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The Portrayal of Ancient Rulers
Throughout history, the idea of what a ruler is has evolved. In ancient societies the style of leadership evolved from royal leadership to politically appointed emperors. Inheritance of a throne and kingship subsided after Alexander the Great’s world domination. Instead, leaders came to power through political and military prowess, and if their leadership was unsatisfactory they would usually be overthrown. With the evolution of leadership throughout ancient times, came the evolution of art portraying the rulers of the era. The personality and authority portrayed in portraits, employ different means of expression. In the ancient Egyptian sculpture of King Menkaure and his Queen, a tetradrachm coin of ancient Greece depicting Alexander the Great, and the portrait sculpture of the emperor Philip the Arab from Rome, it is evident that portrayal of ancient rulers in art evolves in accordance with the political climate.
King Menkaure and Queen Khamerenebty ruled during the Fourth Dynasty of the Old Kingdom in ancient Egypt, circa 2533-2515 BCE. The 4th Dynasty is associated with the Great Pyramids of Giza. The increasing wealth of the ruling families of the period is reflected in their large, elaborate royal portraits. The statue of King Menkaure and his wife, standing 4’8” high, was found in the Valley Temple of the pyramid of Menkaure at Giza. It is a good example of Old Kingdom royal tomb sculpture, although it is the first known work depicting a couple. The pair statue of Menkaure and Khamerenebty exemplifies both dignity and marital affection.
The statue of King Menkaure and his Queen exhibits with clarity the Egyptian devotion of art to a cannon of proportions. Its strictly frontal view point, the rigid poses of the figures, and a faithful accordance to rules and established customs can be interpreted as manifesting the nature of the Pharaoh’s authority over his subjects while at the same time exemplifying the highly regulated, hierarchical structure of ancient Egyptian society. The measured grid of verticals and counterbalancing horizontals, the stiff artificial postures and the overall idealized anatomical shapes of the bodies combined with naturalism is indicative of Egyptian taste for art and a representation of the character of Egyptian culture.
Menkaure’s stance appears assertive, indicating his power. He is portrayed in the familiar Egyptian pose, with his left leg extended forward, his arms held stiff at his sides and his fists clenched. He is represented as a mature, vigorous man, probably in his 30s. He has slender hips, broad shoulders, and well-developed arms. His body has been made to appear life like; overall he represents the ideal of manly beauty in ancient Egypt.
The image of his face and clothing are idealized and indicative of his power. Projecting from his chin is a short, striped, squared-off ceremonial beard. On his head he wears a nemes, or headdress, the sides of which are pulled back behind his large ears and the lappets fall on the sides of his chest. The beard and headdress are the primary symbols of his pharaonic status. The only other article of clothing he wears is a kilt, which is folded across the front, with one end falling down beneath, and held in place with a belt around his waist.
Next to Menkaure stands his Queen, Khamerenebty. She stands in a more naturalistic way than Menkaure. Her right arm reaches around his waist and her left one is bent at the elbow, holding his left arm. The Queen’s gesture serves to bring them unity. Her relaxed pose, her smaller stride forward, the less rigid position of her arms, and her open hands indicate her subordinate position. Therefore, her pose can be interpreted as that of a passive, dutiful wife standing next to her powerful husband.
The treatment of her clothing is intended to reveal and describe the forms of her body. She wears a long, very thin, close fitting garment, which clings to her body without folds or creases. Her breasts are outlined and the nipples showing, her navel and the bulge of her tummy are also indicated. The material clings around her pubic area, showing a triangular shape with the two lower converging sides following the curving lines of her groin. This possibly is a representation of her fertility.
The portrait must be a replica of the man in order to serve his spirit after death.
Therefore, the sculptor has gone into detail to show the individuality of King Menkaure and his Queen. This is seen in his strongly defined features and in the rounder face and plump cheeks of Khamerenebty. Their features are not particularly aristocratic; their royalty is depicted more through the expressions and position of the face. His firmly set jaw, slightly tilted face and direct line of sight are indicators of his authority. This portrayal gives him permanence for eternity and proper housing for their ka.
Moving away from ancient Egyptian royal sculpture, ancient Greek art evolved from the idealized to naturalism and realism. In the Egyptian sculpture of Menkaure and his Queen the main facet indicating power is the body and posture. By contrast, the ancient Greek depiction of Alexander the Great on the tetradrachm coin does not need a body to give an essence of power. Depiction on coins alone is an indicator of power.
