d cm, 147 kg
Acquisition Credit Line: Donated by Sir Charles Nicholson 1860
Museum Number: NMR. 1138


Place: Ptah Temple, Memphis, Egypt
Date: 1330-1320 BC


The figure wears a very fine garment with pleated sleeves and collar at base of the throat. Almost certainly Horemheb from his pre royal career.

History Notes:

Description and Function (Author: Dr Sophie Winlaw)

There are no inscriptions on the surviving section of this statue (including the narrow back pillar - an area which is usually inscribed with the subject's name). However, the identity of this individual can be determined through an examination of his facial features, the distinctive style of sculpture, the clothing and the wig. The long unstructured wavy wig is commonly worn by scribes who are usually represented in statuary as seated figures with crossed legs and in many cases papyrus scrolls on their laps (the fold of skin of our piece below the breast is suggestive of either a seated or squatting figure).

Scribes form a well respected professional class who are literate - unlike the majority of ancient Egyptians - so for this man to be represented as a scribe it reflects his high social status. This is also reflected by the style of wig and the garment he wears - types which were worn by high officials of the late 18th and early 19th dynasties (1550-1213 BC). Scribes are also protected by the god Thoth - the ibis headed god of writing and knowledge.

Many of the scribal statues depict the subject as being bare-chested but in this case he wears a distinctive type of robe which is draped loosely over his upper arms. The facial features are very distinctive, especially the shape of the eyes and the fullness around the jaw line and cheeks (representative of the Amarna Period). This statue has been carved, smoothed and polished with great precision and there would have been few officials who could have afforded a statue of this quality.

Identifying the Statue 

Due to the distinctive features of the clothing, facial features and the way the body is represented this man can be identified as someone who lived during, or slightly after, the Amarna period. After Akhenaten's death the capital was returned to Thebes and the pantheon of traditional gods restored to prominence, however it seems that the artistic traditions of the era prior to the Amarna period took a while to be reinstated.

After Smenkhkara, who succeeded Akhenaten and ruled for about 2 years, the boy king Tutankhamun came to the throne (1336-1327 BC). His original name is Tutankhaten ('living image of Aten') - he was born during the Amarna period. He soon changed it to Tutankhamun to demonstrate his support of the traditional gods and signify the return of order. Many of the images of Tutankhamun show the lingering effects of the Amarna style - his throne chair is good example of this and it also bears his original name which suggests it was at least begun during the Amarna Period.

There is a complete scribal statue housed in the Metropolitan Museum in New York which bears many similarities to our statue. For example, the type of wig and the clothing worn, the rendering of the chest area and most importantly the facial features. This complete example is inscribed with the name of the subject of the piece - Horemheb. Horemheb began his career in the military during the reign of Akhenaten and his wife Mutnedjmet may possibly have been the sister of Nefertiti - Akhenaten's queen - whether Horemheb himself was of royal blood still remains uncertain.

During Tutankhamun's reign he rose to the rank of general and eventually after Tutankhamun's immediate successor (who reigned for only 2 years) he became pharaoh. Many scenes depict Horemheb triumphantly returning from campaigns in Nubia and the Levant. He also erected a stele in the temple of Mut at Karnak which is inscribed with his plans to restore order after the Amarna period. To this end he also began dismantling the temples that Akhenaten had constructed to honour the Aten.

The Amarna Period

All of the aforementioned features characterise the style of art that was produced in the Amarna period - which occurred during the reign of Akhenaten whose name means the 'glory of the Aten' (he was originally named Amenhotep IV 'Amun is satisfied' to show his loyalty to the chief god of this time Amun-Re). He reigned from 1352-1336 BC (18th dynasty, New Kingdom).

This period saw rapid and dramatic changes in religion from the traditional polytheism or belief in many gods to a belief in one - monotheism. Akhenaten only promoted the sun disc or the Aten - a manifestation of one aspect of the sun god Re who could only be worshipped through the royal family as opposed to the more traditional gods who were adored through the priests affiliated with that particular god.

Akhenaten also moved the capital of Egypt away from Thebes in Upper Egypt - the capital throughout the rest of the New Kingdom - to Tell el Amarna (also called Akhetaten) which is in Middle Egypt. The reason for the move and the religious change was to reduce the power which the priests of the chief solar god - Amun-Re - had attained. These priests were traditionally involved in all the major religious ceremonies, even those that secured the king's journey into the afterlife and had a huge amount of power. So by only worshipping one aspect of the sun god - the actual disc - he was able to maintain his loyalty to the chief god but cut out the need for the priests that stripped him of his omnipotence.

The art of this period is characterised by images of the pharaoh and his family - wife and daughters, under the Aten which is represented as a sun disc with arms radiating out from it ending in hands. The hands usually hold the ankh - a symbol of life.

A Revolutionary Work of Art from a Counter-Revolutionary Moment in History (Turner 2012.28)

In 1862, Charles Nicholson returned to Egypt on a second buying trip. While in Cairo he acquired 'several stelae, fragments of sculpture, and other incised stones' from Hanna Massara, a dragoman- or guide and interpreter - at the British Consulate; a man perfectly placed to be selling antiquities to visiting dignitaries such as Nicholson. One of the sculptures acquired was this head of the Pharaoh Horemheb, today one of the most important objects in the museum.

For once, Nicholson failed to realise the full significance of the piece he had bought. In October 1864, he wrote to the University Senate advising that four cases of Egyptian antiquities were on the way for the musem. Case Two, he wrote, contained the 'Bust of a Female Black Basalt...A work in a remarkably fine style of early Egyptian Art'.

Bust of a female figure? Was he confused by the wig perhaps? His 'female figure' is in fact Horemheb, an identification confirmed by a complete and identical version of the statue now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Horemheb was first active during the reign of the heretic Pharaoh Akhenaten. He was subsequently supreme commander of the armies of Tutankhamun; the king maker behind Ay, Tutankhamun's successor; and subsequently the last 18th Dynasty Pharaoh himself (c. 1320-1292 BC).

Ironically it was Horemheb who attempted to erase from official records all trace of his heretic predecessor Akhenaten by destroying his statues and all mention of his name. Ironic, because as Professor Dietrich Wildung, former Director of the Egyptian Museum in Berlin, says: 'This portrait bust of Horemheb is a revolutionary work of art from a counter-revolutionary moment in history. It reflects the spirit of sensitivity and individualism of a period later officially banned [by Horemheb] and can be regarded as one of the masterpieces that has transmitted Akhenaten's art to posterity'. In October 2010, Professor Wildung stood in front of Horemheb in the Nicholson Museum and said to me, 'this is one of the most beautiful pieces of Middle Kingdom Art I have ever seen'.

Bibliographic Details

Malouf, David, et al. 2010. Into the light: 150 years of cultural treasures at The University of Sydney. no. 22

Potts, Dan & Sowada, Karin N. 2004. Treasures of the Nicholson Museum. p. 48;

Lawler, Catherine A. 1979. Treasures from the Nicholson Museum. no. 28, p. 7

Reeve, Edward. 1870. Catalogue of the Museum of Antiquities of the Sydney University. Compiled by the Curator Mr Edward Reeve. 1860-1870. p. 90, no. 1138;

Sowada, Karin N. 1994. 'A statue of the late 18th Dynasty in the Nicholson Museum, Sydney'. Journal of Egyptian Archaeology. 80: pp. 137-143.

Turner, Michael. 2012. 50 Objects 50 Stories. Extraordinary Curiosities from the Nicholson Museum, University of Sydney. no 11, p. 28


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