Why are so many Egyptian statues nose broken?

This article was published jointly with Artsy, the global platform for discovering and collecting art. Original article can be seen here.

The most common question curated by Edward Bleiberg from visitors to the Egyptian art galleries of the Brooklyn Museum is a simple but remarkable question: Why are the sculptures’ noses broken?

Bleiberg, who supervised the extensive assets of the museum’s Egyptian, Classical and ancient Near East art, was surprised when he first heard about this question. He admitted that the sculptures were damaged; His education in Egyptology encouraged him to visualize what a sculpture would look like if it were still intact.

Thousands of years later, it may seem inevitable for an old work to show wear and tear. This simple observation, however, caused Bleiberg to reveal a deliberate demolition pattern that points to the complex reasons why most works of Egyptian art were initially falsified.

Bust of an Egyptian officer dating from the 4th century BC.

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

Bleiberg’s research now forms the basis of the touching exhibition “Striking Power: Iconoclasm in Ancient Egypt“A number of objects from the Brooklyn Museum collection will go to the Pulitzer Arts Foundation, accompanied by assistant curator Stephanie Weissberg later this month. Matching damaged statues and reliefs from the 25th century BC to the 1st century BC. MS, show with solid counterparts, ancient Egypt It testifies to the political and religious functions of his works and the established iconoclasm culture that led to their injury.

In our era regarding national monuments and other public art shows, “Striking Power” adds a German dimension to our understanding of one of the oldest and longest civilizations in the world, whose visual culture remains mostly unchanged. more than a thousand years. This stylistic continuity reflects and directly contributes to the long-term stability of the empire. However, the invasions of the external powers, the power struggles between the dynasty rulers and other periods of uprising left their scars.

“The consistency of the patterns in which the sculpture is damaged shows that it is purposeful.” Bleiberg said, referring to countless political, religious, personal and criminal motivations for vandalism actions. The difference between accidental damage and deliberate vandalism came to recognize these patterns. A protruding nose on a three-dimensional statue can easily be broken, he agreed, but the plot thickens when flat reliefs crush the nose.

It is important to attribute significant powers to the images of the human form, ancient Egyptians. They believed that the essence of a god could live in an image of this god, or only in the case of mortals, some of the soul of the deceased could live in a written sculpture for that person. These vandalism campaigns were therefore aimed at “disabling the power of an image,” as Bleiberg puts it.

Tombs and temples were warehouses of most statues and reliefs with a ritual purpose. “All of them have to do with the economy offered to the supernatural,” Bleiberg said. Said. In a grave, they served to “feed” the person who died in the next world with gifts from these foods. In the temples, representatives of the gods receive offers from representations of kings or other elites who can deploy a statue.

“The Egyptian state religion,” Bleiberg explained, “was seen as an arrangement in which kings on Earth provided the god and in exchange God looked at Egypt.” “Statues and reliefs were a meeting point between the supernatural and this world,” he said, when the ritual was performed, he only lived or was “resurrected.” Iconoclasma actions can disrupt this power.

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“The damaged part of the body can no longer do its job,” Bleiberg explained. Without the nose, the sculptural spirit stops breathing, so the vandal effectively “kills”. Removing the ears from a statue of a god could not hear a prayer. In sculptures that aim to show people bidding to the gods, the left arm, which is most commonly used to bid, is cut so that the statue’s function cannot be fulfilled (the right hand is located on the axes in the sculptures that receive the offers).

“There was a clear understanding of what the statue should do during the Pharaoh period,” said Bleiberg. Even if a small grave robber was more interested in stealing valuable objects, he was worried that the deceased person could take revenge if his processed similarity was not injured.

The widespread practice of harming the human form and the anxiety surrounding the desecration dates back to the beginning of Egyptian history. Bleiberg, for example, refers to “a very basic cultural belief that damaging the image harms the person represented”, the mummies deliberately damaged from the prehistoric period. Similarly, how-to hieroglyphs instructed warriors to enter the war: make wax of the enemy, then destroy it. A series of texts reveal the anxiety of losing your own image, and pharaohs regularly publish deceptions with terrible punishments for anyone who may dare threaten their similarity.

Indeed, “iconoclasm on a large scale … was essentially motivational,” Bleiberg writes in the “Striking Power” exhibition catalog. The falsification of the figurines helped ambitious rulers (and will be rulers) to recreate history. For centuries, this deletion often took place along the lines of sex: the legacy of two powerful Egyptian queens – Hatshepsut and Nefertiti – whose authority and mystery fueled cultural imagination – has been largely erased from visual culture.

“The reign of Hatshepsut presented a problem for the legitimacy of Thutmose III’s successor, and Thutmose solved this problem by virtually eliminating all of Hatshepsut’s imaginary and written memories.” Nefertiti’s husband Akhenaten brought a rare stylistic shift to Egyptian art during the Amarna era (1353-36 BC) during his religious revolution. Rebellions by his son Tutankhamun and his first, to restore the long-time worship of the god Amun; “The destruction of Akhenaten’s monuments was therefore detailed and effective,” said Bleiberg. Nefertiti and her daughters also suffered; these iconoclasma actions have hidden many details of his reign.

The ancient Egyptians took measures to protect their sculptures. The sculptures were placed in niches on graves or temples and protected from three sides. They would be fixed behind a wall, their eyes lined up with two holes, previously a priest would make his offer. “They did their best,” Bleiberg said. “It didn’t work really well.”

Egyptian queen Hatshepsut statue wearing a

Egyptian queen Hatshepsut statue wearing a “khat” headdress. Credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Speaking for the benefit of such measures, Bleiberg evaluated the capability proven by iconoclasts. “They were not vandalists,” he explained. “They did not crash carelessly and randomly into the works of art.” In fact, the targeted precision of their chisels shows that they are skilled workers, trained and hired for this job. “Usually during the Pharaoh,” said Bleiberg, “this is really only the name of the person who was targeted in the inscription. This means that the person doing the damage can read!”

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The understanding of these sculptures changed over time as cultural traditions changed. In the early Christian era in Egypt, between the 1st and 3rd centuries AD, indigenous gods living in sculptures feared pagan demons; In order to eliminate paganism, his ritual tools – especially bidding sculptures – were attacked. The researchers lost Egyptians’ fear of these ancient ritual objects after the invasion of Muslims in the 7th century. During this time, stone sculptures were regularly cut into rectangles and used as building blocks in construction projects.

“The old temples were somehow seen as quarries,” said Bleiberg, saying that “when you walk in medieval Cairo, you can see a much older Egyptian object built on a wall.”

Statue of Pharaoh Senwosret III, reigning in the 2nd century BC

Statue of Pharaoh Senwosret III, reigning in the 2nd century BC Credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

While such an application thinks that we appreciate Egyptian works as masterful fine works of art, it looks particularly ugly for modern audiences, but Bleiberg immediately states that “ancient Egyptians have no words for ‘art’. They would call these objects ‘equipment’.” Art about these works Speaking as his work, we make them out of context, but he observed that these ideas about the power of images are not unique to the ancient world, mentioning our age to question cultural patrimony and public monuments.

“Images in public space are a reflection of who has the power to tell who is what and what should be remembered,” Bleiberg said. Said. “We are witnessing the strengthening of many groups of people with different views about what the correct narrative is.” Maybe we can learn from the pharaohs; How we chose to rewrite our national stories may require several actions of iconoclasm.

Striking Power: Iconoclasm in Ancient Egypt“From March 22 to August 11, 2019 at the Pulitzer Art Foundation in St Louis, Missouri.

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