On Realism in Egyptian Funerary Sculpture

Of the Old Kingdom

By: Bernard V. Bothmer

Originally Published in 1982

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Among the major arts associated with the funerary cults of ancient Egypt—sculp­ture, relief and painting—none gives us a deeper understanding of the inner person­ality of the Nile dwellers in antiquity than sculpture in the round. Like man himself, it is three dimensional and thus encom­passes the human measure—the essence of his humanity, tangibly, in a durable mate­rial, on a human scale.

The vast amount of information we can gain from the study of, literally, acres of wall decorations depicting life and death in ancient Egypt for nearly three thousand years, is nevertheless insufficient with regard to character and personality of the ancient Egyptian. His sufferings are rarely shown, the depth of human experience never. The literature of hieroglyphic and hieratic texts gives far more insight into man’s nature, but the material is uneven and does not fully cover the thirty cen­turies of Egypt’s experience with equal fidelity. If one wants to explore man’s humanity in ancient Egypt nothing is more helpful than the human form the Egyptian created for eternity in his statuary.

Following the dictates of their funerary beliefs the Egyptians produced, for mil­lennia, thousands of sculptures represent­ing human beings, singly or in groups. They were meant to be set up, often inac­cessibly, in the closed statue chambers of tombs, or in temples visible to all those who had access to the sanctuaries of the gods which dotted the land from the Medi­terranean to the Sudan in ancient times. Thus at least a fair portion of the products of the sculptors’ studios was on view for a long time, probably for centuries. This is well attested by the number of sculptures which were usurped, or provided with additional inscriptions, long after the people who had commissioned them were deceased.

When one considers the basic classifica­tions applied today to ancient Egyptian statuary, the terms “naturalistic” and “idealizing” are frequently employed, one being the imitation of natural forms, the other the reproduction of an ideal aspect of the human figure. In the course of its long history Egypt produced a large number of funerary statues, both naturalistic and idealizing (Fig. 1), reflecting the hope for an enjoyable existence in the afterlife, with a youthful body of harmonious pro­portions and natural beauty, the features unlined but pleasant and full of vigor. As these qualities are amply represented in the many mortuary figures of the Nile Valley they may be considered typical. But how typical are they in reality?

It is characteristic of the human eye and mind to form instant associations for a given period of history, a geographical area, an art, a people, with certain ele­ments, features or aspects, considered typical. They constitute a kind of frame­work into which other associations relat­ing to the same topic easily fit. Egypt is not excepted, and thus certain salient points of art and architecture are brought up repeatedly as if no other element, equally typical, existed.

Thus one sees forever pictures of the massive Giza Pyramids, but only rarely the graceful columns of the Zoser Temple at Saqqara. Documentary films always seem to feature Tutankhamen and Ramesses II and never such outstanding personalities as Sesostris III or Tuthmosis III. The same holds true for the depiction of Egyptian statuary.

Yet there are many works of sculpture which are not idealizing, and not beautiful in the accepted sense. They are natural­istic, in that they render conditions which the Egyptians observed in nature, or even realistic, which means an enhancement of the features of reality, but they are not as immediately appealing as so many of the idealizing Egyptian figures; they do not appear to be typical.

These non-idealizing features of Egypt­ian art are of interest because, far more than bland idealization, they mirror the attitude of the ancient Egyptian toward life, death and the human experience. When one studies Egyptian statuary from this point of view, a surprisingly large number of sculptures come to light which show the direct opposite of the standard likeness of the youthful-looking man, rep­resented as well fed, bright-eyed and some­times even smiling in anticipation of the paradise hereafter.

Faces with non-idealizing features, how­ever, should not be called portraits. They may have been created while the patron who had commissioned a tomb or temple statue was still alive and thus, presumably, could have served as model to the artisan who made the statue. But in order to qualify as a portrait in the strict sense of the word, the likeness must render the total personality of the man represented, his outer and inner qualities of body, mind, heart and soul—and very few ancient Egyptian sculptures fulfill those require­ments.

