At the end of the VI Dynasty the central power of the pharaohs of Memphis virtually disappeared and Egypt entered an anarchic period that lasted a century and a half known by Egyptologists as the First Intermediate Period (2181-1991 BC). By the XI Dynasty the royal authority was re-established due to an usurpation of the throne by the princes of Thebes in Upper Egypt and the period known as the Middle Kingdom (2134-1690 BC) began. This restoration of the pharaoh’s authority must have occurred towards 2200 BC and was carried out by the Theban prince Mentuhotep II who restored the country’s political stability and adopted the title of Unifier of the Two Lands (that is of the Lower and Upper Egypt). By then, many things had changed. The Egyptian people were psychologically affected by such a long period of turmoil and their confidence in the immutable stability of the world was lost. All of this was directly reflected in the art of the Middle Kingdom where the passion for death was followed by a more friendly mood and an appreciation for everyday life that sought to adopt a melancholic position in order to forget the past and build on the present. The facial expression of the Pharaohs of this period lost its ancient and majestic immutability and became more sympathetic, almost impregnated with some sadness.
In addition to political events, there were other circumstances that contributed to the melancholic mood seen in the sculptures of the Middle Kingdom. Between them played a particularly important role a new religious development. During the Old Kingdom the cult of the sun god Ra enjoyed a monopoly, but during the Middle Kingdom a new devotion related to the cult of Osiris was gaining a growing reputation as a popular interpretation of human destiny. Osiris is the myth of the dying and resurrecting god, an underground deity. Contrary to the devotion to Ra, Osiris promises an abstract immortality and must have influenced the state of mind that characterized the sculpture of the Middle Kingdom. In the few portrait-statues from this time there is an aura of sadness that is sometimes reflected in the faces with a suppressed sob. Even the most undaunted statues have a morbid paralysis in their gestures.
However, the increasing difficulty of sculpting statues forced to produce stelae with reliefs which were placed in the room located in front of the tombs replacing the statues of earlier dynasties. These wonderful stelae always showed the same theme: the deceased is depicted receiving offerings either alone or with his wife and children. In front of him his successors or relatives practiced the magic rites spiritualizing the food destined to accompany him in the tomb. The deceased extended his right hand in a gesture of gladly receiving the dishes brought by his relatives while women inhaled the scent of lotus flowers. Regarding their style, the Middle Kingdom reliefs reveal a significant change in technique. While the reliefs of the Old Kingdom’s mastabas entirely came “out” of the bottom plane of the carved surface and had a delicate modeling, these stelae from the Middle Kingdom show figures often “sunk” below the plane of the carved surface. This technique allowed the artists to achieve almost double silhouettes: one of white contour marked by the edges of the carving per se, and a second corresponding to the black shadows projected by the protruding edges of the carved surface. It is a technique called the “sunken relief”. Thus, this technique of “sinking” reliefs in the stone surface allowed achieving a doubly marked line which resulted in a white and black double silhouette thereby obtaining an effect similar to a steel engraving. Sometimes the figures were colored in dark red (men) and pale pink (women).
Another set of figures typical of the Middle Kingdom are the so called “models” or “mock-ups” and the figures of servants or slaves which were buried alongside the great lords. They are made of wood and in case of some “models” represented whole households. The long and slender figures of servants carrying offerings (including the famous one of the Louvre from the XII Dynasty) are graceful and elegant with a beauty that seems almost modern.
The imperial restoration was annihilated by the terrible invasion of the Hyksos towards 1700 BC. The end of the Middle Kingdom was determined by the invasion of Lower Egypt by these Semitic people coming from the desert of Arabia. These barbarians dominated the Nile delta for nearly a century and a half. By 1580 BC Ahmose founder of the XVIII Dynasty expelled them to Palestine. This event ended the Second Intermediate Period (dominated by the Hyksos, 1674-1549 BC) and inaugurated the long period known as the New Kingdom (1549-1069 BC).