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Egyptian masterpiece at MFA

A king and his queen, forever in their prime, hold eternal secrets

HARVARD UNIVERSITY, MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS EXPEDITION

This sculpture of the Egyptian Old Kingdom ruler Menkaura, or Mycerinus, and his wife is one of the finest objects in the Museum of Fine Arts, and one of the greatest examples of Egyptian sculpture anywhere in the world.

It was discovered in 1910 in the Valley Temple of Menkaura’s pyramid complex at Giza by the American archeologist George Reisner, leading a team from Harvard University and the MFA.

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In many ways, it’s a mysterious sculpture - at once specific and abstracted, emphatically present yet poignantly aloof. But one thing about it is clear: it absolutely exudes self-confident power.

With no end of examples to draw on, we’re in the habit today of associating authoritarian rule with grizzled old potentates with dissolute private lives. But here, Menkaura is shown in the prime of his life. He represents not just a king but a whole culture at its precocious peak.

He has the broad shoulders and perfect physique of an Olympic swimmer. His face, framed by those markers of kingship - the artificial beard and the nemes, or headscarf - is handsome, it’s beautifully carved, it’s realistic.

Yet, crucially, it doesn’t come even remotely close to expressing anything. Instead, the king gazes calmly beyond us, as if into a philosophical world. That’s fitting, because the sculpture’s essential function was to help preserve life into the next world.

Menkaura’s queen, thought to be Kamerernebty II, is almost as tall as he is. She, too, represents simultaneously a real woman and a suave ideal - in this case of feminine beauty. She’s wearing a form-clinging dress - so tight that you can see the soft contours of her kneecaps - and she has on a luxuriant-looking wig.

What’s interesting, when you get close up, is that you can still see the fringe of her real hair poking through beneath the wig. It’s as if the artist wanted to show up, or emphasize, the wig’s artifice, as a way of signaling luxury, unlimited means.

A masterpiece of world art it may be, but it seems the sculpture was rushed into place in the valley temple before it was finished.

The base and the background have been left rough. Unusually, there’s no inscription. Her wig and his kilt, which would ordinarily have been pleated with parallel incisions, have been left smooth. And lastly, he has toenails, but she is missing hers.

This lack of finish matches what we know about Menkaura’s pyramid. It was supposed to be grandiose, but was completed using inferior materials. It’s by far the smallest of the three great pyramids at Giza. His temples, too, begun in stone, were finished in mud brick.

It all suggests unseemly haste. And sure enough, it has led historians to conclude that Menkaura died young, probably after just 18 years on the throne.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.
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