Alexander the Great was one of the greatest generals of all time and one of the most powerful rulers of antiquity. As head of a Greek army, he started east on what became one of the greatest conquests of ancient times. Once he rose to the throne, he was successful in unifying Greece, then conquering Persia, Gaza, Egypt, Babylon and India. Because of the success of his conquests, the silver tetradrachm of Alexander was probably the most widely distributed coin of ancient times.
The tetradrachm of Alexander depicts him in a fashion that ordains his divinity and power. It shows Alexander in profile wearing the curled rams horns of Amun/Zeus. Amun is the equivalent of Zeus in Egyptian mythology. During the conquering of Egypt, Alexander visited the Oracle of Amun. The chief priest of Amun welcomed him, calling him the Son of God. This event established his divinity and gave him rights to wear the horns of his ‘father’. However, his portrayal with the horns of Amun is not the only feature establishing his power.
The image of Alexander perceived from his portrayal on the tetradrachm coin is of a determined, successful, compassionate ruler. His heavy features give him a sense of strength. He has a high-bridged protruding nose, thick short neck, large full lips, large deep set eyes looking slightly upward, small forehead, pronounced Adam’s apple, and small chin. The diadem he wears also serves to establish his power and leadership, having gained world domination.
The portrait of Alexander was done in carved relief on silver, with alternating high and low relief serving to give the image more realism. The horns of Amun that Alexander wears are in the highest relief, giving the most important feature the highest visibility. The lower relief of the eye serves to give him an arched brow and deep-set eyes-a look of determination. His rather large, full lips are done in slightly higher relief than the rest of his mouth, almost looking as if they are pursed in a frown. While the in lowest relief are the small beads framing the coin. The result is a realistic portrayal of a ruler.
The depiction of Alexander on the coin is a reliable and identifiable portrait; unlike most ancient Greek sculptures and portraits of rulers and men which are idealized to show man as youthful, athletic, heavily muscled, and naked. This coin was issued some thirty years after Alexander’s death, and after the establishment of the Hellenistic kingdoms. Artists in the Hellenistic era sought to represent the individual and the specific. This marked the beginning of royal portraiture on coins.
In contrast to the deified portrayal of Alexander, the representation of Philip the Arab of Rome is that of a common man. The changing character of imperial rule influenced the evolution of portrait sculpture during Rome’s Late Empire. Unlike earlier rulers of antiquity who came to power through inheritance, emperors of this time period gained political power from successful military leadership.
The middle decades of the 3rd century were characterized by unrest in many spheres of life: economic, religious, military, and political. Philip seized power in 244 CE from Gordian III, after plotting his murder. His short reign, before being murdered himself, was successful. Philip’s career is typical of his time, but historians have maligned his memory since his death, and it has affected the understanding of his public portraits.
The bust of Philip the Arab was sculpted around 244-249 CE in the Republican veristic style. This style is concerned in capturing the exterior likeness of a person with visible details. Philip is portrayed as a common Roman and as an emperor with concerns over matters of the state. It is a remarkably good portrayal of Philip and a great example of Roman portrait sculpture with its accurate presentation of psychological characteristics and expressiveness.
The sculptor has captured a temporary fleeting expression; seemingly of anxiety as Philip turns his head to the right. The effect is almost that of a photograph. The furrowed brow drilled uplifted eyes and heavily lined forehead serve to give Philip a preoccupied look. His image is an expression of the extreme anxiety and stress of troubled times. Interestingly, Philip does not confront the spectator with a look of command; instead, he turns away with an expression of sadness and distress. Rather than seeing this as illustrative of Philip’s “guile, deceit, and fear” (Stokstad, pg. 277), it may be fairer to interpret the expression as representative of Philip’s cares for the sate and devotion to the people’s desires.
Extensive detail shows the creases of Philip’s face and the fine stubble of a beard. This is a sign that the sculptor wanted to show Philip’s individuality, not only physically, but also in his style of leadership. The accurate reflection of Philip’s true exterior image facilitates the realistic depiction of him as ruler.
In conclusion, the portrayal of ancient rulers is dependent not only on the style of art popular during the era, but also on the evolution of the political climate. The portrayal of Menkaure, a pharaoh of the Old Kingdom in ancient Egypt, is of complete authority, control and power. His face does not show concern or grief over his people, because he is not challenged politically, the image of control coincides with his sole power over the kingdom. While the depiction of Alexander the Great, in ancient Greek coins is deified. Alexander’s leadership ended with world domination; therefore, his deified portrayal on monetary funds is particularly appropriate. By contrast, Philip the Arab’s portrait sculpture almost resembles a present day photograph with its capture of fleeting expression. This expression of anxiety and sadness is a representation of the political turmoil during the time period of his rule. Taking the progress of ancient cultures into account, how does the art of sculpting improve in the manipulation of the medium used?
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