Vengeance in a fragment of concentrated violence
Every time I set eyes on this small sandstone sculpture in the Worcester Art Museum, my eyes are drawn to what is going on in the lower left quadrant. I don’t quite know what to make of it. But one thing I can say for sure: It’s shatteringly violent.
The sculpture, which is called “Prince Arikankharer Slaying His Enemies,’’ is from the land of Kush, in what is now Sudan. It was made around 25-41 AD, by an artist from Meroë, a pyramid-strewn city on the Nile, just north of that river’s division into the White and Blue Niles.
Arikankharer was a prince in the black royal house of Kush, a dynasty which traded with Egypt, Rome, Greece, and the Near East. Developing out of the 25th dynasty of the Egyptians, it grew into a civilization of its own, a major exporter, and proved itself a military match for the might of Imperial Rome, with which it eventually entered into an advantageous peace treaty.
Arikankharer died young, before he could take the reins of power. But here he is, silencing anyone who would doubt his status as a warrior of the first order - a ghastly grim reaper, a slicer and dicer of superhuman strength.
Armed to the teeth, and with a female Winged Victory flush by his side, he stands in what art historians like to call the “smiting pose.’’ Between his sandaled feet, a dog - ears pinned back, eyes ablaze, and forelegs horrendously clenched - mauls the face of a hapless victim.
The fragment, which measures only 8 1/2 by 10 inches, is marked by pinkish remnants of red paint. It’s an accident of history - but inevitably it evokes blood, enhancing the work’s aura of concentrated violence.
And over there on the left, stacked one on top of the other, like playing cards in a game of solitaire, are the prince’s victims. The artist suggests their plurality simply by multiplying their limbs and heads in an orderly, symmetrical, outwardly-expanding fashion.
The effect is reminiscent of Albert Uderzo’s renderings of Obelix and Asterix on the warpath, dispatching Roman legionaries with murderous virtuosity. It also, of course, suggests the pictorial methods of the Italian Futurists - artists such as Umberto Boccioni and Giacomo Balla, who suggested movement and dynamism with repeating contours, as if captured in the same frame by a stop-motion camera.
Here, I think, we’re supposed to read quantity rather than movement. And yet, even as the work celebrates the prince’s deeds, the effect does powerfully evoke the shuddering consequences, the splintering reverberations, of any act of shocking violence.