Why did many Egyptian statues break their noses?

Why did many Egyptian statues break their noses?

This article was published in partnership with Artsy, the global platform for discovering and collecting art. The original article can be seen Here.

The most common question asked by art curator Edward Bleiberg from visitors to art galleries at the Brooklyn Museum is a direct but prominent question: Why are the noses of statues broken?

Bleiberg, who oversees the museum’s vast holdings of ancient Egyptian and classical art in the Near East, was surprised the first few times he heard this question. It was considered that the statues were damaged; His Egyptology training encouraged him to visualize what the statue would look like if still intact.

It may seem imperative that, after thousands of years, an old, worn out artifact will appear. But this simple observation prompted Bleiberg to reveal a widespread pattern of deliberate destruction, indicating a complex set of causes that distorted most of the work of Egyptian art in the first place.

Bust of an Egyptian official dating back to the fourth century BC. credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Bleiberg’s research is now the basis of the influential exhibition “Strike Force: Iconoclasm in ancient Egypt“A selection of artifacts will move from the Brooklyn Museum collection to the Pulitzer Institution of Art later this month under the supervision of the last assistant curator Stephanie Weisberg. Pair the damaged statues and inscriptions dating back to the 25th century BC to the 1st century CE with their healthy counterparts, certify The program is on the political and religious functions of ancient Egyptian artifacts – and the entrenched culture of iconography that led to their distortion.

In our age of arithmetic with national antiquities and other public art shows, “striking force” adds an important dimension to our understanding of one of the world’s oldest and most ancient civilizations, whose visual culture has mostly remained unchanged. For thousands of years. This reflects stylistic continuity and directly contributed to the long periods of stability of the empire. But the invasions of external forces, power struggles between dynasty rulers and periods of other turmoil left their scars.

“The consistency of patterns in which there is damage in sculpting suggests that they are purposeful,” Bleiberg said, citing countless political, religious, personal and criminal motives in sabotage. The difference between accidental damage and intentional sabotage was made in the recognition of these patterns. He admitted that the protruding nose on a three-dimensional statue can be easily broken, but the plot thickens when flat inscriptions also break noses.

Flat inscriptions often contain damaged noses too, which supports the idea of ​​targeting vandalism.

Flat inscriptions often contain damaged noses too, which supports the idea of ​​targeting vandalism. credit: Brooklyn Museum

It is important to note that the ancient Egyptians attributed important powers to the images of the human figure. They believed that the essence of the deity could inhabit a picture of this deity, or, in the case of mere mortals, part of the soul of the deceased man could inhabit a statue that had been written for that particular person. So, these sabotage campaigns were aimed at “deactivating the power of the image,” said Blberg.

Cemeteries and temples were the repositories of most of the statues and inscriptions that had rituals. “All of them are related to the economy of supernatural offerings,” Bleiberg said. In the grave, they worked to “feed” the deceased person in the next world with gifts of food from this world. In temples, representations of the deities appear to receive offers from representations of kings, or other elites who are able to commission a statue.

Bleiberg explained that “the religion of the Egyptian state was viewed as“ an arrangement in which kings on earth provide God, and in return the god cares for Egypt. ”He said that the statues and inscriptions were“ a meeting point between the supernatural and this world, ”which is only inhabited, or“ returned ” Reviving it “when performing rituals. Iconic works may disrupt that power.

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“The damaged part of the body is no longer able to do its job,” Bleiberg said. Without a nose, the statue’s spirit stops breathing, so the vandal effectively “kills” him. The ears rang from a statue of a god that made him unable to hear a prayer. In statues intended to show human beings offering offerings to the gods, the left arm – most used to make offerings – is cut so that statue function cannot be performed (the right hand is often found obscured in the statues receiving offerings).

“In the Pharaonic era, there was a clear understanding of what the sculpture was supposed to do,” Bleiberg said. Even if the small cemetery thief was mostly concerned with stealing valuables, he was also concerned that the deceased would commit suicide if his image had not been tarnished.

