Monumental Egyptian Quartzite Bust of a Royal Statue (Sesostris)
Egyptian · Middle Kingdom (12th Dynasty, 19th century B.C.)
W: 66 cm
H: 80 cm
This extraordinary bust, preserved from just about the level of the navel to the top of the head, is sculpted in quartzite, one of the most durable of all stones used by the ancient Egyptians. That durability symbolically imbues this image with a quality of permanence. The reddish-brown color of the quartzite is likewise possessed of symbolic properties because that hue was, according to ancient Egyptian texts, associated with the sun. Consequently, the image of this pharaoh was thought to represent the king eternally identified with the sun god Re.
The pharaoh is bare-chested and wears a nemes-headdress, its lappets falling on to his shoulders and its so-called pig tail, aligned with his spine at the back, ending at the top of a back pillar. The nemes-headdress is provided with a uraeus, or sacred cobra, whose function was to protect the pharaoh symbolically from all danger.
The modeling of the torso and arms is indeed muscular, connoting the strength inherent in the office of pharaoh. Two seemingly disproportionately large ears protrude from the nemes-headdress, but they are intentionally super-sized. The large ears suggest that the all-powerful pharaoh is also “all-hearing.” His large ears metaphorically suggest that he can and will hearken to each and every petition presented to him at court by his subjects. The Eloquent Peasant, a literary work of the period, recounts how a subject of lowly social status, who was wronged by a powerful official, was able to plead his case in person before pharaoh and exact justice for the wrong committed against him.
The facial features of the pharaoh are characterized by signs of age, creating a marked contrast with the pharaoh’s physically-fit physique. The disparity between torso and face is only paradoxical in terms of misapplied Western art historical exegesis. In point of fact, the ancient Egyptians habitually combined heads exhibiting such realistic, portrait-like features on very idealizing bodies.
The portrait-like features of this pharaoh have been the subject of endless speculation on the part of art historians. Earlier, such images were regarded in Shakespearean terms, “Heavy is the head that wears the crown.” That suggestion was furthered by scholars who called the pharaohs of the Middle Kingdom “Shepherd Kings.” Both characterizations indicated that worrying about the plight of their statistically numerous agrarian population resulted in the care-worn features of the faces of pharaohs, such as the one represented here.
More recently, a less romantic approach to the subject has been adduced for the presence of these care worn faces. This approach is in keeping with ancient Egyptian art which is visual and must be understood as a manifestation of social decorum. As the Middle Kingdom began, certain members of the elite surpassed pharaohs in wealth, but were denied commensurate political power. These elite members were also the object of sumptuary laws by which their wealth could not be flaunted in public so as not to embarrass their less financially advantaged pharaohs. Faced with these obstacles, the elite elected to represent themselves with faces characterized by signs of age. These realistic images were distinctly different from the bland idealizing images of their contemporary pharaohs. The differences were anciently so striking that all members of the elite, regarding these realistic visages, realized that the represented were not pharaoh. In order, therefore, to close this visual gap, pharaohs of the period elected to have themselves represented in the same idiom, with faces characterized by signs of age. The statue of the pharaoh under discussion was created in just such a social setting.
The style of this statue, particularly with regard to the paradoxical difference in the treatment of the face and the torso, and the large ears all suggest that statue represents a pharaoh of Dynasty XII, of which there were three named Sesostris.
These can be placed into three different groups, one designated for each of these three pharaohs. Contrary to popular opinion, the statues of each particular pharaoh in each of these three groups exhibit such a degree of stylistic variation, that there is no dominate artistic idiom which serves as the common denominator uniting all of the statues of any one of those three groups.
So, for example, statues inscribed for Sesostris I, such as the head and torso in Berlin exhibit both a horizontally aligned mouth and disc incised nipples on the pectoral muscles. The same horizontal mouth dominates at least one image of this same pharaoh excavated at Lisht. The pronounced “frown” characterizing the mouth on our statue with its down-turned lips suggests that we are not dealing with an image of that pharaoh.
At least one torso and bust inscribed for Sesostris II in Vienna appears to be a somewhat softer version of the representations of Sesostris I from Lisht. And yet, here again, the mouth is horizontal and not rendered as a pout.
Based upon these observations, the physiogonomic features of our statue appear to find their closest correspondences with images identified as Sesostris III. Many of these exhibit the same pout but are also characterized by heavy eye lids, which are not emphasized in this statue. If one were to rely exclusively on the down-turned lips which create the impression of a pout, then one is inclined to identify the pharaoh portrayed in our statue as Sesostris III.
In light of this stylistic analysis, however, it would be more prudent to avoid insisting upon a specific identification. Such specificity obscures discussions about this statue’s aesthetic quality, the decisive interplay between the realistic and the ideal, and the symbolic eternal, solar characteristics that the specific choice of quartzite imparts to this monumental image, whose dominating presence as a work of art commands center stage.
Art market, prior to 1995;
Ex- Douglas H. Fisher, UK, circa 1960s;
Displayed in London in the late 1970s;
Robin Symes Ltd., UK, prior to 1995;
American private collection, Colorado, acquired in London, 1995;
Displayed in Colorado, 1995-2007.
Le Soir, September 20, 2008;
Crystal IV , Phoenix Ancient Art, Geneva-New York, 2012;
Point de Vue, September 10, 2012;
Le Figaro, September 14, 2012;
Le Soir, September 15, 2012. Page 40;
Robin des Arts, September 14, 2012.
Biennale des Antiquaires, Paris, September 2008;
Biennale des Antiquaires, Paris, September 2012
For the classic treatment of the pharaohs of the Middle Kingdom as “Shepherd Kings”:
WILSON J.A., The Burden of Egypt: An Interpretation of Ancient Egyptian Culture, Chicago, 1951.
For a discussion on the initiative of the elite for the introduction of images characterized by signs of age:
DELANGE E., Musée du Louvre: Catalogue des Statues égyptiennes du Moyen Empire(2060-1560 avant J.-C.), Paris, 1987.
For its illustrations, although dated, this work remains the cornerstone for discussions about images of pharaohs from the Middle Kingdom:
EVERS H.G., Staat aus dem Stein: Denkmäler, Geschichte und Bedeutung der ägyptishen Plastik während des Mittleren Reichs, Munich, 1929.
For the Middle Kingdom in general, see
WILDUNG D., L’age d’or de l’Egypte. Le Moyen Empire, Fribourg, 1984.
From discussions of pharaonic images of the Middle Kingdom, see
WILDUNG D., Sesostris und Amenemhet: Agypten im Mittleren Reich, Munich, 1984.
For images of Pharaoh Sesostris III, consult:
FARSEN P., Die Plastik Sesostris III. Ein Beitrag zur königlichen Kunst des ägyptischen Mittleren Reichs, Norderstedt, 2010.