The Sacred and the Mundane in Stone

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Egypt’s magnificent Middle Kingdom at the Met


  • Stela of Khety and His Wife, Henet. Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna, Ägyptisch-Orientalische Sammlung. Photo: Adel Gorgy

  • Upper Part of a Statue of a Thirteenth Dynasty King Seated. The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago. Photo: Adel Gorgy

  • Stela of the Gatekeeper Maati. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo: Adel Gorgy

They’re monumental, imposing, impressive and just so cool. That’s why we were all drawn to them as kids, and that’s why we still are. No Marvel superhero can compete with a crocodile headed man-god. Catwoman? Please. Bastet had that covered close to 5,000 years ago. But all that’s just the hook. The real story is that Egyptian art under the pharaohs produced works of unprecedented grace and beauty. No culture before them, and few after, infused both the sacred and the mundane with such aesthetic elegance.

The great pyramids were built in the Old Kingdom, and many of the household name pharaohs, like Ramesses, Hatshepsut and Tutankhamun reigned in the New Kingdom. In between was the pivotal Middle Kingdom (ca. 2030-1650 B.C.). Before that, the land we think of as Egypt was ruled by many kings. Then, along came Mentuhotep II, who changed everything. Many of these changes, as well as the pharaoh himself, can be seen in “Ancient Egypt Transformed: The Middle Kingdom,” a sweeping exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum that’s been, said curator Adela Oppenheim, “in the air for about 12 to 15 years,” and can be experienced through January 24th.

The Met has an incredibly rich collection of Egyptian art, and its Middle Kingdom treasures are among the finest in the world. Many of the about 250 objects on display are from the Met, but Oppenheim and co-organizers Dorothea Arnold, Dieter Arnold and Kei Yamamoto gathered works from more than 37 international collections to create a comprehensive picture of this period, the first ever presented in the United States. They spent the last 3 to 4 years composing a group of masterworks into an exhibition that is, itself, a masterpiece.

Among the first pieces on display is a brightly colored, vividly painted panel depicting Mentuhotep II. Soon after that, one encounters the “Stela of Maaty” that looks as if it were incised yesterday or locked away for 4,000 years. The carving is deep and almost laser-sharp, creating crisp details and outlines that define the forms with remarkable clarity and beauty. It’s an exceptionally fine work, followed immediately by another.

The “Relief of Seankhkare Mentuhotep III and the Goddess Iunyt” is carved with spectacular royal and sacred figures in elaborate and delicately portrayed costumes, including the king in his distinctive bucket-shaped crown. Once Mentuhotep II unified the northern and southern kingdoms, the two crowns, the conical and the bucket were worn together, as can be seen in a striking “Colossal Head of Senwosret I” that gazes down at visitors in the following gallery.

King Senwosret III makes a particularly spectacular showing. Oppenheim described the rare opportunity the curators have been able to offer. Joining the Met’s imposing representation of the pharaoh as sphinx “is a quartzite face ... both are very important sculptures of King Senwosret III, and we were able to get another quartzite statue from Kansas City. Against the wall is the sphinx head from Vienna, and there’s another of this king in the last gallery. To have all of them together made it so much richer.”

Beyond the ability to see so many great works, the exhibition also offers a deeper understanding of the aesthetics and culture of the era. Oppenheim hopes viewers will come away with “a sense of the human being and of real people that come across to you over this period of 4,000 years that separates us.” She pointed out the naturalism in many of the faces, where, rather than being idealized, they’re lined with wrinkles or weighted with heavy flesh.

It’s fascinating to observe works of art that run throughout the exhibition that have been made to memorialize non-royals. Of course there are kings, queens and princesses, but there’s also a statue of a mayor, several stewards, a nurse and, charmingly, the official beer maker, Renefsenebdag (pharaohs liked to party, too). One of Amenemhat’s overseers got his own obelisk. There’s a shrine to a butler, and a reporter who earned immortality with a whole chapel dedicated to him. One of the most beautiful stelae (a slab erected as a monument) is of Khety and his wife, Henet. It looks like the artist put down the brushstrokes yesterday. Bright red legs of meat, Henet’s turquoise dress, the spotted fur of the cow, jade green onions and a blue headed duck fill the work from Vienna. It’s a show stopper.

An exquisitely carved spotted frog, fish, snakes, ducks and geese, an elegant egret, dogs and cats, a lion, gerbils and a particularly cute hedgehog pay homage to the natural world, where the gods of Egypt also roamed. The Met’s beloved faience hippo, William, is joined by two of his kin, and there’s a delightful family guide to engage young visitors.

Most of these works were created to ensure the immortality of those recorded. And here they are, thousands of years later, still able to whisper their power and touch our souls. All of them can be seen in the museum’s special online exhibition. But the majesty and force of monumental works like the crocodile-headed “Statue of the God Sobek Shedeti,” regal and recognizable, and at the same time filled with mystery and magic, can only come through in their awe-inspiring presence.

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