The prevailing practice of destroying images of the human figure – and the anxiety surrounding profanation – dates back to the beginnings of Egyptian history. Bleiberg said that prehistoric mummies were intentionally affected, for example, talking to “a very basic cultural belief that destroying the image harms the person who represents it.” Likewise, how the hieroglyphs were written instructed warriors about to enter the battle: create a wax doll for the enemy, then destroy it. A series of texts describes the anxiety of damaging your private image, and the pharaohs regularly issue terrible penalties for anyone who dares threaten its appearance.

A statue from about 1353-1336 BC, showing a part of the Queen's face.

A statue from about 1353-1336 BC, showing a part of the Queen’s face. credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Indeed, Bleiberg wrote in the catalog of the “Striking Force” exhibition that “the icons of the icons on a large scale … were primarily political motivation.” The deformation of the statues helped ambitious rulers (and potential rulers) rewrite history in their favor. Over the centuries, this erasure has often occurred on gender grounds: the legacy of two powerful Egyptian queens whose authority and mystery have been erased from cultural fiction – Hatshepsut and Nefertiti – is largely from visual culture.

Bliberg wrote: “The reign of Hatshepsut posed a problem for the legitimacy of the successor of Thutmose III, and Tuthmosis solved this problem by virtually eliminating all the imaginative and inscribed memory of Hatshepsut.” Nefertiti Akhenaten’s husband brought a rare paradigm shift to Egyptian art in the Amarna period (around 1353-36 BC) during his religious revolution. The successive rebellions of his son Tutankhamun and his ilk included the restoration of the worship of the god Amon long ago; Bleiberg wrote: “The destruction of Akhenaten’s monuments was comprehensive and effective.” However, Nefertiti and her daughters also suffered. These icons obscure many details of its rule.

The ancient Egyptians took measures to protect their sculptures. Statues were placed in niches in tombs or temples for protection on three sides. They will be secured behind the wall, and their eyes are lined with two holes, before the priest gives an offering. “They did their best,” said Bliberg. “It didn’t work really well.”

A statue of the Egyptian Queen Hatshepsut wearing a

A statue of the Egyptian Queen Hatshepsut wearing a “Khat” headdress. credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Speaking of the futility of such measures, Bliberg assessed the skill demonstrated by the icons. “They were not saboteurs,” he explained. “They were not reckless and indiscriminate from artwork.” In fact, the targeted accuracy of their chisels indicates that they are skilled workers, trainers and employees for this particular purpose. “Mostly in the Pharaonic era, it is really only the name of the target person, in the inscription. This means that the person who did the damage can read!” Bleiberg said.

Understanding of these statues changed over time as cultural norms shifted. In the early Christian period in Egypt, between the first and third centuries AD, he feared that the original deities living in statues were pagan demons. To dismantle paganism, its ritual instruments – especially statues that made offerings – were attacked. After the Islamic conquest in the seventh century, scholars believed that the Egyptians had lost any fear of these ancient ritual objects. During this time, stone statues were regularly trimmed into rectangles and used as building blocks in construction projects.

“The ancient temples were somewhat considered quarries,” Bliberberg said, noting that “when you roam in medieval Cairo, you can see something more ancient Egyptian built into the wall.”

The statue of Pharaoh Senusert the Third, who ruled in the second century BC

The statue of Pharaoh Senusert the Third, who ruled in the second century BC credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Such a practice seems particularly disgraceful to contemporary viewers, considering our appreciation of Egyptian artifacts as ingenious works of fine art, but Bleiberg was quick to point out that “the ancient Egyptians did not have the word“ art. ”They would have referred to these things as“ equipment. ”He said : When we talk of these artifacts as works of art, we remove them from the context. However, note that these ideas about the power of images are not alien to the ancient world, referring to our own era of questioning cultural heritage and public monuments.

“The pictures in public are a reflection of who has the ability to tell a story about what happened and what must be remembered,” Bleiberg said. “We are seeing the empowerment of many groups of people who have different opinions about the correct narration.” Perhaps we learn from the pharaohs. The way we choose to rewrite our national stories may only require some iconic work.

Strike Force: Iconoclasm in ancient EgyptAt the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts in St. Louis, Missouri, from March 22 to August 11, 2019.

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