Sphinx of King Senwosret III

Middle Kingdom
Dynasty 12
reign of Senwosret III
ca. 1878–1840 B.C.
From Egypt, Upper Egypt; Thebes, Karnak probably
L. 73 cm (28 3/4 in.); W. 29.5 cm (11 5/8 in.); H. 42.5 cm (16 3/4 in.)
Credit Line:
Gift of Edward S. Harkness, 1917
Accession Number:
  • Description

    Because of their strength, ferocity, imposing mane, and awesome roar, lions were associated with kingship since prehistoric times. As divine guardians against evil, they also symbolized in cosmic myths the place on the horizon where the sun was reborn every day. With the body of a lion and the head of a human, the sphinx symbolically combined the power of the lion with the image of the reigning king. In this magnificent example, the face belongs to Senwosret III of Dynasty 12 whose features are very distinctive (see 26.7.1394). He wears a pleated linen headcloth, called a nemes headdress, which is symbolic of kingship. The nemes is surmounted by a cobra, which represents the goddess Udjo, one of the protectors of the king. The cobra's hood and head were either carved separately or they were repaired in antiquity, for there is an ancient dowel hole drilled into the place where the cobra's upright body would be.

    While the Egyptians viewed the standing sphinx as a conqueror, the crouching sphinx was a guardian of sacred places. Thus pairs of sphinxes flanked avenues or entrances to important buildings. This sphinx was carved from a single block of beautifully grained anorthosite gneiss from quarries in Nubia. The sculptor has used the pattern in the stone to great effect on the body of the lion and has masked the potentially awkward transition from animal body to human head with the headdress and the stylized pattern representing the lion's mane. Note the difference between the ordered long strands of the mane in front and the short, overlapping tufts on the back of the shoulders. Below the beard, a palace facade (serekh) is incised topped by a falcon and the symbol for the sky. Both the king's Horus name (divine of thrones) and his throne name (shining are the life forces [kas] of Re) are written in the serekh.

  • Provenance

    Purchased in Cairo from Maurice Nahman, 1917.

  • See also
    In the Museum
    Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History