Art of Ancient Egypt: Predynastic (4210 BC–2680 BC) and Old Kingdom (2680 BC–2258 BC) periods – Part IV

The Pharaoh Menkaura flanked by the goddess Hathor (left) and a nome goddess Bat (right). Basalt statue in Cairo Museum.

We must not forget that when the pyramids were built no country in Europe had even been organized in civil society. Nowadays, we consider the temples adjacent to the pyramids as religious monuments which are in some ways the ancestors of the great Theban temples of successive dynasties. They consist of a front yard, a room for private worship of the priests who used to take care of the funerary temple, and another room reserved for the God whose access was forbidden and where no one could enter except direct successors of the monarch. The temples for popular worship settled in the valley far beyond the Pyramid  also had a front yard sustained by columns. All the characteristic elements of the Egyptian temple that we will later see in the great Theban temples were already established in these sanctuaries of the first empire. The temples of the pyramids of Abusir had columns resembling lotus stems with the capital consisting of a closed flower. Other columns resemble stems of papyrus and palms joined together, and the bases (or plinths) of these columns were always small or nonexistent. With respect to civil architecture, private houses were made of wood and cane and covered with colored coconut matting.

Structure of a temple adjacent to a pyramid.
Types of Egyptian column and its structure. The Egyptian columns included different types, recognizable by the form of the capital and shaft.

In the first dynasties, sculpture developed such a high degree of perfection that there are figures which immediately can be recognized as portraits of striking resemblance, beautifully expressive, sometimes even with excessive specification of personality. Most early Egyptian statues were carved in softer materials than those that were used later; they were mainly made in wood or limestone and were painted or polychromed. There are portraits of priests and officials from the royal council standing, and also scribes meticulously taking notes, sitting or squatting, with the wax tablet and stylet they used to write. In the funerary portraits of the IV Dynasty they did not try to improve or to beautify the portrayed. The artists have tried to portray them as they were in an “eternal” form, that is, without showing anything temporal or actual. Thus, many portrait statues of the IV Dynasty have “false” eyes made of white limestone, with pupils of rock crystal and copper eyelashes. It is understood that this was a way to give more animation and life to the effigy of the deceased. This is shown in the famous Seated scribe of the Louvre Museum.

The seated scribe (Louvre). The statue represents a figure of a seated scribe at work. The sculpture is dated to the period of the 4th Dynasty, ca. 2620–2500 BCE.

However, the most sensational discovery of Egyptian sculpture coming from this period is the group of Menkaure (Mycerinus) and his wife. The Pharaoh stands in hieratic position, but the portrait must surely have a remarkable resemblance to the models (the term “hieratic” refers to styles in art that adhere to certain fixed types or methods). His wife leans on him familiarly as if she was proud of her husband’s protection. Both characters are dressed in minimal clothing wearing no jewelry or complicated headdresses. The queen is dressed in a close-fitting linen robe almost transparent. The women shared with their husband fatigues and hardships of life. Many of these laborious wives have been reproduced beside their husbands showing equal status and rights to be portrayed similar to the women of the court. An impressive example of this is the famous double portrait of Prince Rahotep and Princess Nofrit of the IV Dynasty. Sitting in their white chairs this couple from nearly 5,000 years ago is shown majestically hieratic, with eyes fixed, and their whole bodies exhibiting a strong polychromy are more alive than any other statue we have inherited from the art of the Old Kingdom. Lady Nofrit, with her pale complexion contrasting strongly with the dark color of her husband’s skin, with her provocative eyes framed in black makeup is the oldest identified female portrait of the world.

Statue of Pharaoh Menkaura and his wife in greywacke, ca 2548-2530 BCE – IV Dynasty (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston).
The prince Rahotep and his wife Nofret (Cairo Museum). The different skin color of both figures corresponds to an aesthetic level: the tanned skin warrior contrasts with the pale lady, who spends her leisure hours at home. This opposition between the two characters reflects the prototype created during the IV Dynasty in which man and woman are complementary.


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