Ancient Egypt sculpture

"The Egyptians were the greatest builders in history"

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The Egyptians were the greatest builders in history. Some would add that they were also the greatest sculptors.

The sphinx of Egypt at night

Here at the outset is the Sphinx, conveying by its symbolism the leonine quality of some masterful Pharaoh perhaps Khafre-Chephren; it has not only size, as some have thought, but character.

The cannon-shot of the Mamelukes have broken the nose and shorn the beard, but nevertheless those gigantic features portray with impressive skill the force and dignity, the calm and sceptical maturity, of a natural king.

Across those motionless features a subtle smile has hovered for five thousand years, as if already the unknown artist or monarch had understood all that men would ever understand about men.

It is a Mona Lisa in stone.

The Diorite Statue of Khafre

diorite statue of Khafre
There is nothing finer in the history of ancient Egypt sculpture than the diorite statue of Khafre in the Cairo Museum.

As ancient to Praxiteles as Praxiteles to us, it nevertheless comes down across fifty centuries almost unhurt by time's rough usages.

Cut in the most intractable of stones, it passes on to us completely the strength and authority, the wilfulness and courage, the sensitivity and intelligence of the (artist or the) King.

Near it, and even older, Pharaoh Zoser sits pouting in limestone.

Farther on, the guide with lighted match reveals the transparency of an alabaster Menkaure.

Quite as perfect in sculpture artistry as these portraits of royalty are the figures of the Sheik-el-Beled and the Scribe.

The Scribe has come down to us in many forms, all of uncertain antiquity; the most illustrious is the squatting Scribe of the Louvre.

The Sheik is no sheik but only an overseer of labor, armed with the staff of authority, and stepping forward as if in supervision or command.

His name, apparently, was Kaapini; but the Arab workmen who rescued him from his tomb at Sakkara were struck with his resemblance to the Sheik-el-Beled (i.e., Mayor-of-the-Village) under whom they lived; and this title which their good humor gave him is now inseparable from his fame.

He is carved only in mortal wood, but time has not seriously reduced his portly figure or his chubby legs; his waistline has all the amplitude of the comfortable bourgeois in every civilization; his rotund face beams with the content of a man who knows his place and glories in it.

The bald head and carelessly loosened robe display the realism of an art already old enough to rebel against idealization; but here, too, is a fine simplicity, a complete humanity, expressed without bitterness, and with the ease and grace of a practised and confident hand.

"If," says Maspero, "some exhibition of the world's masterpieces were to be inaugurated, I should choose this work to uphold the honor of Egyptian art" or would that honor rest more securely on the head of Khafre?

These are the chefs-d'azuvres of Old Kingdom sculpture statuary.

the seated portraits of Rahotep and his wife Nofrit

But lessei masterpieces abound: the seated portraits of Rahotep and his wife Nofrit, the powerful figure of Ranofer the priest, the copper statues of King Phiops and his son, a falcon-head in gold, the humorous figures of the Beer-Brewer and the Dwarf Knemhotep all but one in the Cairo Museum, all without exception instinct with character.

It is true that the earlier pieces are coarse and crude; that by a strange convention, running throughout Ancient Egypt sculpture art, figures are shown with the body and eyes facing forward, but the hands and feet in profile; that not much attention was given to the body, which was left in most cases stereotyped and unreal all female bodies young, all royal bodies strong; and that individualization, though masterly, was generally reserved for the head.

But with all the stiffness and sameness that priestly conventions and control forced upon statuary, paintings and reliefs, these works were fully redeemed by the power and depth of the conception, the vigor and precision of the execution, the character, line and finish of the product.

Never was sculpture more alive: the Sheik exudes authority, the woman grinding grain gives every sense and muscle to her work, the Scribe is on the very verge of writing.

And the thousand little puppets placed in the tombs to carry on essential industries for the dead were moulded with a like vivacity, so that we can almost believe, with the pious Egyptian, that the deceased could not be unhappy while these ministrants were there.

