The strong opinions expressed about the first official portrait of the Duchess of Cambridge, unveiled this week, highlight the continuing interest in depictions of royalty. But how do modern experiences and expectations of a royal image compare to those in ancient Egypt? Catherine’s portrait – completed, the artist stated, mainly from photographs – captures a highly recognisable face, without any setting or regalia to imply status. It is, clearly, an ‘art work’.
Quite in contrast, Pharaonic scenes are functional rather than purely aesthetic. Many focus on the king: he is recognisable by his scale, insignia, and position in a scene. Viewers are left in no doubt about who he is. Royal family members are identifiable for the same reasons. But was any attempt made to make these individuals look like themselves?
In ancient Egypt, the pharaoh was at all periods, in some sense, the image of a god. A finely carved scene from the temple of Ahmose I at Abydos in the Manchester Museum highlights this. The king embraces Osiris – the god’s facial features are indistinguishable from his own. These are not recognisable ‘portraits’ in the modern sense. We may speak of a particular portrait ‘type’ or ‘types’ – promulgated at the start of a reign (and perhaps again at other key moments), and applied to royal family members and even the elite. Yet these are not intended as reflections of reality. Egyptian visual culture was essentially idealising. This was because it was created for an eternal audience, not to capture a fleeting moment – unless that moment was something that might impress the gods.
It didn’t matter what the king, or his family, looked like in scenes or statues. It is doubtful that very many people would have got close enough to the pharaoh to even register his facial features and ‘recognise’ them in a temple wall scene or statue. We are today very familiar with famous faces: the new portrait of Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, has already been replicated millions of times around the world. Most people, in Britain at least, would know her if they met her. In ancient Egypt, such recognition was simply not important, nor was it to be expected: the content of a scene or statue make clear which VIP was who. For those with some familiarity with the meaning of hieroglyphic signs, or even their general arrangement, a cartouche captioning the image would provide additional information.
A modern eye may see what it perceives as portraiture in the ‘careworn’ features of some Middle Kingdom kings, or at other times when representations of the human face deviated from the idealising. Yet, we must be aware that there is a difference between a face being ‘life-like’ (resembling an unknown living person) and ‘true-to-life’ (an image of a specific individual). If nothing else, a life-like face is more arresting, more inviting than an idealised one – and a chief purpose of sculpture was to attract attention from the living, but also from the dead and the gods.
The claims of sculptors during the reign of Akhenaten to have been instructed by the king himself indicate no more than a desire to express closeness to the pharaoh. The issue of what Akhenaten looked like, behind all the ideological filtering of his wide range of images, is a vexed one. It is, however, likely that – whatever others may have thought – Akhenaten approved of his images. What the Duchess of Cambridge really thought of her own portrait we may never know.
I will discuss the existence of royal portraiture, amongst other issues, in a ‘Museum Meets’ study day next Saturday, the 19th of January: ‘How Did Statues Work in Ancient Egypt?’