Gazing Into Eternity
The MFA's collection includes fine examples of European and American paintings, Asian art, and Old Kingdom Egyptian artifacts. In two weeks, this series will continue with curator interviews at London's Tate Gallery.
I had to give a lecture to a college class," Rita Freed says, "choosing one piece of Egyptian sculpture that explained all Egyptian sculpture."
Dr. Freed has been curator of Boston's Museum of Fine Arts department of Egyptian and ancient Near Eastern art for 7-1/2 years.
The piece she chose was the "Statue of King Mycerinus and His Queen Kamerernebty," an outstanding example of Old Kingdom (2630-2250 BC), Pyramid Age sculpture.
"Boston," Freed says, "is second only to Cairo in art of the Pyramid Age."
She describes this statue as "absolutely stunning ... something that captures you as you walk by.
"It says everything you need to know about Egyptian art. Yet it comes at a relatively early stage - from the fourth out of 31 dynasties. It really expresses the ancient Egyptian ideal.
"The figures are about two-thirds life-size. Look at those bodies! Not one bit of flab on the king, the muscles on his arms, legs, and chest beautifully developed - an emblem of his strength and power. And the queen - absolutely svelte...."
Their faces, too, are faultless: "unlined, perfect, ideal - and, moreover, aloof. These are not friendly, warm faces. They don't look at you. They look beyond - into eternity.
"And their poses pick up on that. While she holds him, she does so in a very formal, hieroglyphic way. There's no attraction. Her touching him indicates affiliation - that they belong together. But emotion didn't exist in Old Kingdom art. Not in royal sculpture."
This "eternal aloofness" was an ideal to which later Egyptian dynasties kept coming back, Freed observes. It was the belief that "the king was god. People worshiped the office of kingship. He was the great Horus - the great god on earth.
"We know he is a king because his attributes tell us so. He wears the royal headcloth - the nemes - and the royal beard. Ordinarily, an inscription would confirm his royalty, but this piece was unfinished. The most likely reason is that the king died unexpectedly. The fact that parts of Mycerinus's pyramid - the Third Pyramid - complex were completed very hurriedly in mud brick instead of the normal limestone, supports this idea."
"The MFA excavated this piece in 1910. For nearly 40 years, between 1905 and 1942, we worked at Giza. We had been awarded permission to excavate in the area of the Third Pyramid by the Egyptian government when the Giza plateau was divided among different countries."
"The Third Pyramid is the smallest and least prepossessing, but it was also the least plundered. It yielded the finest material. So we know all that we can know about where this piece came from."
Provenance is important, Freed emphasizes. "By itself, this is just a wonderful piece of sculpture; whereas it is a wonderful and meaningful piece when we know exactly in what context it was found.
"It was in the Valley Temple of the pyramid - the temple nearest the river, one of a good number of statues of Mycerinus found in the pyramid complex. A colossal statue of the king - about twice life size - was found in the Pyramid Temple, and others show him with gods and goddesses. But this is the only one where his wife is also shown. And, she is nearly his equal in size."
Often, women were depicted significantly smaller than men.
"We have painfully few statues of kings of the Old Kingdom in general, and she is certainly the only queen shown in conjunction with a king."
"The icons of Egyptian art are so wonderfully expressed here," Freed says. She points to the feet: "Males almost invariably have their left foot forward. And most of the time females stood with both feet together. Occasionally, an important female - a goddess or a queen, as in this piece - would have her left foot slightly forward. Note that it is not nearly as forward as his left foot is."
THE statue is not a portrait, Freed asserts. "We don't know what the king looked like. Yet representations of Mycerinus are definitely recognizable as Mycerinus - or if not Mycerinus himself, then possibly his successor.
"There is a change stylistically from king to king. But this is the way they chose to have themselves represented, not necessarily the way they actually were. The king could be whatever he wanted to be. There was a whole mythology surrounding him."
And she points again to the faces of the king and queen: "The features are virtually identical on both pieces. Her eyes are his eyes. The nose and mouth are the same. She has a rounder, more feminine facial shape, but the features are the same." Private individuals in ancient Egypt also had themselves represented with features like the king's.
Although this sculpture comes from a tomb, Freed admires it for the way in which "the Egyptians made stone come to life. There is a wonderful polish, a wonderful patina on the stone. It is something that invites you. It's something that you want to touch....
"These ancient Egyptian sculptures were meant to come to life. To function as living beings. They are not just memorials."
* Fifth in a series. Previous articles ran Feb. 10, 24, March 3, 10.