Not for many centuries did Ancient Egypt sculpture equal again the achievements of the early dynasties.

Because most of the statuary was made for the temples or the tombs, the priests determined to a great degree what forms the artist should follow; and the natural conservatism of religion crept into art, slowly stifling sculpture into a conventional, stylistic de-generation.

Ancient Egypt Sculpture in the Twelfth Dynasty

Under the powerful monarchs of the Twelfth Dynasty the secular spirit reasserted itself, and art recaptured something of its old vigor and more than its old skill.

A head of Amenemhet III in black diorite suggests at once the recovery of character and the recovery of sculpture art; here is the quiet hardness of an able king, carved with the competence of a master.

A colossal statue of Senusret III

A colossal statue of Senusret III is crowned with a head and face equal in conception and execution to any portrait in the history of sculpture; and the ruined torso of Senusret I, in the Cairo Museum, ranks with the torso of Hercules in the Louvre.

Animal figures abound in the Egyptian sculpture of every age, and are always full of humor and life:

here is a mouse chewing a nut, an ape devotedly strumming a harp, a porcupine with every spine on the qui vive.

Then came the Shepherd Kings, and for three hundred years Egyptian art almost ceased to be.

In the age of Hatshepsut, the Thutmoses, the Amenhoteps and the Rameses, art underwent a second resurrection along the Nile.

Wealth poured in from subject Syria, passed into the temples and the courts, and trickled through them to nourish every art.

Colossi of Thutmose III

Colossi of Thutmose III and Rameses II began to challenge the sky; statuary crowded every corner of the temples; masterpieces were flung forth with unprecedented abundance by a race exhilarated with what they thought was world supremacy.

The fine granite sculpture bust of the great Queen in the Metropolitan Museum of Art at New York; the basalt statue of Thutmose III in the Cairo Museum;

the lion sphinx of Amenhotep III in the British Museum; the limestone seated Ikhnaton in the Louvre;

the granite statue of Rameses II in Turin; the perfect crouching figure of the same incredible monarch making an offering to the gods;

the meditative cow of Der-el-Bahri, which Maspero considered equal, if not superior, to the best achievements of Greece and Rome in this genre;

the sculpture of two lions of Amenhotep III, which Ruskin ranked as the best animal statuary surviving from antiquity;201 the colossi cut into the rocks at Abu Simbel by the sculptors of Rameses II;

the amazing remains found among the ruins of the artist Thutmose's studio at Tell-el-Amarna a plaster model of Ikhnaton's head, full of the mysticism and poetry of that tragic king, the lovely limestone bust of Ikhnaton's Queen, Nofretete, and the even finer sandstone head of the same fair lady:

these scattered examples may illustrate the sculptural accomplishments of this abounding Empire age.

Amid all these lofty masterpieces humor continues to find place;

Egyptian sculptors frolic with jolly caricatures of men and animals, and even the kings and queens, in Ikhnaton's iconoclastic age, are made to smile and play.

After Rameses II this magnificence passed rapidly away.

For many centuries after him art contented itself with repeating traditional works and forms.

Under the Sai'te kings it sought to rejuvenate itself by return- ing to the simplicity and sincerity of the Old Kingdom masters.

Sculptors attacked bravely the hardest stones basalt, breccia, serpentine, diorite and carved them into such realistic portraits as that of Montumihait, and the green basalt head of a bald unknown, now looking out blackly upon the walls of the State Museum at Berlin.

In bronze they cast the lovely figure of the lady Tekoschet.

Again they delighted in catching the actual features and movements of men and beasts; they moulded laughable figures of quaint animals, slaves and gods; and they formed in bronze a cat and a goat's head which are among the trophies of Berlin.

Then the Persians came down like a wolf on the fold, conquered Egypt, desecrated its temples, broke its spirit, and put an end to its art.

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