Why did so many Egyptian statues break their noses?

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

The most common question curator Edward Bleiberg asks visitors to visitors to the Brooklyn Museum’s Egyptian art galleries is direct but significant: Why are the noses of the statues broken?

Bleiberg, who oversees the extensive funds of Egyptian, classical and ancient art of the Middle East, was surprised the first time he heard the question. It was healthy for almost that the sculptures were damaged; his training in Egyptology prompted visualization of what the statue would look like if it were still intact.

It might seem inevitable that after a thousand years the ancient artifact will show wear and tear. But this simple observation led Bleiberg to discover a widespread pattern of deliberate destruction, which indicated a complex set of reasons why most works of Egyptian art were destroyed at all.

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

Bleiberg’s research is now the basis of a strong exhibition. “Impressive power: Iconoclasm in ancient Egypt. “A selection of items from the Brooklyn Museum’s collection will travel later this month to the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts, coordinated by curator Stephanie Weissberg. the political and religious functions of the ancient Egyptian artifacts – and the ingrained culture of iconoclasm that led to their mutilation.

In our own time of reckoning with national monuments and other public displays of art, “Striking Power” adds a Germanic dimension to our understanding of one of the oldest and longest-lived civilizations in the world, whose visual culture has largely remained unchanged. over the millennia. This stylistic continuity reflects – and directly contributed to – the long strokes of empire stability. But invasions by outside forces, power struggles between dynastic rulers, and other periods of upheaval left their scars.

“The consistency of the patterns on which the damage is found in the sculpture suggests it is purposeful,” Bleiberg said, citing countless political, religious, personal and criminal motives for acts of vandalism. Determining the difference between accidental damage and intentional vandalism boiled down to recognizing such patterns. The drawn nose on the three-dimensional statue is easily broken, he admitted, but the plot thickens when flat reliefs also carry broken noses.

Flat reliefs often contain damaged noses, supporting the idea that vandalism was the target.

Flat reliefs often contain damaged noses, supporting the idea that vandalism was the target. Credit: Brooklyn Museum

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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 the image of that deity, or, in the case of ordinary mortals, a part of the soul of a dead human being could be inhabited by a statue inscribed in that particular person. These vandalism campaigns were therefore aimed at “deactivating the power of the image,” as Bleiberg said.

Tombs and temples were the repository of most of the sculptures and reliefs that had a ritual purpose. “They all have to do with the supernatural economy,” Bleiberg said. In one tomb they served to “feed” a deceased person in the next world with gifts of food from this one. In the temples, the gods are depicted receiving offerings from kings or other elites capable of pawning the statue.

“The Egyptian state religion,” Bleiberg explained, was understood as “an agreement in which kings on Earth provide for the deity, and in turn, the deity takes care of Egypt.” The statues and reliefs were “a meeting place of the supernatural and this world,” he said, only inhabited or “revived” when the ritual is performed. And iconoclasms could undermine that power.

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“The damaged part of the body can no longer do its job,” Bleiberg explained. Without a nose, the statue-ghost stops breathing, so the vandal effectively “kills” it. Waiting for the ears from the statue of the god would make it impossible for him to hear the prayer. In statues intended to depict human beings offering sacrifices to the gods, the left hand – most commonly used to make offerings – is cut off so that the function of the statue cannot be performed (the right hand is often nailed to statues receiving offerings),

“In the Pharaonic period, there was a clear understanding of what sculpture should do,” Bleiberg said. Even if the petty robber was mostly interested in stealing valuables, he was also worried that the deceased might retaliate if the character done to him was not mutilated.

The prevailing practice of damaging images of the human form – and the anxiety surrounding desecration – dates back to the beginnings of Egyptian history. For example, deliberately damaged mummies from the prehistoric period, for example, speak of “a very basic cultural belief that image damage harms the person it represents,” Bleiberg said. Likewise, as the hieroglyphs gave instructions for the warriors who would enter the battle: Make a wax figure of the enemy, and then destroy it. A series of texts describe the anxiety of your own image being damaged, and the pharaohs regularly issued decrees with terrible punishments for those who would dare to threaten their resemblance.

