ART FROM ANCIENT LANDS

Fragment of an Egyptian Limestone Wall Panel Depicting a Pharaoh - X.0383
Origin: Egypt
Circa: 664 BC to 525 BC
Dimensions: 15" (38.1cm) high x 25.625" (65.1cm) wide
Collection: Egyptian
Style: 26th Dynasty
Medium: Limestone

The 26th Dynasty, also known as the Saite Period, is traditionally placed by scholars at the end of the Third Intermediate Period or at the beginning of the Late Dynastic Period. In either case, the Saite Period rose from the ashes of a decentralized Egyptian state that had been ravaged by foreign occupation. Supported by the assistance of a powerful family centered in the Delta town of Sais, the Assyrians finally drove the Nubians out of Egypt. At the close of this campaign, Ashurbanipal’s kingdom was at the height of its power; however, due to civil strife back east, he was forced to withdraw his forces from Egypt. Psammetik I, a member of the family from Sais, seized this opportunity to assert his authority over the entire Nile Valley and found his own dynasty, the 26th of Egyptian history. Known as the Saite Period due to the importance of the capital city Sais, the 26th Dynasty, like many before it, sought to emulate the artistic styles of past pharaoh in order to bolster their own claims to power and legitimize their authority.

Yet despite that artist sought to replicate models of the past, Egyptian art of this era was infused with a heightened sense of naturalism. This fact is likely due to the influx of Greek culture. The Saite rulers recognized that Egypt had fallen behind the rest of the Mediterranean world in terms of military technology. Thus, they were forced to rely upon foreign mercenaries, many of whom were Greek. With ties between these two cultures firmly established during the 7th Century B.C., commercial trading quickly blossomed. Special entrepots for foreign traders were established, including the famed town of Naucratis, a Delta town in which Greek merchants were permitted access. During the Saite Period, two great powers of the Mediterranean world became intimately linked, commercially and culturally. As the exchange of ideas flowed across the sea, the Greeks began to experiment on a monumental scale while the Egyptians began to approach art with an enhanced sense of realism.

This portrait is sculpted in remarkably finely-detailed sunk relief and relies upon subtle linear adjuncts for its masterful effect. The subject is an Egyptian pharaoh, facing right, represented as a bare-chest male wearing a striated nemes-headcloth and broad collar. His arms, bent at the elbows, are raised on order for his hands to present floral offerings to one or more deities who were presumably depicted in the now missing right-hand side of the scene.

The face is modeled with restraint and dominated by unadorned button-hole eyes and a mouth, the lower lip of which suggests a prognathous jaw. Such individuality is rarely encountered in ancient Egyptian two-dimensional representations, but is suggested in the facial features of portraits of such pharaohs as Sheshonq III from Bubastis, now in the Cairo, and in rare representations of certain Saite pharaohs of Dynasty XXVI, such as that found in a portrait of Apries from a chapel at Abydos, now in London. The predominance of button-hole eyes and of relief finely detailed with linear adjuncts, suggests that our relief depicts a pharaoh of Dynasty XXVI. The absence of a uraeus on the front of the nemes-headdress is exceptional, particularly on such an otherwise carefully sculpted work of art, but it may have been added in paint. There are excavated parallels of royal relief from the Saite Period in which the pharaoh depicted is likewise not shown with a uraeus on his headdress. The absence of this insignia is, admittedly, rare, but that absence is, nevertheless, attested and documented.


 

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