Regal Positions and Symbolism in Ancient Egyptian Sculpture

I will be referring to a couple sculptures in this node that i will now list:
Ka Image (close-up of head)

Menkaure and Wife

  • Alabster was highly prized because its beauty and its highly translucent quality. Some very fine oil lamps were made out of alabaster.
  • Diorite was very difficult to work with and you would have to pay a sculptor about a year and 1/2 of their wages to make one sculpture. It was very rarely used.

There were no sumptuary laws on diorite. (Sumptuary laws are laws restricting access to certain materials). So the reason diorite was so rarely used was because it was so hard to work with and so expensive to make anything out of.

Ok, now we're started

You may already know that ancient Egyptians used actual mathematical grids for proportions on their drawings (for people). Well they also used the same type of proportions on their sculpture (I want to mention that all sculptors were male so don't get mad at me for using the pronoun "he"). First, the sculptor would make a drawing of the sculpture and have it approved. Then he would take a big chuck of stone, flattened on all sides, and draw the picture on to the sides that would be sculpted. Then slowly sculpt out the picture. As he got deeper into the stone, he would use finer and finer instruments.

Now, after taking a look at those pictures of the statue of Khafre (linked above), continue on. Let's look at how Khafre is positioned. Basically, he is seated on a throne. First, look at his perfect posture. That's his first regal mark. Second, look at how the throne is lifted up on a platform. That's to make sure his feet are not touching the ground. That's the second. The little place for his feet to rest is called a "plinth". Thirdly, notice he's holding a small rod in his right hand. This rod is a sign of his power, for directing his Ma'at. You might call it his "PowerRod" (heehee). And his left hand is resting, flat, on his thigh. Oh yeah, that's royalty.
This sculpture is not an open sculpture. It is not fully three-dimensional. The back side of it is a flat slab. It's meant to be pushed up against the wall to increase its intimidation factor. Also, it is not pierced anywhere. All of the king's arms, legs, and flesh are attached to the rest of the sculpture. This as a measure taken to protect to the statue. Notice that many classic Greek statues are standing by themselves and missing limbs. Egyptian sculptures are generally better preserved.
Notice the hawk that looks like it's humping the back of King Khafre's head. That is the god Horus. He is the "protector of gods" (every king was considered a god. This refers back to the "Osiris myth". In short, the stars were associated with the gods because they were a place that could not be seen but not reached and birds were sacred because they could defy the gods and fly up to the heavens). The entrance and exit point of the ka (read Palette of King Narmer for more detail on ka) was supposedly near the occipitus in the back of the head and the bird has its wings outstreched around Khafre's head. You find similar beliefs in Mesopotamia and other civilizations in the near-east.

Now, take a look at Menkaure. He's standing with his wife and she has one arm around him and one on his arm. He is holding two power rods (one in each hand). One foot is foward signifying that he is moving. His wife, however, is stationary. Now let's take a look at the differences.
  • His wife was with him.
  • He is STANDING and is feet are touching the floor
Ok. His wife was with him because Menkaure was actually the second-born. His sister was born first and technically had the royal birth-rights. It's widely know that royal brothers and sisters married often to keep the bloodline pure. This is why they could claim superiority and preserve the borders between social classes. Egyptians still tended to like men in positions of power more so Menkaure married his sister so he could take the right to be king.
And his wife is standing with him because she was the queen and did have much say in what happened, being the first-born. But notice he is stepping forward, yet she is not.

Now lets go over some of the similarities.
  • Stiff, fixed, stable, and immobile posture.
  • False-beard (associated with Osiris) and head dress
  • The Royal "Kilt" and "Rod of Power"
  • Masculine beauty

The point of all this crap is to make the statues look "monumental". Even if they are not necessarily large, they can still look important and monumental. The khafre sculpture is about life-size. We are supposed to be in awe of this sculpture. Another part of this monumental thing is its "Heraldic Grouping". Heraldic Grouping is when a human or an object is in the center of a (for example) work of art. Then the object is flanked symmetrically by two animals. King Khafre is in the center of his throne and there are two lionesses at his feet. This is a sign of divinity or royalty. It's the basis of the coat of arms of the Windsor family (two lions flanking a shield).

Another sign of them being "monumental" is their stability which is not only represented by their posture but by the over all shape of the sculpture. In renaissance paintings, you will notice that the main shape representing stability is the triangle with the top point pointing upwards. This is also a universal sign, not just the renaissance. Notice the opposite (an inverted triangle) will express exactly the opposite. In Egyptian art, the main shape of stability is the rectangle (another universal shape). Of course, this rectangle is taller than it is wide and if it was laying its long side than it would be more stable, but it is not as regal or as aware. Notice that everything about the sculpture is contained completely inside of the rectangle.

Here's a little diagram:

       / \           \    /
      /   \           \  /   
     /_____\           \/

  |   |          ________
  |   |         |________|


One interesting part of sculpture is the figure-ground relationship. It's the visual seperability of a form and its background. It is why we think that part of the stone looks like flesh, part looks like clothing, and part still looks like stone even though it is still all stone. The artist achieves this by making small dents in the stone but mostly by different color. They didn't use any paint on either of these sculptures. The sculptor just polished the parts differently. Notice the most well-polished parts are Horus, the head dress, and the flesh. They are differently colored and shinier. Notice the small parts in between the arms and the throne are not polished at all and still has a rough surface. Even though, after studying it for a second, we can tell what eveerything is supposed to be, we still read it as a big mass at a glance. That's because of the lack of color.

The lack of color is all part of what makes it seem so large. For any of you that are familiar with interior design, you know that little change in color creates the illusion that something is larger. Using a lot of variation in color will make it seem cozy and intimate. That's because we scan things with our eyes. That's what they do. That's the difference between our eyes and a camera and when you use lots of different colors it forces our eyes to make more scans and tends to make something seem smaller.

Now, I mentioned Ma'at before. Now i'll try to explain. Ma'at is something difficult to define or understand even. Ma'at is the name of the goddess of law and order. She gives the pharaohs the ability to do what they do. In the old kingdom, there was no formal, written, legal system. There was only the unwritten law of Ma'at. This made Egypt easily open to corruption, but most really did fear Ma'at. For if the pharaoh was good and performed his daily rituals then everyone would be healthy, the crops in Egypt would grow, and the Egyptian army would be strong. Pharaoh would be channeling Ma'at correctly. Any problems in Egypt would be blamed on the pharaoh channeling Ma'at improperly. The king would also be responsible for backing off whenever appropriate. He had to know when to stop increasing taxes, and how to control himself when solving legal matters. He couldn't just make an irrational decision because he was having a bad day. He had to obey Ma'at. If he didn't do this, famine would spread over the land because of poor crop growth*, foreign enemies would invade Egypt*, and an outbreak of disease would engulf the land*.

Well, the whole relation to Ma'at is: Ma'at was so important that it was incorparated in everything. These sculptures are meant to be the example of Ma'at; Ma'at's visual interpretation. The kings were supposed to be shining examples of the law. I think that this part was really cool. Anyway, on a side note, Menkaure may not actually look like he's walking when his foot is put forward, but this is because in Egyptian art there is a complete lack of weight shift. The example is, again, Greek art. You can commonly see weight shift in this type of art.

I apologize for any problems with the text formatting.

An Original Work of BigHoliday

* Supposedly

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