There are, however, traits of realism which an artisan knew from his own exper­ience or from hearsay, or which he copied directly from life and eventually imparted to the statues he was making. He pictured physical deficiencies in sculpting a dwarf (Fig. 2) or a hunchback (Fig. 3). More often, however, he reproduced a facial expression which may, or may not, have been the reflection of a mood or a particular state of mind (Fig. 4).

Since there existed throughout the classical periods of Egypt’s long history an undercurrent of articulate realism in sculpt­ure in the round, it is important to investi­gate its origin and to find its first occur­rence. The variety of expressions encoun­ tered in the formative stages of sculpture in Dynasties I and II and the absence of standardized idealization, which had not yet evolved, make it impossible to trace the beginning of expressed realism to before 2700 B.C.

With Dynasty III, however, the technical ability of the artisan, the greater number of works commissioned, and a highly intel­ligent, complex state of mind appear to have combined in producing the first set of statues encompassing both realism and idealization. Unfortunately, the statue head of King Zoser, the outstanding personality of the period, is too battered to permit an assessment as to its realism, or lack of it, but judging from other royal works made in his reign and shortly thereafter his face presumably reflected strength, dignity and the divine remoteness which is so charac­teristic of the king’s likeness from the Old Kingdom on.

From Zoser’s pyramid complex, however, come several heads of prisoners, presum­ably foreigners, now in the Cairo Museum, which form the earliest well preserved examples of a highly individualized style of sculpture (Figs. 5-7). Since they were excavated near the Step Pyramid, and theirs was not a secondary emplacement, they definitely date from the age of King Zoser (2650-2630 B.C.) and thus are the earliest in a long line of realistic represen­tations embodying human suffering at the burial place of a king.

There are two other hard-stone blocks with heads of prisoners in the Cairo Museum which, in workmanship, form, and style relate closely to the aforementioned heads from the Zoser precinct at Saqqara. They probably come from the same studio and surely date to the same period.

The first block (Fig. 7) was found in the entrance colonnade of the Step Pyramid enclosure of King Zoser at Saqqara. It shows two heads, presumably of foreign captives, one sullen-looking, the other a type with full beard and moustache, bear­ing a distinctly bitter, deeply sad expres­sion. Both show a strong affinity to the better preserved of the other two heads from the Zoser complex (Figs. 5, 6); also the band over the forehead restrains the hair in exactly the same way.

The provenance of the other block in the Cairo Museum (Fig. 8) is uncertain. It prob­ably was found in the last century at Tanis and brought to Cairo at that time. Its mod­ern provenance, however, does not matter. The three heads at the front edge of the slab, sculpted three-quarters in the round, show the same grim, deeply lined features and have their hair held by a ribbon in the same way as the four heads from the Zoser precinct illustrated in Figures 5-7. All three are bearded like the man in Figure 7 and bear the same grim features. Style and workmanship are almost identical, and there can no longer be any doubt that this block too originally came from Saqqara, specifically from the funerary complex of King Zoser of Dynasty III.

From later examples of prisoners’ heads still imbedded in a piece of architecture it is evident that such slabs showed a row of foreign captives, sometimes under a win­dow through which the king appeared to his subjects or to foreign delegations. This symbolized his conquest and defeat of the peoples outside Egypt, and the same motif appears, on a smaller scale, in royal statu­ary, at the front of the base as if the king, trampling on the bodies of defeated ene­mies, were about to step on their heads in his progress.

A different type of prisoner sculpture shows the captive on his knees, cruelly bound, the arms lashed behind him. Head bowed, his face bears the agony of the defeated; the mature features are deeply fined. A fine statue of this type was acquired some thirty-five years ago by The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York [Figs. 9, 10]. The late William C. Hayes attributed it to Dynasty VI (2290-2155 B.C.) while other Egyptologists thought it might have come from the pyramid complex of Isesy, second last king of Dynasty V (about 2380-2340 B.C.]. It is one of the few exam­ples where head and body belong together and shows the prisoner with bowed head, arms tied together, on his knees. His face is deeply lined, mature and serene. The expression is both pensive and sad, and though it has a beauty of its own, it con­veys the feeling of suffering in a captive, a foreigner: a very human document indeed. It establishes for eternity not only the pain felt by the defeated, but also the compassion felt by the one who created the statue.

