Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Egypt in the Middle Kingdom (ca. 2030–1650 B.C.)

The Middle Kingdom designates a period of ancient Egyptian civilization stretching from approximately 2030 to 1650 B.C. (Dynasty 11 through Dynasty 13). During this era, the cultural principles set out at the beginning of Egyptian civilization and codified during the Old Kingdom were reimagined, including the ideology of kingship, the organization of society, religious practices, afterlife beliefs, and relations with neighboring peoples. These transformations are attested to in architecture, sculpture, painting, relief decoration, stelae, jewelry, personal possessions, and literature.

Many Middle Kingdom monuments are poorly preserved, which contributes to the era’s relative lack of modern prominence. Because Egyptian temples dedicated to deities were often replaced by succeeding kings, almost no Middle Kingdom temples remain standing. Many Middle Kingdom pyramids were constructed with mud-brick cores that eroded after their limestone casing was removed by ancient stone robbers. The lack of attention to Middle Kingdom monuments is unfortunate, as this was a period of beautiful artworks rendered with great skill and sensitivity (14.3.17).

The preceding Old Kingdom appears to have been an age of supreme confidence—at least through the scrim of five thousand years. This is exemplified by the pyramids, soaring monuments of solid stone that attest to the sophisticated organizational skills of the era; sculptures that portray youthful, self-assured individuals; and reliefs and paintings depicting abundant landscapes. The most accomplished artworks of the era project an arresting individuality and an overall impression of serenity and poise (52.19).

At the end of the Old Kingdom, centralized political control disintegrated and local rulers came to the fore, ushering in an era we call the First Intermediate Period. The collapse was perhaps the result of poor harvests caused by low Nile floods, although the reasons have been debated. Political power coalesced around two centers, Herakleopolis in the north and Thebes in the south, with the southern rulers eventually defeating the Herakleopolitans (57.95). In some sense, ancient Egyptian culture never seemed to completely recover from this cataclysm; in fact, according to the surviving Middle Kingdom texts, there was a more pronounced fear of chaotic forces and an emphasis on unity within the country. At the same time, the memory of upheaval may have proved inspiring to the ancient Egyptians, as it showed them that they could recover from periods of disorder. Perhaps this is at least part of the reason the Middle Kingdom was viewed in subsequent eras as an ideal epoch.

While Middle Kingdom culture represents a significant transformation of Old Kingdom society, the period itself underwent three distinct transitions, the first occurring between the end of Dynasty 11 and the beginning of Dynasty 12. Although within the norms of Egyptian representation, southern Theban art at the very beginning of the Middle Kingdom displays distinct local traits, including figures with attenuated limbs and emphasized eyes, and forms with a high degree of interior patterning (14.2.7). Some two-dimensional representations that seem to have little precedent are particular to the Theban area, including depictions of intriguing rites connected with the goddess Hathor and the beautification of queens. Tombs and temple have dramatic pillared facades, and these are set against the sheer limestone cliffs that are an impressive feature of the southern landscape. As the reunification of the country proceeded under Mentuhotep II (26.3.29), and closer connections were established with the north and its traditions, Theban artworks melded the styles and iconography of the two regions.

The early Middle Kingdom revival of Old Kingdom forms continued at the start of Dynasty 12 under kings Amenemhat I and Senwosret I, when a new capital was established in the north at Itjtawi, near the center of Old Kingdom political power. Sculpture, relief, painting, and architecture show clear affinities with Old Kingdom traditions, though some influence of Dynasty 11 remains (08.200.5). During these reigns the building of pyramid complexes resumed, accompanied by mastabas constructed as memorials and burial places for the elite.

While there is evidence that Old Kingdom pharaohs contributed artworks to temples dedicated to deities, royal patronage of such monuments expanded considerably in the Middle Kingdom. Particularly during the reign of Senwosret I, we find the first substantial remains of god’s temples with stone walls, extensive relief decoration, and sculpture programs. Thebes witnessed the inception of one of the greatest temples of ancient Egypt, the Karnak complex, dedicated to the increasingly powerful god Amun. The presence of deity temples in important locations throughout Egypt can also be understood as a means to unify the populace and stress the king’s dominant role in regional centers.

