AP®︎/College Art History
- Ancient Egypt, an introduction
- Ancient Egyptian art
- Palette of King Narmer
- Seated Scribe
- The Great Pyramids of Giza
- Pyramid of Khufu
- Pyramid of Khafre and the Great Sphinx
- Pyramid of Menkaure
- King Menkaure (Mycerinus) and queen
- Temple of Amun-Re and the Hypostyle Hall, Karnak
- Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut and Large Kneeling Statue, New Kingdom, Egypt
- Ancient Thebes with its Necropolis (UNESCO/TBS)
- Akhenaten, Nefertiti, and Three Daughters
- Tutankhamun’s tomb (innermost coffin and death mask)
- Last Judgement of Hunefer, from his tomb
- Hunefer, Book of the Dead
By Dr. Amy Calvert
Serene ethereal beauty, raw royal power, and evidence of artistic virtuosity have rarely been simultaneously captured as well as in this breathtaking, nearly life-size statue of the pharaoh Menkaure and a queen from c. 2490–2472 B.C.E. Smooth as silk, the meticulously finished surface of the dark stone captures the physical ideals of the time and creates a sense of eternity and immortality even today.
Undoubtedly, the most iconic structures from Ancient Egypt are the massive and enigmatic Great Pyramids that stand on a natural stone shelf, now known as the Giza plateau, on the south-western edge of modern Cairo. The three primary pyramids at Giza were constructed during the height of a period known as the Old Kingdom and served as burial places, memorials, and places of worship for a series of deceased rulers—the largest belonging to King Khufu, the middle to his son Khafre, and the smallest of the three to his son Menkaure.
Pyramids are not stand-alone structures. Those at Giza formed only a part of a much larger complex that included a temple at the base of the pyramid itself, long causeways and corridors, small subsidiary pyramids, and a second temple (known as a valley temple) some distance from the pyramid. These Valley Temples were used to perpetuate the cult of the deceased king and were active places of worship for hundreds of years (sometimes much longer) after the king’s death. Images of the king were placed in these temples to serve as a focus for worship—several such images have been found in these contexts, including the magnificent enthroned statue of Khafre with the Horus falcon wrapped around his headdress.
On January 10, 1910, excavators under the direction of George Reisner, head of the joint Harvard University-Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Expedition to Egypt, uncovered an astonishing collection of statuary in the Valley Temple connected to the Pyramid of Menkaure. Menkaure’s pyramid had been explored in the 1830’s (using dynamite, no less). His carved granite sarcophagus was removed (and subsequently lost at sea), and while the Pyramid Temple at its base was in only mediocre condition; the Valley Temple was—happily—basically ignored.
Reisner had been excavating on the Giza plateau for several years at this point; his team had already explored the elite cemetery to the west of the Great Pyramid of Khufu before turning their attention to the Menkaure complex, most particularly the barely-touched Valley Temple.
In the southwest corner of the structure, the team discovered a magnificent cache of statuary carved in a smooth-grained dark stone called greywacke or schist. There were a number of triad statues—each showing 3 figures; the king, the fundamentally important goddess Hathor, and the personification of a nome (a geographic designation, similar to the modern idea of a region, district, or county). Hathor was worshipped in the pyramid temple complexes along with the supreme sun god Re and the god Horus, who was represented by the living king. The goddess’s name is actually ‘Hwt-hor’, which means “The House of Horus”, and she was connected to the wife of the living king and the mother of the future king. Hathor was also a fierce protector who guarded her father Re; as an “Eye of Re” (the title assigned to a group of dangerous goddesses), she could embody the intense heat of the sun and use that blazing fire to destroy his enemies.
There were 4 complete triads, one incomplete, and at least one other in a fragmentary condition. The precise meaning of these triads is uncertain. Reisner believed that there was one for each ancient Egyptian nome, meaning there would have originally been more than thirty of them. More recent scholarship, however, suggests that there were originally 8 triads, each connected with a major site associated with the cult of Hathor. Hathor’s prominence in the triads (she actually takes the central position in one of the images) and her singular importance to kingship lends weight to this theory.
In addition to the triads, Reisner’s team also revealed the extraordinary dyad statue of Menkaure and a queen that is breathtakingly singular.
The two figures stand side-by-side on a simple, squared base and are supported by a shared back pillar. They both face to the front, although Menkaure’s head is noticeably turned to his right—this image was likely originally positioned within an architectural niche, making it appear as though they were emerging from the structure.
The broad-shouldered, youthful body of the king is covered only with a traditional short pleated kilt, known as a shendjet, and his head sports the primary pharaonic insignia of the iconic striped nemes headdress (so well known from the mask of Tutankhamun) and an artificial royal beard. In his clenched fists, held straight down at his sides, Menkaure grasps ritual cloth rolls. His body is straight, strong, and eternally youthful with no signs of age. His facial features are remarkably individualized with prominent eyes, a fleshy nose, rounded cheeks, and full mouth with protruding lower lip.
Menkaure’s queen provides the perfect female counterpart to his youthful masculine virility. Sensuously modeled with a beautifully proportioned body emphasized by a clinging garment, she articulates ideal mature feminine beauty. There is a sense of the individual in both faces. Neither Menkaure nor his queen are depicted in the purely idealized manner that was the norm for royal images. Instead, through the overlay of royal formality we see the depiction of a living person filling the role of pharaoh and the personal features of a particular individual in the representation of his queen.
Menkaure and his queen stride forward with their left feet—this is entirely expected for the king, as males in Egyptian sculpture almost always do so, but it is unusual for the female since they are generally depicted with feet together. They both look beyond the present and into timeless eternity, their otherworldly visage displaying no human emotion whatsoever.
