Art of Ancient Egypt during the Middle and New Kingdom periods – Art and Sculpture during the Middle Kingdom

The Sun-God Ra. In one of his many forms, Ra was represented with a falcon head and the sun-disk resting on his head.

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 BCE). 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 BCE) began. This restoration of the pharaoh’s authority must have occurred towards 2200 BCE 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 the death was followed by a more friendly mood and an appreciation for everyday life that sought to adopt a melancholic point of view 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.


The God Osiris, lord of the dead. His dark-green skin symbolizes re-birth.

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 religious cult was practically monopolized by the sun god Ra*, but during the Middle Kingdom a new devotion related to the cult of Osiris* was gaining a growing reputation as a popular interpretation of the 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.

Statue of young Sesostris I (Cairo Museum). During the Middle Kingdom, funerary statues that in the Old Kingdom were placed under niches inside tombs, came outdoors in broad daylight.

However, the increasing difficulty of sculpting statues forced to produce stelae decorated with reliefs. These were placed in the room located in front of the tombs and came to replace 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).

Stelae of the herald Shenu, early XII Dynasty.

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.

Offering bearer (Louvre), a painted wooden/plaster figure. This anonymous, elegant and slender maid, was displayed in full activity: the right hand holds a beer mug while her left holds -balanced on her head- a bowl with bread. The tight dress she is wearing shows an intricate feathery pattern (XII Dynasty).

The imperial restoration was annihilated by the terrible invasion of the Hyksos towards 1700 BCE. 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 BCE Ahmose founder of the XVIII Dynasty expelled them to Palestine. This event ended the Second Intermediate Period (dominated by the Hyksos, 1674-1549 BCE) and inaugurated the long period known as the New Kingdom (1549-1069 BCE).


Osiris: An Egyptian god, identified as the god of the afterlife, the underworld, and the dead, but more appropriately as the god of transition, resurrection, and regeneration. He was classically depicted as a green-skinned deity with a pharaoh’s beard, partially mummy-wrapped at the legs, wearing a distinctive crown with two large ostrich feathers at either side, and holding a symbolic crook and flail. Osiris was at times considered the eldest son of the god Geb, though other sources state his father is the sun-god Ra, and the sky goddess Nut, as well as being brother and husband of Isis, with Horus being considered his posthumously begotten son.

Ra: The ancient Egyptian sun god identified primarily with the noon sun. In later Egyptian dynastic times, Ra was merged with the god Horus, as Ra-Horakhty (“Ra, who is Horus of the Two Horizons”). He was believed to rule in all parts of the created world: the sky, the earth, and the underworld. He was associated with the falcon or hawk. When in the New Kingdom the god Amun rose to prominence he was fused with Ra as Amun-Ra. All forms of life were believed to have been created by Ra, who called each of them into existence by speaking their secret names. Alternatively man was created from Ra’s tears and sweat, hence the Egyptians call themselves the “Cattle of Ra”.

Sunken relief:  A technique of relief sculpture in which figures or images are carved in low relief, but set within a sunken area, so that the relief never rises beyond the original flat surface. This technique is largely restricted to ancient Egypt, where it became common in the Amarna period and later.

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