Blogs/ Now at The Met/ Curator Interview: Head of Tutankhamun

Curator Interview: Head of Tutankhamun


Head of Tutankhamun, New Kingdom, Dynasty 18, reign of Tutankhamun, ca. 1336–1327 B.C. Egyptian. Indurated limestone; H. 5 7/8 in. (14.9 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Rogers Fund, 1950 (50.6).

This beautiful sculpture, a representation of the boy-king Tutankhamun, is among the nearly sixty objects featured in the current exhibition Tutankhamun's Funeral. I spoke with Dorothea Arnold, the Lila Acheson Wallace Chairman of the Department of Egyptian Art, about the significance and style of this work.

Jennette Mullaney: What does this sculpture communicate to us about Tutankhamun?

Dorothea Arnold: I think the first thing it communicates is the youth of this king. He really looks like a very young person. And there is also the frailty, which we now know more about since the recent investigations that have just been published. Tutankhamun was indeed not very healthy and the artist has clearly incorporated that into his representation. And then there is this hand here in the back of the young king's crown. It is the hand of the god Amun, the supreme deity in ancient Egypt at that time. The presence of the god's hand enables us to reconstruct the complete work of which we have only the king's head preserved here: It was a group sculpture, showing the god seated on a throne and the king standing in front of him facing the viewer. The piece was most probably commissioned at the time of the king's coronation when Tutankhamun was in his early teens. At an ancient Egyptian coronation many rituals were performed, but the one that is perhaps most often depicted included the god's touching of the crown. You notice Amun does not actually put the crown on the king's head—as we know it from coronations in the Western world from medieval times till today—he just touches it. It is a gesture of divine confirmation and thus legitimizes the particular ruler who is thus depicted.

Jennette Mullaney: I noticed how large the hand is in comparison.

Dorothea Arnold: That is because the figure of the god was larger than the one of the king. In Egyptian art human beings were usually depicted smaller than gods and kings if they appeared together in a representation, but kings were very often given the same height as the deities with whom they interacted. That this is not the case in this sculpture must again have emphasized the king's youth, and expressed, perhaps, the belief that this young and frail ruler was especially cared for by the god. There is still more expressed in the way the sculptor shaped the hand of the god: If you look at hands in other works from the same period, you will find that the human hand is usually shown in a relaxed position. This divine hand is tensed, expressing the view that Amun is active as he willingly bestows his blessing on the king.

Jennette Mullaney: Does this work reflect the influence of the Amarna style favored by Tutankhamun's predecessor, Akhenaten?

Dorothea Arnold: A good question. It does indeed—it's created in what we call the post-Amarna style. That is the artistic language that emerged during the late years of King Akhenaten's reign. The art of what we call the Amarna period starts out—during the first years of Akhenaten's reign (ca. 1352–1336 b.c.)—with a "bang," a far-reaching reversal of previous Egyptian art traditions and a striving for more expression that was attained through over-emphasized and often unashamedly ugly features. These tendencies calmed down noticeably once the new residence at Amarna was firmly established, and the artistic language during the later years of the reign was less aggressive, more smooth, exhibiting a special elegance and sensitivity. The post-Amarna style grew directly out of that. This head of Tutankhamun is a prime example of that elegant and sensitive style. You see it above all in the fine manner in which the surfaces are treated. The crown is the so-called blue crown, which consisted of a leather cap onto which little metal paillettes were sewn. With his representation of the concave metal disks the sculptor has achieved the impression of a shimmering surface that contrasts in a wonderfully sensitive manner with the smoothness of the facial flesh.

And then there's that smile. There is a smile in many ancient Egyptian sculpted faces, but the subtle way how here the bow-shaped upper lip lifts and the soft muscles around the corners of the mouth sink in, that is Amarna and post-Amarna art at its most appealing best. The stone chosen for this sculpture, by the way, is a very hard and dense, almost marble-like limestone. This stone was much in favor at the time, not the least, I am sure, because the surfaces could be so smoothly treated.

Jennette Mullaney is associate email marketing manager in the Department of Digital Media.

Department: Egyptian Art

{{ article.postDate }}