Statue from around 1353-1336. Pr. Kr., Which shows part of the queen's face.

Statue from around 1353-1336. Pr. Kr., Which shows part of the queen’s face. Credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

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Indeed, “iconoclasm on a large scale … was primarily a political motive,” Bleiberg writes in the exhibition catalog for “Striking Power”. Covering the statues helped ambitious rulers (and future rulers) with rewriting history to their advantage. Over the centuries, this erasure has often occurred incidental: The legacy of two powerful Egyptian queens whose authority and mysticism stimulate cultural imagination – Hatshepsut and Nefertiti – have been largely erased from visual culture.

“Hatshepsut’s rule created a problem for the legitimacy of Thutmose III’s successor. Thutmose solved this problem by virtually eliminating all of Hatshepsut’s imaginative and inscribed memory,” Bleiberg writes. Nefertiti’s husband Akhenaten brought a rare stylistic shift in Egyptian art during the Amarna period (c. 1353–36 BC) during his religious revolution. Successive revolts led by his son Tutankhamun and his mockery included the restoration of the long-standing worship of the god Amon; “The destruction of Akhenaten’s monuments was therefore thorough and effective,” Bleiberg writes. Yet Nefertiti and her daughters also suffered; these iconoclasms obscured many details of her reign.

The ancient Egyptians took steps to protect their sculptures. Statues were placed in niches in tombs or temples to protect them on three sides. They would be secured behind a wall, eyes lined with two holes, in front of which the priest would give his new addition. “They did what they could,” Bleiberg said. “It really didn’t work so well.”

A statue of the Egyptian queen Hatshepsut in the head

A statue of the Egyptian queen Hatshepsut in the head “khat”. Credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Speaking about the futility of such measures, Bleiberg assessed the skill witnessed by iconoclasts. “They weren’t vandals,” he explained. “They did not recklessly and randomly highlight works of art.” In fact, the targeted precision of their chisels indicates that they were experienced workers, trained and engaged for it accurately. “Often in the Pharaonic period,” Bleiberg said, “the inscription really only has the name of the person being targeted. That means the person who did the damage could read it!”

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The understanding of these statues changed over time as cultural customs changed. In the early Christian period in Egypt, between the 1st and 3rd centuries AD, the indigenous gods who inhabited the sculptures feared like pagan demons; to remove paganism, its ritual tools were attacked — especially statues offering offerings. After the Muslim invasion in the 7th century, scientists assume, the Egyptians lost their fear of these ancient ritual objects. At that time, stone statues were regularly carved into rectangles and used as building blocks in construction projects.

“The ancient temples were somewhat seen as quarries,” Bleiberg said, noting that “when you walk through medieval Cairo, you can see a much older Egyptian building built into the wall.”

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

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

Such a practice seems particularly exciting to contemporary viewers, believing that Egyptian artifacts are valued as works of fine art, but Bleiberg was quick to point out that “the ancient Egyptians had no word for‘ art. ’They would call these objects‘ equipment. ’” Speaking of with these artifacts as works of art, he said, we decontextualize them. Yet these ideas about the power of images are not inherent in the ancient world, he noted, referring to our times of examining cultural heritage and public monuments.

“Pictures in public are a reflection of someone who has the power to tell the story of what happened and what needs to be remembered,” Bleiberg said. “We are witnessing the empowerment of many groups of people with different opinions about what a correct narrative is.” Maybe we can learn from Pharaoh; as we choose to rewrite our national stories it may only take a few works of iconoclasm.

Impressive power: Iconoclasm in ancient Egypt“operates at the Pulitzer Art Foundation in St Louis, Missouri, from March 22 to August 11, 2019.

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