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13 / The Body

Fragment of a wall relief showing the sister of Djehutyhotep
Fragment of a wall relief showing the sister of Djehutyhotep
Artist / Origin Unknown artist, Deir el-Bersha, Egypt
Region: Africa
Date Middle Kingdom, 12th Dynasty, ca. 1850 BCE
Material Painted limestone relief
Medium: Sculpture
Dimensions H: 28 ¼ in. (71.5 cm.), W: 12 ¼ (33.5 cm.)
Location The British Museum, London, UK
Credit © British Museum/Art Resource, NY

expert perspective

Deborah VischakLecturer of Art and Archaeology, Princeton University

Additional Resources

“Fragment of wall relief showing the sister of Djehutyhotep.” In Highlights. The British Museum Web site. http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights.aspx.

Hawass, Zahi. Silent Images: Women in Pharaonic Egypt. Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 1995.

Malek, Jaromir. Egyptian Art (Art and Ideas). London: Phaidon, 1999.

Robins, Gay. Art of Ancient Egypt, revised edition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008.

Robins, Gay. Proportion and Style in Ancient Egyptian Art. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1994.

Robins, Gay. Women in Ancient Egypt. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993.

Silverman, David, ed. Ancient Egypt. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Fragment of a wall relief showing the sister of Djehutyhotep

» Unknown artist, Deir el-Bersha, Egypt

This painted relief comes from the tomb of Djehutyhotep, a nomarch, or “governor,” of the Fifteenth Upper Egyptian nome (province).

The figure shown, which belongs to a group believed to represent Djehutyhotep’s female relatives, is thought to be the governor’s sister.

During the Twelfth Dynasty, the period in which this relief was created, a canonical grid was devised to standardize representations of the human form. This geometric grid specified such bodily proportions as the ratio of the height of a standing figure to the vertical levels of the knees, waist, elbows, armpits, and shoulders. The figure of Djehutyotep’s sister presumably follows this idealized, uniform approach to depicting the human body, which would be widely followed until the advent of the Amarna period centuries later.

The image combines sideways and frontal views, with the shoulders, arms and upper chest shown frontally, while the head, uncovered left breast, torso, legs, and feet are rendered in profile. To the modern eye familiar with a more naturalistic European art tradition, this approach to the human form is often unfairly judged as elementary and unsophisticated. In fact, Egyptian representations of the body were highly conceptual. They were never intended to be mimetic or illusionistic. By rendering their figures from more than one angle simultaneously, they were able to highlight all aspects of the idealized body at once. What’s more, the lack of three-dimensional space implied by these figures actually serves to remove them from present reality. Thus, they are able to exist in a suspended state of timelessness in which they remain eternally young, strong, perfect. When we do find figures in Egyptian art that do not have these composite forms or appear in static poses, they are more often than not laborers, entertainers, or other members of the non-elite classes.

The individual depicted here is clearly a woman of privilege. Her svelte figure, emphasized by a form-fitting white dress, is accentuated and adorned with jewelry around her neck, wrists, and ankles. The woman’s hair is worn in long plaits as it would have been on special occasions, perhaps supplemented with additional braids in the same color as her own.

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