Mortuary Temple and Large Kneeling Statue of Hatshepsut

Egyptian kings were typically men, but Hatshepsut became pharaoh and used art to convey her divine and royal authority.

Mortuary Temple and Large Kneeling Statue of Hatshepsut, c. 1479–1458 B.C.E., New Kingdom, Egypt

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:05] We’re in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, in the section devoted to the art of ancient Egypt. We’re looking at an enormous granite sculpture.

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:16] This is a sculpture of the female pharaoh Hatshepsut.

Dr. Zucker: [0:19] We think of pharaohs, that is, ancient Egyptian kings, as male. Of course, the vast majority were. There had been a long tradition in ancient Egypt of women assuming enormous authority in the position of regent — that is, as a mother or a member of the royal family who would reign until a male ruler reached an age where they could actually assume power.

Dr. Harris: [0:40] Those women were very powerful. But Hatshepsut is unusual. She assumes the authority of king, of pharaoh. She created a whole mythology around her kingship that described her divine birth, the way that an oracle had predicted that she would become king. She ruled Egypt for more than two decades.

[1:00] She commissioned a remarkable number of temples, of sculptures. She was interested in the power of art to convey royal authority.

Dr. Zucker: [1:10] No building speaks to the authority of the king more than the mortuary temple.

Dr. Harris: [1:15] The sculpture that we’re looking at was actually made for this mortuary temple. There were anywhere from 6 or 8 or 10 of these kneeling figures. There were also representations of Hatshepsut as a sphinx, which lined the center of the lower courtyard of her mortuary temple.

Dr. Zucker: [1:34] That temple is an extraordinary place. It is built directly against this vast cliff face. I can’t think of a more dramatic environment for architecture. Those cliffs are towering, and their organic qualities are in such contrast to the regular order and structure of the built environment.

Dr. Harris: [1:53] This is hewn right from the living rock.

Dr. Zucker: [1:56] That sense of permanence, that sense of stability that’s expressed by that wall of living rock, is a perfect expression of the very sense of stability that we think Hatshepsut and her dynasty were trying to reassert after a period of instability. This was the beginning of the New Kingdom.

Dr. Harris: [2:12] In ancient Egyptian history, we talk about three major periods — the Old Kingdom, the Middle Kingdom, and the New Kingdom. These periods are separated by periods we call intermediate periods.

Dr. Zucker: [2:23] These were periods of relative chaos, often when Egypt was divided in its rule or was ruled by external rulers.

Dr. Harris: [2:30] The representations of kingship in ancient Egyptian art are almost two millennia old by the time we get to Hatshepsut, and so what she can do is adopt those forms to show herself as king. These forms were easily recognizable, that is: symmetry, its embeddedness in the stone, we see that there’s no space between her arms and her torso or between her legs. There is a real sense of timelessness here, but there are also more specific symbols.

Dr. Zucker: [3:01] The head cloth that she wears is a symbol of the king. There would have originally been a cobra. We have the beard that we associate with kingship.

Dr. Harris: [3:08] We’re talking about visual language here, and this visual language of kingship was male. In fact, there is no word for queen in the Egyptian language. The term is king’s wife or king’s mother.

Dr. Zucker: [3:22] Her body is represented in a relatively masculine way. Her breasts are de-emphasized, for example. She’s got broad shoulders.

Dr. Harris: [3:28] The inscriptions that were on many of the sculptures use a feminine form. The representation itself is masculine, but the identifying words, the hieroglyphs, identify her as female.

[3:42] About 20 years after Hatshepsut died, the pharaoh who she had been co-ruler with systematically destroyed all images of Hatshepsut.

Dr. Zucker: [3:52] That would not have been an easy matter. You wouldn’t have simply toppled the sculpture and it would have shattered into so many pieces. This is made of granite, incredibly hard stone. It would have been very difficult to produce and it would have been very difficult to destroy.

Dr. Harris: [4:06] Not only that, but Hatshepsut had commissioned hundreds of images of herself. It would have taken a long time to destroy these sculptures. This was an intentional act, but we’re not really sure why this happened.

Dr. Zucker: [4:19] We do know that the fragments were discovered in the early 20th century thanks to an excavation undertaken by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which is why they’re here.

[4:28] What we’re seeing are a series of monumental sculptures that have been put back together. Some of this is guesswork. We don’t know if one particular fragment goes with one sculpture versus another.

Dr. Harris: [4:38] When we look at those sculptures, we see her in a range of positions. In some she’s kneeling, in some she’s standing, in some she’s seated, in some she’s represented as a sphinx.

Dr. Zucker: [4:48] A king only would kneel, of course, to a god. That really helps us place this sculpture along the processional path.

Dr. Harris: [4:56] Once a year, there was a ritual involving a sculpture of a god. Now we have to remember that, for Egyptians, the sculpture of the god was the embodiment of the god. Temples were houses for a god.

[5:10] Once a year, the sculpture of the primary god, Amun-Re, was taken from the temple in Thebes on the eastern side of the Nile.

Dr. Zucker: [5:21] And carried across the river on a ceremonial barque, on a shrine that was shaped like a boat.

Dr. Harris: [5:27] As though he were traveling literally across the Nile from the eastern side, the land of the living, toward the land of the dead. He would be carried up this causeway toward the temple and his primary shrine in the mortuary temple at the very top center.

Dr. Zucker: [5:46] That sculpture would have then spent one night in that shrine before it would have been returned across the river.

Dr. Harris: [5:51] It makes sense, then, that you would have this representation of Hatshepsut on her knees, making an offering. These two bowls or jars that she holds are an offering to the god, because the god passed in front of these sculptures, who are not just sculptures but embodiments of Hatshepsut.

Dr. Zucker: [6:08] It’s interesting how the scholarship that surrounds this ruler has changed. Early in the 20th century, for example, the destruction of the images of this ruler were associated with the idea that she was out of place, that she was a usurper, and she was seen very much in a negative light. She’s seen much more sympathetically now in the early 21st century.

Dr. Harris: [6:29] There were women before Hatshepsut who asserted themselves as kings, and there were a few women after her, but Hatshepsut had enormous power, enormous influence.

[6:39] The sculptures, the architecture that she commissioned, set an important standard and inspiration for all the later work of the New Kingdom. Imagine walking past these enormous sculptures of Hatshepsut.

Dr. Zucker: [6:54] This is all about procession. This is all about pageantry. This is all about expressing the power of the king.

Dr. Harris: [7:01] Kneeling like this is not something you can do for more than a minute or two. It’s hard on the toes, it’s hard on the knees. So this is a position that someone would only take very temporarily, and yet there’s something very eternal about the sculpture, something very permanent.

[7:16] This is not a figure who engages us, who’s in the world, but who lives in the eternal. This is an image of a king who is also a god.

[7:24] [music]

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Cite this page as: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Mortuary Temple and Large Kneeling Statue of Hatshepsut," in Smarthistory, August 9, 2015, accessed July 15, 2024,