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Amarna Letters. Essays on Ancient Egypt, c.

1390
Volume One, Fall 1991
KMT Communications
San Francisco, California, USA
rsBN 1-879388-03-0

l3l0 BC.

NEFERTITI

A DRAWI NG-BOARD BEAUTY?


The 'most lifelike work of Egyptian afl
is simply the embodiment of numerical order
by Rolf Krauss
etween 1911 and 19"1,4, an expedition
of the German Oriental Society under
the direction of Ludwig Borchardt
carried out excavations in the ruins of
El Amarna, the site in Middle EgYPt
that has lent its name to the era of the
heretic pharaoh, Akhenaten. The city
which once occupied the plain where the excavations
were undertaken was founded about 1350 B.C- at
Akhenaten's order, to serve as the administrative center
of Egypt and royal residence for the king and his chief
queen, Nefertiti. Late in 19t2, the German excavators
began clearing the estate of a sculptor where statuary
depicting the royal family was found. Among the
finished works of art unearthed in the sculptor/s house
was the bust of Queen Nefertiti which is exhibited
nowadays in the Egyptian Museum, BerlinCharlottenburg (Fig. 2).
The bust of the queen is, in fact, only one of many
works of art executed in the distinctive style of the
Amarna period, but its excellent state of preservationthat includes still-brilliant original painting-has made
it not only the symbol par excellence for the art of
Akhenaten's reign, but also one of the best known works
of ancient art. Since it was first put on exhibition,
practically everybookwritten on Egyptian art has been

Figure 1, far left,


a photogrammetric
rendering of the frontal aiaa
of the bust of Nefertiti
(courtesy of the Instituts fr
Luftbildmessung und
Photogrammetrie der TU

Berlin; ouerlaY grid, the


author). Figure 2, Ieft, the
Nefertiti bust in right-Profile
(photo courtesY of the
gyp t isches Muse um Ber I in

).

illustrated with a photograph of it.


Inextricably associated with the bust in the popular
consciousness is the clich6 of the queen's beauty which
it is customarily presumed to render faithfully. In 1923,
when he introduced his find to the general public,
Borchardt scmpulously avoided using the term
"beautiful"-a word laden with philosophical
connotations-to describe the subject of the bust.
Instead, he characterized the bust as the "most lifelike
work of Egyptian art" and the face per se as:
"the epitome of tranquility and harmony. Viewed
straight on it is perfectly symmetrical, but
nevertheless, the viewer is never in doubt that he
has before him not just any imaginary ideal image
but rather the likeness, at once stylized but
simultaneously true (to life), of a specific person
with a highly distinctive appearance."'
The ambiguity reflected in Borchardt's description was
echoed mny years later when Rudolf Anthes, then in
charge of the Egyptian collection in Berlin, remarked on
the face's formal underlying structure "that might well
appear artificial at first."2