The dyad was never finished—the area around the lower legs has not received a final polish, and there is no inscription. However, despite this incomplete state, the image was erected in the temple and was brightly painted; there are traces of red around the king’s ears and mouth and yellow on the queen’s face. The presence of paint atop the smooth, dark greywacke on a statue of the deceased king that was originally erected in his memorial temple courtyard brings an interesting suggestion—that the paint may have been intended to wear away through exposure and, over time, reveal the immortal, black-fleshed “Osiris” Menkaure (for more information on the symbolic associations of Egyptian materials, see Materials and techniques in ancient Egyptian art).
Unusual for a pharaoh’s image, the king has no protective cobra (known as a uraeus) perched on his brow. This notable absence has led to the suggestion that both the king’s nemes and the queen’s wig were originally covered in a sheath of precious metal and that the ubiquitous cobra would have been part of that addition.
Based on comparison with other images, there is no doubt that this sculpture shows Menkaure, but the identity of the queen is a different matter. She is clearly a royal female. She stands at nearly equal height with the king and, of the two of them, she is the one who is entirely frontal. In fact, it may be that this dyad is focused on the queen as its central figure rather than Menkaure. The prominence of the royal female—at equal height and frontal—in addition to the protective gesture she extends has suggested that, rather than one of Mekaure’s wives, this is actually his queen-mother. The function of the sculpture in any case was to ensure rebirth for the king in the Afterlife.
Essay by Dr. Amy Calvert
Want to join the conversation?
- How were the excavators of Harvard-MFA-Boston able to take these sculptures out of Egypt? It's not as if they got the sculptures through military conquest like much of the British Museum or the Louvre? So I would have thought the Egyptian government would not have just allowed for an american university to come and take what it pleases...(15 votes)
- It was customary for the institutions that funded excavations in Egypt (and other areas) to receive a portion of their finds.(7 votes)
- "Menkaure’s pyramid had been explored in the 1830s (using dynamite, no less). His carved granite sarcophagus was removed (and subsequently lost at sea)"
Has there been any recent information as to where his sarcophagus is now, or is it still lost at sea? If so, imagine finding an AEgyptian mummy out in the middle of the ocean. Weird!
Also, who were the explorers that explored and subsequently proceeded to load it onto a ship and lose it? It says the Archaeological Expedition was by George Reisner On January 10, 1910, but it doesn't give any indication as to who the explorers were that lost the body in the 1830s. This would be important information as to the recovery of the sarcophagus. One might find out the ship's name as well as the route the ship was going during this unfortunate event.
Update: The information was available on Wikipedia.
"Richard William Howard Vyse, who first visited Egypt in 1835, discovered in the upper antechamber the remains of a wooden anthropoid coffin inscribed with Menkaure's name and containing human bones. This is now considered to be a substitute coffin from the Saite period, and radiocarbon dating on the bones determined them to be less than 2,000 years old, suggesting either an all-too-common bungled handling of remains from another site, or access to the pyramid during Roman times. Deeper into the pyramid, Vyse came upon a beautiful basalt sarcophagus, rich in detail with a bold projecting cornice. Unfortunately, this sarcophagus now lies at the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea, having sunk on October 13, 1838, with the ship Beatrice, as she made her way between Malta and Cartagena, on the way to Great Britain. It was one of only a handful of Old Kingdom sarcophagi to survive into the modern period. The anthropoid coffin, however, was successfully transported on a separate ship and may be seen today at the British Museum."(14 votes)
- I read that greywacke is the material used in the sculpture. What is greywacke?(5 votes)
- Greywacke or Graywacke (German grauwacke, signifying a grey, earthy rock) is a variety of sandstone generally characterized by its hardness, dark color, and poorly sorted angular grains of quartz, feldspar, and small rock fragments or lithic fragments set in a compact, clay-fine matrix. It is a texturally immature sedimentary rock generally found in Palaeozoic strata. The larger grains can be sand- to gravel-sized, and matrix materials generally constitute more than 15% of the rock by volume. The term "greywacke" can be confusing, since it can refer to either the immature (rock fragment) aspect of the rock or the fine-grained (clay) component of the rock. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greywacke(6 votes)
- Isn't it possible that the female in this statue is a goddess? If the Menkaure's headdress was covered in precious metal bearing an uraeus, why would the female not have had a similar headdress with Hathor's two horns and a sundisk (or the symbols of another goddess)? Is there actually a way to distinguish between statues of royalty and gods other than their headdresses?(2 votes)
- Insignia and scale are the key elements in distinguishing mortals from deities. The female in this amazing dyad is wearing a wig, but there is no divine insignia, nor is there any indication that there was an attachment for horns. If you notice the images of the triads in the essay, you will note that the female deities have insignia carved into the stone. While there is discussion of which royal female is represented here, it seems more likely that this is a human, rather than divine being.(5 votes)
- I know a lot of ancient sculpture from Greece and Rome would have been painted in its day but the paint has worn away with time so we see it as white - would the sculpture of Menkaure and Queen have been painted or would it have looked much the same as we see it today?(1 vote)
- When did Mycerinus change to Menkaure? And why?(1 vote)
- I believe Mycerinus is the Hellenized variant and Menkaure is a more direct Egyptian transliteration. When I was first taught this material, it was Mycerinus. I am still getting used to Menkaure.(1 vote)
- When was this published?(1 vote)
- Cite this page as: Dr. Amy Calvert, "King Menkaure (Mycerinus) and queen," in Smarthistory, August 8, 2015, accessed October 4, 2016, http://smarthistory.org/king-menkaure-mycerinus-and-queen/.(1 vote)