Standing Sculpture: King Menkaure and Queen Kha-Merer-Nebu II

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Standing Sculpture: King Menkaure and Queen Kha-Merer-Nebu II


Masterpiece. Carved circa 2532-2510 b.c.e., the Standing Sculpture of King Menkaure and Queen Kha-merer-nebu II is both a masterpiece of Egyptian sculpture and an illustration of the Egyptian conventions for representing a king and queen. The sculpture is just under life-size, 54¾ inches tall. The sculptor used graywacke, a hard gray stone that the Egyptians prized. Archaeologist George Reisner discovered the statue in 1910 in the valley temple of this king’s pyramid at Giza.

Conventions. This sculpture clearly illustrates the main conventions of Egyptian royal sculpture. The sculptor placed Menkaure on the viewer’s left and the queen on the right. The ancient viewer would have recognized immediately that Menkaure was the more important figure of this pair. The viewer’s left is always the place of honor in Egyptian representations. The king and queen were also conventionally dressed to communicate their rank in Egyptian society.

Standard Royal Dress. Menkaure wears the nemes, a headdress worn only by the king. This headdress was made from cloth, folded to form triangular shapes framing the king’s face. Two lappets hung from the triangles over the king’s chest. The back of the cloth was twisted around a braid of hair. Though the headdress covered most of the king’s hair and head, his sideburns and ears were visible. In examples where the artist used color, the nemes is striped blue and gold. The king also wears a rectangular false beard, which was made of leather and was attached by straps that would have tied under the nemes. This beard, worn only by the king, contrasts with the longer beard that ended in an upward twist and was worn only by the god Osiris. The king’s chest is bare. He wears a distinctive kilt called the shendjet, worn only by kings. The kilt features a belt and a flap that was placed centrally between his legs. The king holds a cylinder in each hand, usually identified as a document case, which held the deed to Egypt thought to be in the king’s possession. This statue also shows some conventions of representing the male figure used for both nobles and kings. The king strides forward on his left leg, a pose typical for all standing, male Egyptian statues. Traces of red paint on the king’s ears, face, and neck show that the skin was originally painted red ocher. This coloration was the conventional male skin color in statuary, probably associating the deceased king or nobleman with the sun god Re.

Conventions for Female Sculpture. The statue of Queen Kha-merer-nebu II also exhibits the conventions for presenting women in Egyptian sculpture. Unlike kings, queens did not have their own conventions separate from other noblewomen. The queen’s wig is divided into three hanks, two draped over her shoulders and one flowing down her back. There is a central part. The queen’s natural hair is visible on her forehead and at the sideburns, another common convention. The queen wears a long, formfitting dress. The fabric is stretched so tightly that it reveals her breasts, navel, pubic triangle, and knees. Yet, the length is quite modest, with a hem visible just above the ankles. The queen’s arms are arranged conventionally, with one arm passing across the back of the king and the hand appearing at his waist. The queen’s other hand passes across her own abdomen and rests on his arm. This pose indicated the queen’s dependence on the king for her position in society. In pair statues that show men who were dependent upon their wives for their status, the men embrace the women.


Cairo Ostracon 2518

A man speaks of his love:
If I could just be the washerman
doing her laundry for one month only,
I would be faithful to pick up the bundles,
Sturdy to beat clean the heavy linens,
But gentle to touch those finespun things
Lying closest the body I love.
I would rinse with pure water the perfumes
That linger still in her tunics,
And I’d dry my own flesh with the towels
She yesterday held to her face.
The touch of her clothes, their textures,
Her softness in them …
Thank god for the body,
Its youthful vigor!

Papyrus Chester Beatty I

A woman speaks of her intended boyfriend:

I just chanced to be happening by
in the neighborhood where he lives;
His door, as I hoped, was open—
And I spied on my secret love.
How tall he stood by his mother,
Brothers and sisters little about him;
Love steals the heart of a poor thing like me
Pointing her toes down his street.
And how gentle my young love looked
(there’s none like him),
Character spotless they say …
Out of die edge of my eye
I caught him look at me as I passed.
Alone by myself at last,
I could almost cry with delight!
Now just a word with you, love,
That’s what I’ve wanted since I first saw you.
If only Mother knew of my longing
(and let it occur to her soon)—
O Golden Lady, descend for me.
Plant him square in her heart!
Then I’d run to my love, kiss him hard
Right in front of his crew.
I’d drip no tears of shame or shyness
Just because people were there,
But proud I’d be at their taking it in
(Let them drown their eyes in my loving you)
If you only acknowledge you know me.
(Oh, tell all Egypt you love me!)
Then I’d make solemn announcement:
Every day holy to Hather!
And we two, love, would worship together,
Kneel, a matched pair, to the Goddess.
Oh, how my heart pounds (try to be circumspect!)
Eager to get myself out!
Let me drink in the shape of my love
Tall in the shuddering night!

Sources: “Cairo Ostracon 2518,” in Love Songs of the New Kingdom, translated by John L. Foster (New York: Scribners, 1974), p. 30.

“Papyrus Chester Beatty I,” in Love Songs of the New Kingdom, translated by Foster (New York: Scribners, 1974), pp. 56-g57.

Style in Sculpture. The conventions of Egyptian art make it easy to stress the similarity of sculptures to each other. Yet, details of the style of this sculpture make it possible to identify Menkaure. All of his sculptures show distinctive facial features. His face has full cheeks and his eyes

bulge slightly. The chin is knobby, while the nose is bulbous. His wife resembles him, probably because the king’s face in any reign became the ideal of beauty. In almost every period everyone seems to resemble the reigning king.

Lack of Motion . Egyptian sculptors purposely avoided portraying motion. Unlike ancient Greek sculptors, Egyptian artists aimed for a timelessness that excluded the transience of motion. Thus, even though Menkaure and Kha-merer-nebu II were portrayed walking, the sculptor did not attempt to depict the weight shift in the hips and the stretch of the muscles that would create the illusion that the statue could move. This attitude toward depicting motion is a fundamental difference between ancient Egyptian and Greek art.

Structural Supports . Egyptian sculptors relied on back pillars and the avoidance of negative space to support their sculptures. The back pillar in this case forms a slab that reaches to the shoulders of the figures. In statues of individuals, enough of the block of the stone was removed so that the back pillar would cover only the spine of the figure. Here the entire back of the figures disappears into the remaining block. The negative space, the area between the arms and torso or between the legs, was not carved.

Inscription . This sculpture lacks the inscription that is usually found on the base and on the back pillar. In this case, Menkaure can be identified from his facial features and the fact that the statue was found in a temple built by Menkaure. The absence of an inscription indicates that the statue was not completed. Finished sculpture almost always included a hieroglyphic inscription that identified the subject.


Kazimierz Michalowski, Great Sculpture of Ancient Egypt, translated by Enid Kirchberger (New York: Reynal, 1978).

Edna R. Russmann, Egyptian Sculpture: Cairo and Luxor (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1989), pp. 7–8.

Christiane Ziegler, “King Menkaure and a Queen,” in Egyptian Art in the Age of the Pyramids (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1999), pp.269–271.

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Standing Sculpture: King Menkaure and Queen Kha-Merer-Nebu II

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