02. Ancient Mediterranean, Art & Humanities, Massachusetts, United States

#18. King Menkaura and queen. Old Kingdom, Fourth Dynasty. c. 2490–2472 BCE. Greywacke.

#18. King Menkaura and queen. Old Kingdom, Fourth Dynasty. c. 2490–2472 BCE. Greywacke.

Art Historical Background

When I first saw this piece in the MFA in Boston I was surprised at how small it was (4’8″). Even though I had read the dimensions before, there’s nothing like seeing it in person to feel…a little disappointed. But hey size doesn’t matter, right!?

The statue of King Menkaura and queen has become the poster child for “typical” Egyptian statuary: stiff, frontal, expressionless, idealistic, and funerary. Of course many people say that the Egyptian’s just didn’t have the knowledge of anatomy to create “life-life” figures, but they are obviously neglecting the function and historical context of this piece.

First off, this is a royal portrait. Like any official portraiture (think high school senior photos, or the British royal family’s official paintings), these pictures tend to be a little stiff and idealized. If an image is meant to last for eternity, you want to make sure it reflects traits of permanence and perfection. So in that regard not much as changed in five thousand years.

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Secondly, these were meant to be funerary, located in a niche of Menkaura’s pyramid complex at Giza – not on display for all to see. This is why the back of the sculptures are not completed, therefore they can be considered more of a high-relief sculpture than freestanding sculpture. It is believed that this statue set was intended as substitute home for the ka. The ka is essentially a person’s spiritual “double;” their personality/life force after death. It was believed that the ka needed a secondary home to revisit if the mummified body deteriorated so much that the ka could not recognize it.

Read more: Student Series! Proof that Ancient Egypt is actually Facebook

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Although there is no real movement suggested in this piece, the artist(s) attempted to hint at natural movement by placing Menkaura’s left foot forward in a walking stance. This is a convention we will also see in Early Greek statuary before the invention of contrapposto (I will discuss this more at length with the Doryphorus).

In contrast to Menkaura, his queen (sometimes identified as Khamerernebty or the goddess Hathor) is a little less rigid (although not by much). Her left hand is lightly touching Menkaura’s bicep as her right arm wraps around his waist. She also has her left foot slightly forward, suggesting a walking motion and her curvaceous body is clearly shown beneath the sheet dress she is wearing.

Read more: Lesson Plan: Human Figure in Ancient Egyptian Art


Next time: #19 The Code of Hammurabi. Babylon (modern Iran). Susian. c. 1792-1750 CE. Basalt.

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