Monday, May 13, 2019

Ancient Egypt Find

Ancient Egypt, Head of a Nobleman, possibly from Memphis, ca.1878–1841 BCE. Quartzite, 7 5/16" x 9 7/16" x 8 ¼" (18.5 x 24 x 21 cm). © 2019 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. (MFAB-711)

Because of the recent news about an exciting archeological find in Giza, I decided to show some stunning portraits from ancient Egypt. 

Realism in funerary portraits is not as unusual as one might think, given that kings and their families were depicted in very stylized, idealized fashion. Lower-ranking people were often depicted with a great deal of realism, such as this nobleman of the Middle Kingdom. After the collapse of the Old Kingdom in the 2150s BCE, Egypt underwent a period of political turmoil (called the First Intermediate Period) for about 150 years before strong kings reasserted control in Dynasty XI (1986–1937 BCE). Some art historians ascribe the sensitive realism of Middle Kingdom portraits to the stress of political turmoil that plagued Egypt at the time. I just think this is a beautiful portrait. Okay, the ears are a little exaggerated.

Ancient Egypt, Head of a Priest, ca. 380–332 BCE. Graywacke, 4 1/8" x 3 3/8" x 4 ½" (10.5 x 8.5 x 11.3 cm). © 2019 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. (MFAB-23)

After the decline of the Late Kingdom (712–343 BCE), Egypt was ruled by numerous outsiders, including Nubians (from the south in present day Sudan), Persians, and ultimately Greeks and Romans. Each succeeding group of rulers adopted Egyptian religious and artistic practices, and took advantage of the riches of Egypt. After the death of Cleopatra (30 BCE), Rome took over from the Greeks and basically used Egypt as a main source for grains for bread to feed their growing empire.

This priest’s head shows a degree of realism that almost resembles Roman funerary portraits, but it is, of course, too early for that to have been an influence. The sensitivity of the carving of the features is amazing, and here the ears are not exaggerated. It is a very dignified portrait of an older man, complete with a mole on his left cheek and laugh lines.  

Ancient Egypt, Funerary Portrait of a Woman, possibly from Fayyum, ca. 150 CE. Encaustic on wood, 17 5/16" x 11 5/16" (44 x 28.7 cm). © 2019 Brooklyn Museum. (BMA-5041)

Roman Egyptians adapted the traditional burial practices of mummification and dedicatory funerary portraiture. However, they opted for realistic encaustic portraits on pieces of wood that were placed over the head of the mummy. This emphasis on realistic portraiture is totally Roman in style and is comparable to the funerary sculpted busts of the Republican period (509–27 BCE).

Correlations to Davis programs: A Global Pursuit 2E: 1.4; Beginning Sculpture: 5; The Visual Experience 3E: 15.3; Discovering Art History 4E: 5; Experience Painting: 7

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