Much of our fascination with the Middle Kingdom lies in the dramatic shift that occurred in mid- to late Dynasty 12, during the reigns of Senwosret II, Senwosret III, and Amenemhat III. Unfortunately, no text explains these transformations, which are manifested in the remains of architecture, tombs and their grave goods, relief decoration, literature, and, most vividly, the sculpted faces of the kings and their courtiers (56.136). These changes must reflect profound alterations in religious beliefs and practices, the king’s role as a political and spiritual leader, and the relationship between the king and his people.

Most intriguing is that these developments seem to have been pervasive and perhaps interconnected. For example, the more mature faces on statues of Senwosret III (26.7.1394) and Amenemhat III likely embody new ideas concerning kingship, in relation to either political power or the ruler’s religious role. At the same time there were significant alterations in the form of the royal cult complex, which saw the emergence of different temple types, the shrinking of older ones, and changed location of the complexes. New types of symbolic jewelry worn as sets were deposited in the burials of royal and elite women, indicating further alterations in religious practice (16.1.6; 16.1.7a). There was a vast increase in the number of private monuments constructed at sacred sites such as Abydos and Elephantine, and these memorials feature depictions of large and extended family groups, including associates who were not kin. The larger family groups depicted on stelae find a contemporary parallel in tombs that accommodated multiple individuals. Beyond the religious sphere, around the reign of Senwosret III the political office of nomarch, or regional governor, was suppressed or phased out, a development that corresponded to the disappearance of elaborately decorated regional tombs. Concurrently, the production of certain types of objects ceased, including models of workshops, food-production facilities, and domestic structures (20.3.13), which first appeared in late Old Kingdom tombs and were prevalent in Dynasty 11 and early Dynasty 12.

The final era of Middle Kingdom transformation occurred in Dynasty 13, when about fifty kings ruled over approximately 150 years. While a few occupied the throne for longer periods, some reigned for a year or less. Kingship in Dynasty 13 certainly did not pass serially from father to son or even within a single family, but rather seems to have circulated among the leading families. It is unclear what happened to these short-reigning kings. One might speculate that the role of the king had become largely ceremonial, with rotating pharaohs serving for a limited amount of time and high-ranking officials wielding true political power. But surviving records do not substantiate such practices.

Imagery in Dynasty 13 transitions between the idealizing and humanizing tendencies of art from Dynasty 12, often combining the two. Magnificent statues of the kings were still created, despite the fact that most royal tombs seem to have been left unfinished and temple additions were limited. The numerous statues and stelae of nonroyal elite are often as fine as those of the earlier Middle Kingdom.

During the Middle Kingdom, monumentality achieved a greater balance between architecture and sculpture. While large temples, pyramid complexes, and tomb superstructures were built, none of these buildings had the same massiveness as their Old or New Kingdom counterparts. At the same time, overlifesize and monumental sculptures—largely, though not exclusively, depicting the pharaoh—became widespread (L.2011.42). Monumentality was a device used by Middle Kingdom kings to stress their dominion over the entire country.

Contrasting with monumentality in Middle Kingdom art is a penchant for delicate, intimate detail (26.7.1275a–j). In some cases, Middle Kingdom artists lavished extraordinary attention and labor on parts of objects that were not easily visible. For example, Middle Kingdom jewelry was not only covered with impossibly tiny inlays, but the backs of the best pieces were embellished with elaborate chased decoration visible solely to the women who wore them (16.1.3a, b).

The Metropolitan Museum has long been at the forefront of the excavation and study of Middle Kingdom art and archaeology. Between 1906 and 1934 excavations were undertaken in the temple of Nebhepetre Mentuhotep II at Deir el-Bahari; the tombs of officials on the West Bank at Thebes; the pyramid complexes of Amenemhat I and Senwosret I at Lisht; and the mastabas of officials built at Lisht. In the last thirty years, excavations at Lisht and the pyramid complex of Senwosret III at Dahshur have brought to light fresh information about Middle Kingdom architectural forms, iconography, and artistic development. The Museum’s collection of Middle Kingdom art is among the most important outside of Egypt, and includes pieces found during earlier excavations, when Egypt allowed finds to be divided with excavating institutions.