Why do so many Egyptian statues have broken noses?

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

"The consistency of the patterns where damage is found in sculpture suggests that it's purposeful..."

CNN - March 2019

... The ancient Egyptians, it's important to note, ascribed important powers to images of the human form. They believed that the essence of a deity could inhabit an image of that deity, or, in the case of mere mortals, part of that deceased human being's soul could inhabit a statue inscribed for that particular person. These campaigns of vandalism were therefore intended to "deactivate an image's strength," as Bleiberg put it.

Tombs and temples were the repositories for most sculptures and reliefs that had a ritual purpose. "All of them have to do with the economy of offerings to the supernatural," Bleiberg said. In a tomb, they served to "feed" the deceased person in the next world with gifts of food from this one. In temples, representations of gods are shown receiving offerings from representations of kings, or other elites able to commission a statue.

"Egyptian state religion," Bleiberg explained, was seen as "an arrangement where kings on Earth provide for the deity, and in return, the deity takes care of Egypt." Statues and reliefs were "a meeting point between the supernatural and this world," he said, only inhabited, or "revivified," when the ritual is performed. And acts of iconoclasm could disrupt that power.

"The damaged part of the body is no longer able to do its job," Bleiberg explained. Without a nose, the statue-spirit ceases to breathe, so that the vandal is effectively "killing" it. To hammer the ears off a statue of a god would make it unable to hear a prayer. In statues intended to show human beings making offerings to gods, the left arm -- most commonly used to make offerings -- is cut off so the statue's function can't be performed (the right hand is often found axed in statues receiving offerings).

"In the Pharaonic period, there was a clear understanding of what sculpture was supposed to do," Bleiberg said. Even if a petty tomb robber was mostly interested in stealing the precious objects, he was also concerned that the deceased person might take revenge if his rendered likeness wasn't mutilated.

The prevalent practice of damaging images of the human form -- and the anxiety surrounding the desecration -- dates to the beginnings of Egyptian history. Intentionally damaged mummies from the prehistoric period, for example, speak to a "very basic cultural belief that damaging the image damages the person represented," Bleiberg said. Likewise, how-to hieroglyphics provided instructions for warriors about to enter battle: Make a wax effigy of the enemy, then destroy it. Series of texts describe the anxiety of your own image becoming damaged, and pharaohs regularly issued decrees with terrible punishments for anyone who would dare threaten their likeness. ...
Read full article at CNN

Comments