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Standing in the shadow of ancient beauty

The Royal Descendant Hetepheres, about 2440 B.C.E., limestone.

Courtesy of the Worcester Art Museum

The Royal Descendant Hetepheres, about 2440 B.C.E., limestone.

WORCESTER — Even if I am anticipating the sight of it, I feel profoundly destabilized every time I turn a corner in the Worcester Art Museum and see this statue. It stands alone and inviolate, in a small, drab room, and it rebukes you.

It possesses the kind of beauty that reminds you of the smallness of your life, the frivolity and inconsequence of all that you attempt, the pointless din of daily existence.

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A Bach partita, a Greek tragedy — perhaps all great art does something like this. But when it arrives from a majestic culture across a 4,000-5,000-year ocean of time, the rebuke seems all the sharper.

The culture in question was Egypt’s Old Kingdom. And this life-size statue, carved in high relief from a slab of limestone, shows Hetepheres, the mother of Rawer (pronounced Ra-WHERE), a high-ranking prince or courtier important enough to have his own huge family tomb at Giza.

At the time it was carved, to a degree of lifelikeness and finish that was exceedingly rare, Hetepheres would have been a grandmother. The statue was part of a sculptural group that included her husband, her son (Rawer), and her grandchildren.

But the whole point of such statues was to represent their subjects in the bloom of life, and at a physical peak. Installed in a walled chamber, the “serdab,” inside the tombs, they needed to be as vital as possible so that the subject’s “ka,” or life force, could find them upon leaving the mummified body.

Hetepheres’s torso is so beautifully modeled that the initial effect is of nakedness. A second look, however, shows that she wears a long, sheer dress. This would probably have been made from a royal linen so fine, say scholars, that it was almost indistinguishable from silk.

All the appropriate Old Kingdom conventions are observed: The symmetry is perfect, the left leg is slightly advanced, the left arm descends rigidly. And yet the breasts, the subtly defined muscles of the abdomen, and the navel all seem full of potency and latent animation.

How incredible that we can go to Worcester, stand before such a thing, four or five millennia after it was made — and not fall to our knees.

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