47

L0-y2 and Il-Yz fingerbreadth heights measure aboved


O. Similarly, the roots of the eyebrows lie on a vertical
half-fingerbreadth line. This convergence of grid lines
and important physiognomic features (and elements of
the queen's crown as well) cannot be fortuitous but rather
the iesult of the sculptor's intentional use of a
metrological system to design the face. If the sculptor
hadrandomly posittoned the contour of the chin, the line i
of the mou{h and so forth, then he could have located
any one of these features either somewhat higher or
lower than the grid line. That his choice of the grid linerather than a position above or below it-was
coincidental, is as improbable as it would be for the same
number to result from four to five consecutive throws
of a die.
Both the positive appraisal of the bust's face s---,
"harmonious" (i.e. "beautiful") and the negative
judgment of it as "cold" and/or "lifeless" may represent
subjective responses of one or the other grouP of modem
critics to the use of a grid, based primarily upon the
regular recurrence of whole number units, to compose
cubitthe
whether
but
works,
used the cubit to design his
it. The supporters of the one or the other viewpoint can
measure played a role in the artist's rendering of human
hardly be shown to render their subiective verdicts in a
physiognomy is not known. If the cubit is used to
vacuum, but rather in accordance with different artthat
nlysiZe thebust of Nefertiti, it is at once apparent
historical traditions. For works created in the tradition
fingerbreadth
using
the crown was designed
of Classical art, "beantty" was synonymous with a
measurements: Over the queen's forehead it is nine
harmonious relationship of the parts of a whole to each
fingerbreadths tall and at its widest point it measures
fiom
other. "Beauty" resulted in the Classical context
is
thirteen fingerbreadths across; the uraeus serpent
*"r'^^'
were
canonically"correct"
which
proportions
four
coils,
its
seven fingerbreadths tall and
fingerbredths wide. The application of the same scale established and determined numerically. By stark
contrast, the Romantic tradition considered a wc-,ik of
to the face itself yields surprising results: The mouth is
art to be something irrational and incompatible with a
exactly one and the preserved ear exactly three
canon of proportions. "Beauty" in the Romantic view is
two
fingerbreadths tall, the nostrils measure
not determined by means of proportional relationships.
fingerbreadths in width and the distance between the
In so far as the Classical or the Romantic tradition forms
eyebrows is one fingerbreadth.
the background for contrasting evaluations of the
Ih order to determine if the sculptor used the cubit
aesthetics of the Nefertiti bust, they become irrelevant,
elements
isolated
only to establish the size of individual
since the bust-as an ancient Egyptian work of artwhole
a
comprehensive
as
work
or rther to design the
belongs to neither of those traditions.
one must visualize the entire bust like the ancient
Another issue Borchadt raised in his description of the
sculptor did before he firsj applied his chisel to the
is how closely it resembles its subject, Queen
bust
frontal
squred-up limestone blocki.e., in the profile,
Nefertiti.
On the basis of the research that I har're
the
of
a
side
on
drawn
and back rri"*t of the head, each
it seems that other "portrait" heads of the
conducted,
original
sculptor's
The
disposal.
his
at
had
he
block
queen were also designed with reference to a grid, but,
drawing of the full face can be, simulate{-Fy .
however, not according to one single metrological set.
photogiammetric rendering of the bust as illustratedby
It suffices to cite one specific example: In the bust, the
study
this
purposg.of
tigur"i. The grid laid over ii for the
ratio of the distance between the chin and the nru':ltll-to
is^
grid
The
unit.
basic
the
as
.tes the fingrbreadth
that between the chin and the base of the nose is 2:3,
superposed-over the drawing-with the horizontal line o
in another head depicting the queen, the ratio of the
but
at ine base of the bust and the vertical grid line O'
elements is 3:4. Similarly, the distance between
same
is
It
face.
the
of
coinciding with the symmetrigal axis
the
eyes,
the height of the bridge of the nose and the
chin,
the
of
contour
lower
the
that
immediaty uppurenf
degree of flatness of the face are variable from one face
the line of ine mouth, the bottom of the nose, the rim
to another. These variations in proportion resultin such
of the lower eyelids, the outer tips of the eyebrows (clear
significant differences that some Egyptologists refuse to
arch
the
and
only in a profile view of the buslwith gFd)
certain heads as depictions of Nefertiti,-arg-ulng
if
accept
And
fingerbreadths.
horizontal
of tire brows all lie on
thatlhey
represent one of her daughters instead. Thus
of
both
contours
the
then
half-fingerbreadths,
we use
Borchardt's
description of the bust's face as "a likeness
the lower and ulpet lips are delimited by, respectively,
at once stylized but simultaneously true (to life) of a
specific person" is problematic. In any case, Nefertiti's
aitual physical appearance was unknown to Borchardt1923)'
(Leipzig,
N
ofret-ete
I . L. Borchardt, P ortrts der Knigin
just as it is today-and furthermore, it is a maiter of
33.
dispute towhatextent the "portraits" of ancientEgyptian
11.
(Berlin,
1954),
2. R. Anth es, Die Bste der Knigin Nofret-ete

