November 9, 2015

At the Met: Egypt's Middle Kingdom; The Real and the Ideal

Lintel of Amenemhat I and Deities, detail,  ca. 1981-1952 B.C.; limestone, paint, 14 1/2 x 68 in. 

The exhibition currently at the Met, "Ancient Egypt Transformed: The Middle Kingdom" is spectacular. Beautifully installed and lit, with room to contemplate each object with quiet attention, the show is full of remarkable objects. They are gathered from the period of the Middle Kingdom, around 2030-1650 B.C., when Egypt was reunited after a period of decentralization. Did the fact of having strong rule lead to the making of such refined and sensitive sculpture? I don't know, but I do know that the works are entrancing. Above, the god Horus, his headdress still showing patterns of paint, holds an ankh, a sign for eternal life. 

Relief of Nebhepetre Mentuhotep II and the Goddess Hathor, detail, cas. 2010 -2000 B.C.; limestone, paint, 14 3/16 x 38 9/16 in. 

I love relief carving, Egyptian and Persian; perhaps it's because it is intermediate between painting and sculpture in the round. The carefully carved ideograms, here and in the first image, give me such deep pleasure in their keen observation and their clarity. When the form is idealized, it is still based on an understanding of visual reality. The modeling of form is minimal, but because the outlines are so carefully drawn, they imply fullness.
(I have provided links––in the titles––to the Met's website for all the works I've shown only in detail, so you can see the entire sculpture.)

Stela of the Overseer of the Fortress Intef, ca. 2021-2000 B.C.; painted limestone, 30 11/16 x 55 7/8 in. 

This stela is quite incredible (click to enlarge images!) in its delicacy. There is as much care taken with the carving of the hieroglyphs as with the offerings and the portraits of Intef and his wife.

Stela of the Overseer of the Fortress Intef detail

There is very little modeling, just a light curve at the edges of forms, but the effect is poetic in the rhythms of shapes and in their reserve.

Face of Senwosret III, ca. 1878-1840 B.C.; red quartzite, 6 1/2 x 4 x 4 1/2 in. 

The forms in Middle Kingdom sculpture were not solely idealized: in this portrait head of Senwosret III we can feel the presence of a living man; the stone seems soft, like flesh; the lips about to part, the eyes to blink. Thousands of years old, this portrait might be of a contemporary.

Head of a Statue of Amenemhat III Wearing the White Crown, ca. 1859-1813 B.C.; greywacke, 18 1/8 x 7 5/16 x 10 1/16 in. 

This portrait too has a precisely observed realism that brings an ancient character to life. It is especially vibrant because of the contrast between the carefully rendered face and the abstract form of the tall crown.

Relief of Seankhkare Mentuhotep III and the Goddess Iunyt, detail, ca. 2000-1988 B.C.; limestone,
31 x 53 x 4 1/2 in. 

Here is another king, but rendered as we usually expect in Egyptian art, in an idealized form. I love the pattern of headdress and collar, and the way the delicate ear stands forth.

Relief of Offering Bearers, detail, ca. 1961-1917 B.C.; limestone, paint, 57 9/16 x 50 1/2 x 5 3/4 in. (entire relief)

I especially delight in the picturing of animals in the reliefs. The Egyptian sculptors had a true affinity for depicting them. Here, the patterns of the ducks' feathers are described in paint.

Relief with Crocodile and Fish, ca. 1981-1919 B.C.; limestone, paint, 11 1/4 x 28 5/16 in.

The elegant form of the fearsome crocodile flows across this relief. He has a catfish in his mouth, and water plants float above.

Relief of a Woman Presenting an Ointment Vessel, ca. 2030-2000 B.C.; limestone, paint, 10 1/4 x 
6 1/4 x 1 9/16 in. 

I love the geometry above the figure in this relief. It represents wooden architecture.

Relief of Clapping Women, ca. 2051-2000 B.C.;  limestone, paint, 12 1/2 x 11 x 1/2 in. 

Because this is a sunken relief, there's a fascinating flipflop in the figure-ground relationships: the vase-like forms between the women's bodies take on more importance than the bodies themselves. The arms and bodies and negative spaces create a lively rhythm, appropriate to the subject.

Shrouded Royal Statue, Standing, ca. 2124-1981 B.C.; sandstone, 55 x 19 x 13 1/2 in. 

This sculpture truly stopped me in my tracks: its simple form was so powerful and moving. Because the body is shrouded, its details are hidden, except for the bony knees, which become a kind of human landmark, a connection to the earthen realm from that of the spiritual.

Statue of the Sealer Nemtihotep Seated, ca. 1981-1802 B.C.; quartzite, 30 1/8 x 9 13/16 x 30 5/16 in. 

This piece is another which is idealized and simplified, but still having tremendous emotional presence. It is so interesting to think of this and the one above alongside the two portraits that are much more naturalistic. Each style has its power, each moved me deeply. It is the work itself and not its style that is important.

Statue of the Sealer Nemtihotep Seated, side view

The forms are so beautifully integrated in this sculpture, leading to a true sense of the eternal.

Lintel of Senwosret I Running Toward the God Min, left panel, ca. 1961-1917 B.C.; limestone, 
43 11/16 x 60 5/8 x 11 in. 

Lastly, a sunken relief of a king, very finely wrought, with clear definition of musculature. It's unusual to see a king running, but here it is for a ritual: he is running towards the god Min, who is a fertility god.

Lintel of Senwosret I Running Toward the God Min detail

What I really enjoyed about this relief were the ideograms surrounding the main figure, especially the small, very expressive head. I asked my Egyptologist friend about these images and she told me that the top line reads, from right to left, "in the midst of"; the second line "city" (the crossroads), then an end of word sign; then the horned viper (which she corrected me from thinking it was some kind of giant slug) means "his". The eye probably starts another word, but the stone is broken off below it. The fact that we can read languages from so far in the past is very exciting to me. What is most thrilling, though, is to be able to see so much beautiful work from the rich visual culture of Egypt's Middle Kingdom.


  1. What a great tour!

  2. Very nice, thank you for sharing

  3. Thank you for sharing wonderful picts! I love all that Egyptian stuff. Their culture was so prominent and exceptional.