Why have so many Egyptian statues broken their noses?

Why have so many Egyptian statues broken their noses?

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The most common question that curator Edward Blayberg asks visitors to the Egyptian art galleries at the Brooklyn Museum is straightforward but noticeable: Why are the noses of the statues broken?

Blaiberg, who runs the museum’s extensive holdings of Egyptian, classical and ancient Middle Eastern art, was surprised the first few times he heard the question. He had taken it for granted that the sculptures were damaged; his training in Egyptology encouraged him to visualize what a statue would look like if it were still intact.

It may seem inevitable that in thousands of years an ancient artifact will show wear. But this simple observation led Bleiberg to uncover a widespread pattern of deliberate destruction, which pointed to a complex set of reasons why most works of Egyptian art came first.

The bust of an Egyptian official dating from the 4th century BC. Credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Blaiberg’s research is now at the heart of the touching exhibition. “Striking power: Iconoclasm in Ancient Egypt“A selection of items from the Brooklyn Museum’s collection will travel to the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts later this month with the help of Assistant Curator Stephanie Weisberg. The pairing of damaged 25th-century BC statues and reliefs. century AD with intact colleagues, the show testifies to the political and religious functions of ancient Egyptian artifacts – and the entrenched culture of iconoclasm that led to their mutilation.

In our own era of rapprochement with national monuments and other public art exhibitions, Striking Power adds a German dimension to our understanding of one of the world’s oldest and longest-lasting civilizations, whose visual culture has largely remained unchanged. . for millennia. This stylistic continuity reflects – and directly contributes to – the long strides of the stability of the empire. But invasions of external forces, power struggles between dynastic rulers, and other periods of cataclysm left their mark.

“The coherence of the models in which damage is found in the sculpture suggests that it is purposeful,” Blaiberg said, citing countless political, religious, personal and criminal motives for vandalism. Finding the difference between accidental damage and intentional vandalism boiled down to recognizing such patterns. The protruding nose of a three-dimensional statue breaks easily, it recedes, but the plot thickens when the flat reliefs also sport broken noses.

Flat reliefs often have damaged noses, which supports the idea that vandalism was targeted.

Flat reliefs often have damaged noses, which supports the idea that vandalism was targeted. Credit: Brooklyn Museum

The ancient Egyptians, it is important to note, attributed important powers to images of the human form. They believed that the essence of a deity could inhabit an image of that deity or, in the case of ordinary mortals, part of the soul of that deceased human being could inhabit a statue inscribed for that particular person. These vandalism campaigns were therefore intended to “deactivate the power of the image,” as Bleiberg put it.

Tombs and temples were repositories for most of the sculptures and reliefs that had a ritual purpose. “They all have to do with the economy of supplying the supernatural,” Bleiberg said. In a tomb, they served to “feed” the dead person from the other world with gifts of food from this one. The temples feature images of gods who receive suggestions from notions of kings or other elites who can assign a statue.

“The Egyptian state religion,” Bleiberg explained, is seen as “an agreement in which the kings of the earth provide for the deity and in return the deity takes care of Egypt.” The statues and reliefs were “a meeting place between the supernatural and this world,” he said, only inhabited or “revived” when the ritual was performed. And acts of iconoclasm can violate this power.

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“The damaged part of the body is no longer able to do its job,” Bleiberg explained. Without a nose, the spirit of the statue stops breathing, so the vandal effectively “kills” it. If you knock the ears of a statue of a god, it could not hear a prayer. In statues designed to show people making offerings to the gods, the left hand – most commonly used for offerings – is cut off so that the function of the statue cannot be performed (the right hand is often nailed to statues, receiving contributions),

“During the Pharaonic period, there was a clear understanding of what sculpture should do,” Blaiberg said. Even if the petty tomb robber was mostly interested in stealing valuables, he was also worried that the deceased might retaliate if his resemblance was not mutilated.