A review of the scholarly literature on the bust of


Nefertiti reveals the striking fact that critical or
ambiguous reactions to the aesthetic of the queen's
physical appearance are not at all uncommon. The
djectives with negative connotations used to describe
Nefertiti's beauty s embodied in the bust range ftoT
" clear r" " dty," " cool" and "obj ectiver " to "artificial" and
even "lifeless." Positive evaluations of her appearance,
on the other hand, range from "harmonious" and
"regular" to "faultless" and even "divine." Only a jew
of these characterizations can be taken seriously-for
example, "divine" and "lifeless" are obviously subjective
and intended metaphorically, whereas judgments like
"harmonious" and r'regular" are applicable, since they
imply regularity of proportion.
ean such appraisals be confirmed by actual
measurement? Of course the standard used most often
must be the Egyptian cubit and its 28 subdivisions or
"fingerbreadths't each measuring 1.875 cm. It has been
conClusively demonstrated that the Egyptian sculptor

Figure 3, aboae left, Iimestone relief of Akhenaten in the "rdic|"


early style. Figure 4, aboue right, plaster Ltead of the king in the

Amarna art as a whole, regardless of the sfylistic phase


in question.
" moderete" late style (bottt photos courtesy of the Agyptisches Museum
Although the Nlefertiti bust is assignable to the
Berlin),
moderate stylistic phase, there remain reminiscences of
the early style in the thin, sinervy and long neck, the
royalty reflect their actual appearance.
What can be said, finally , of Borchardt's appraisal of slightly sunken cheeks, the narrow face, the knobby
nose and the slanted eyes. The liveliness of this stylized
the bust as "the most lifelike work of Egyptian art" ? This
formalism is present alongside a dynamic component at
question must be investigated against the background
once apparent in the profile view of the bust (fig .2), The
of Amarna art per se. According to current scholarship,
conver#ng diagnonal contours of the neck and crown
Amarna art experienced principalty two stylistic phases,
meet to form an angle that juts forward. To these stylistic
rvhich for the purposes of this study may be
and compositional features is addd, finallv, the
characterized as a "radical" early style and a more
"modetate" late style. An example of a representation physiognomy whose individual elements have been
of King Akhenaten in the early style is illustrated in figure integrated into a metrological system. But in spite of this
constructed element and although any mekological
3; figure 4 depicts him in the late style. The rendeti^g
of the physiognomy in figure 3 is so far removed from system as such is not full of life but simply the
realif as to be unbelievable, while in figure 4 it is clearly embodiment of a certain numerical order, Borchardt's
conspicuous but believable. In both cases it is a matter description of the bust as "lifelike" rings true.
of the same physiognomic forms, expressed by curved
lines and spherical volumes, but rendered either in a
(Editor's Note: This article originally appeared under the title
"radical" style or a "moderate" one. The physiognomy- "Nofretete-eine Schnheit vom Reissbrett?" in the Mttseums
a long, thin and arched neck, a narrow face, a hangi.g
lournal (April 1989) of the Museumpdogogischer Dienst
Berlin. It is re-published here with permission. Ordering cf
chin, thick lips, a nose with a knobby tip, a receding
the figures is different here from the origrnal.)
forehe dd, slanted eyes and sunken cheeks-lend
themselves to exaggeration in the "radical" style
About the Author: Dr. Rolf Krauss is librarian oi the
epitomized by figure 3. In figure 4 we encounter the
Agyptisches Museum-Charlottenburg in Berlin and the author
same forms, but they have been realized in the
of numerous scholarlv articles, particularly on the Amarna
"moderate" sfle. The "lifelike" impression created by period of which he is regarded as a leading expert. He is
both depictions of Akhenaten is obvious. Evidently,
married to Dr. Marianne Eaton-Krauss, herself a wellBorchardt's characterization of the lrlefertiti bust as the published Amarna scholar, who kindly translatecl Dr. Krauss's
"most lifelike rvork of Egyptian art" actually upplies to article for its English-language publication in ttris journal.

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