In recent years, through excavations by Jean-Philippe Lauer and Jean Leclant at the funerary temple of the complex at the pyramid of King Pepy I (2253-2228 B.C.) of Dynasty VI at South Saqqara the number of realistic prisoner representations of the Old Kingdom has greatly increased, Nearly a dozen prisoner heads and several torsos were found, all slightly under lifesize, like the prisoner statue in New York which they resemble in many respects. The torsos were modeled with the same attention to ana­tomical detail, but look very much alike. None had the head in place when found; possibly with one exception, it is impos­sible to tell which head belonged to each torso, but there is enough evidence to establish the attitude of each sculpture. The prisoners are shown on their knees, with arms tied behind them; the upper portion of the torso is bent forward with the head slightly lowered, as if submitting to an inevitable fate.

There, however, the similarity from fig­ure to figure ends, because their faces, in modeling and expression, show such an amazing variety that a whole range of human emotions can be established from their study alone (Figs. 11-18). In most of them the wig, or natural hairdo, is left partly unfinished, while the sculpting of the face has been completed down to the last detail (Figs. 13 and 16). One of them even has an elaborately curled wig and a face which likewise has been minutely per­fected as in the indication of the vermilion line bordering the lips (Fig. 14). On others both hair and face show an equal degree of completion (Fig. 17).

Although most of the heads have enough realistic features to set them apart from the standard, mainly idealizing, human statuary of the period, they nevertheless occasion­ally reflect a sculptural tradition which the artisan seems unable to escape, for instance in the modeling of the vermilion line just mentioned or the plastic eyebrow in low relief (Fig. 17), while on most heads the brow is rendered in its natural form (Fig. 18). Not only that, but about half the heads excavated at South Saqqara show the part­ing of the hair, usually indicated rather roughly, as not straight and not in the middle (Fig. 16).

A special phenomenon in the modeling of these prisoner heads is the way the eyes were made. In all instances they are well modeled, well finished, rather large and distinctly convex; that is to say, slightly popping (Fig. 15). Still, in most Old King­dom statuary the eyeball does not protrude beyond the eyelid rims, and therefore the special attention given to the eyes of these heads must have something to do with the fact that the statues are those of prisoners.

The figures presumably stood on the ground, in the courtyard of Pepy I’s pyra­mid temple. Since they are less than life-size and the heads are slightly bowed, a frontal look at the face, at eye level, would have been possible only if one bent over or kneeled down. To a passer-by the low­ered head would offer a view of the hair, and of the upper part of the face, particu­larly of the eyes, and that may be one of the reasons why they were made so prominent.

The other reason, probably more weighty is that the aspect of protruding eyes was part of the image of suffering which the bound prisoners were intended to repre­sent. Kneeling, with their arms cruelly tied together, the bodies of the prisoners show tense, bulging muscles but nothing particularly tortured is evident from trunk and limbs. The fact that the men thus bound are suffering physical pain and mental anguish is visible, not so much from the condition of the torsos, as from the expression on the faces, no two alike. They range from glum stupor (Figs. 11, 12) to anguished despair (Fig. 18), from tense resignation (Fig. 17) to silent suffering (Fig. 13) and serenity (Figs. 15, 16), and all have noticeably protruding eyes.

Only the head of the man illustrated in Figure 14 seems to be an exception, because at first it appears as if he were smiling, or at least had a contented face. But studying it more closely, observing the nasolabial furrows and especially the bulge of the well preserved right eye, one becomes aware of the almost comical dis­tortion of the features giving it the some­what amused expression which was meant to mirror extreme pain. To this day there are people who as a sign of great agony involuntarily look amused.

Cite This Article

Bothmer, Bernard V.. "On Realism in Egyptian Funerary Sculpture." Expedition Magazine 24, no. 2 (January, 1982): -. Accessed February 27, 2024. https://www.penn.museum/sites/expedition/on-realism-in-egyptian-funerary-sculpture/

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