The prevailing practice of damaging images of the human form – and the anxiety about desecration – dates back to the beginning of Egyptian history. The intentionally damaged prehistoric mummies, for example, speak of “a very basic cultural belief that damaging the image harms the person represented,” Bleiberg said. In the same way, how the hieroglyphs gave instructions to the warriors who must enter the battle: Make a wax radiation of the enemy, then destroy it. A series of texts describe the concern that your image has been damaged, and the pharaohs regularly issue decrees with terrible punishments for anyone who dares to threaten their likeness.

Statue from around 1353-1336 BC, showing part of the queen's face.

Statue from around 1353-1336 BC, showing part of the queen’s face. Credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

In fact, “iconoclasm on a large scale … was primarily political in motive,” Bleiberg wrote in the catalog of exhibitions on “Striking Force.” The desecration of the statues helped ambitious rulers (and future rulers) to rewrite history in their favor. Over the centuries, this erasure has often taken place on the basis of gender: The legacies of two powerful Egyptian queens, whose authority and mystique fueled cultural imagination – Hatshepsut and Nefertiti – have been largely obliterated from visual culture.

“The rule of Hatshepsut posed a problem for the legitimacy of Thutmose III’s successor, and Thutmose solved this problem by virtually eliminating all of Hatshepsut’s imaginary and inscribed memory,” Blaiberg wrote. Nefertiti Akhenaten’s husband brought a rare stylistic change to Egyptian art during the Amarna period (c. 1353-36 BC) during his religious revolution. Successive riots provoked by his son Tutankhamun and his iluk include restoring the long-standing worship of the god Amun; “Therefore, the destruction of Akhenaten’s monuments was thorough and effective,” Bleiberg wrote. Yet Nefertiti and her daughters also suffered; these iconoclasts have obscured many details of her reign.

The ancient Egyptians took measures to protect their sculptures. The statues were placed in niches in tombs or temples to protect them on three sides. They would be fixed behind a wall, their eyes lined with two holes for a priest to make his contribution. “They did what they could,” Blaiberg said. “It really didn’t turn out so well.”

Statue of the Egyptian queen Hatshepsut, dressed in

Statue of the Egyptian queen Hatshepsut, dressed in “Hat” style. Credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Speaking about the futility of such measures, Bleiberg appreciated the skills proven by iconoclasts. “They were not vandals,” he explained. “They weren’t reckless and accidentally drew works of art.” In fact, the purposeful precision of their chisels suggests that they were skilled workers, trained and hired for just that purpose. “Often during the Pharaonic period,” Blaiberg said, “in fact only the name of the person who is targeted is in the inscription. This means that the person who is doing the damage can read!”

The understanding of these statues changes over time as cultural customs shift. In the early Christian period in Egypt, between the I and III century AD. NE, the native gods inhabiting the sculptures feared like pagan demons; in order to dismantle paganism, its ritual instruments were attacked – especially statues offering sacrifices. After the Muslim invasion in the 7th century, scholars suggest that the Egyptians lost their fear of these ancient ritual objects. During this time, stone statues were regularly trimmed into rectangles and used as building blocks in construction projects.

“Ancient temples were somewhat perceived as quarries,” Blaiberg said, noting that “when you tour medieval Cairo, you can see a much more ancient Egyptian object built into a wall.”

Statue of Pharaoh Senvosret III, who ruled in the 2nd century BC.

Statue of Pharaoh Senvosret III, who ruled in the 2nd century BC. Credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Such a practice seems particularly outrageous to modern viewers, as we consider Egyptian artifacts to be masterpieces of fine art, but Bleiberg is quick to point out that the ancient Egyptians did not have a word for “art.” He would refer to these objects as “equipment.” “When we talk about these artifacts as works of art,” he said, “we decontextualize them.” However, these ideas about the power of images are not typical of the ancient world, he noted, referring to our era of questioning cultural heritage and public monuments.

“The image in public is a reflection of who has the power to tell the story of what happened and what needs to be remembered,” Blaiberg said. “We are witnessing the empowerment of many groups of people with different opinions about what is the right storytelling.” Perhaps we can learn from the pharaohs; how we decide to rewrite our national histories can only take a few acts of iconoclasm.

Striking power: Iconoclasm in Ancient EgyptWas inducted into the Pulitzer Art Foundation in St. Louis, Missouri, from March 22 to August 11, 2019.

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