If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

Thutmose, Bust of Nefertiti

Thutmose, Model Bust of Queen Nefertiti, c. 1340 BCE, limestone and plaster, New Kingdom, 18th dynasty, Amarna Period (Egyptian Museum and Papyrus Collection/Neues Museum, Berlin). Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

Want to join the conversation?

Video transcript

DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: We're in the Neues Museum in Berlin. And we're looking at the famous bust of Nefertiti. It is a life-size, full-color image, and it's really impressive. DR. BETH HARRIS: It's the treasure of this museum. And it's been placed in a rotunda with a large dome. She's been placed slightly higher than eye level, so we look up at her. She's fabulously beautiful. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: She's virtually the sole work of art in this very large space. Clearly, she is the focal point. DR. BETH HARRIS: Yeah, it's quite theatrical. And unlike so many other Egyptian sculptures, she wasn't intended for a tomb. She was found in the studio of the artist who made her, Thutmose. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: We think that this sculpture was actually a model that he'd created in order to work on other sculptures of her. That is, this sculpture would function really as a three-dimensional sketch. DR. BETH HARRIS: As a prototype. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: That's right. And there are a few reasons why that's thought. Not only was it found in his studio, but it is incomplete in a way that suggests that it was never meant to be completed. If you look, for instance, at the sockets of the eyes, that would generally be inlaid with semi-precious stones. But only one eye has any inlay in it. And in that case, it's a temporary material, even wax, and so not the kind of quality one would expect in a full-fledged sculpture for the queen. DR. BETH HARRIS: Art historians have discovered through scientific analysis that she's made not just of painted limestone but limestone that's been covered with a very, very thin layer of plaster. And that enabled the sculptor to achieve really subtle effects modeling her face. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: But then the neck and the headdress plaster gets much thicker, and it would have been much easier to work and create that very fine detail on the plaster rather than the coarser material of the limestone core. DR. BETH HARRIS: And that's so important where we see the lines, very subtle movement around her cheeks. What's so remarkable about the sculpture is how sensitively carved she is, how we really get a sense of skin and bone and these lovely movements around her face. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: She's tremendously elegant, but even beyond the simple elegance of the contours of her face, her high cheekbones, the shallow of her cheeks. DR. BETH HARRIS: Her long neck. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: Beautiful symmetry. A way in which line is unified throughout the entire portrait bust. For instance, follow the lines downward that are constructed by the contours of her headdress [? that ?] tapers as it moves towards her chin. So her face and headdress create a perfect triangle. But that's actually continued by the lines of her neck below her chin. And it's accentuated by the lighting in this museum. But it really does create this sense of continuity from the top of the sculpture to its base. DR. BETH HARRIS: What we're describing is a new ideal of beauty that's really different from the tradition of ancient Egyptian sculpture. And that's because Nefertiti was the wife of the pharaoh Akhenaten, who established a new religion in ancient Egypt which was monotheistic instead of the traditional polytheistic religion. And with that, he created a new ideal of beauty that we see in the sculptures that were created during his reign. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: That's right. I think we see this sculpture really as a perfect exemplar. Nefertiti is especially interesting because we believe she did not simply function as the wife of the pharaoh. She is shown in so many portraits with the accoutrements of the ruler that we think that she actually shared power. DR. BETH HARRIS: It's interesting, this period that we call the Amarna period of Akhenaten's reign, where we have two powerful women-- his mother, Tiye, and his wife, Nefertiti. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: Both represented as beautiful women, as powerful women, and giving us a kind of insight into late Egyptian culture.