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At the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, there is a sizeable collection of ancient Egyptian art. There are many sculptures, statues, pieces of pottery, and paintings that capture and convey the unique, spiritual culture of the time period. One piece in particular, King Sahure and a Nome God, portrays the importance of divine kingship and afterlife, which were the two pillars of what ancient Egyptian life was devoted to.
King Sahure and a Nome God was created between circa 2458 and 2446 BC in the Fifth Dynasty, when King Sahure was the nation’s pharaoh. The statue is about two feet tall by one and a half feet wide and made of gneiss, which is a sturdy type of stone. On the statue, there is a large male figure sitting down in the front, who is portrayed to be the Nome god, and there is a smaller figure standing in the back, recognized as King Sahure. The reason that King Sahure is significantly smaller than the Nome god is because the Nome god is more important than the pharaoh. In ancient Egyptian culture, which was ultimately polytheistic, the gods themselves were the only beings more important than the pharaohs. This artistic use of size variation is what’s called “hierarchy of scale”, which simply means that the more important figures were portrayed to be bigger than those lesser than them.
The gods were the only ones higher on the scale than pharaohs. King Sahure is depicted next to the Nome god to legitimize his kingship, which was believed to have been received directly from the gods, making all pharaohs partially divine. In most ancient Egyptian art, the pharaoh would have been depicted sitting down on his throne. However, in any artwork where a god is shown, he or she is the only individual sitting down, as gods are of the highest rank. King Sahure is standing to show that he is not as great as the Nome god. The sitting versus standing (or kneeling/lying down) is another convention, along with hierarchy of scale, to portray figures of great power and the lesser people. This ka statue depicts the Nome god as a mentor for King Sahure; a guiding hand for Egyptian laws and way of life.
King Sahure and a Nome God is a ka statue. The ka was the ancient Egyptians’ life force; their entire way of life was centered on this idea of obtaining exquisite immortality after death. King Sahure’s ka statue was a backup for the original plan, which was the mummified coffin. The ancient Egyptians did not separate the physical body from the soul, such as other religions like Christianity do. Everything was intertwined, so if the body could not be preserved properly, the pharaoh was depicted idealistically as a rigid ka statue to ensure his immortality. Along with having the pharaoh portrayed ideally, the ka statue was made of very tough, dense stone to ensure its endurance through the endless years after death. King Sahure’s is made of gneiss, which was common along with other types of rock, such as limestone. The ka statue, along with the coffin and various other physical necessities, was buried with the pharaoh to properly prepare him for the afterlife.
Idealism was crucial for the ka statue. The pharaoh had to be, in the ancient Egyptian’s view, perfect. They believed that the gods would accept nothing less. In King Sahure’s statue, he is portrayed as very toned and rigid, which was the ideal body for an Egyptian man, nonetheless a king or a god. Both King Sahure and the Nome god have prominently showing thumbs, which were known to be the most useful appendages of the hands. Because body and soul were not separated, top physical condition was essential to survive in the afterlife. Sahure and the god wear stylized headdresses and beards, as all divine figures did to show their authority and prestige. While the Nome god is in a static position sitting down, King Sahure’s left foot is in front of his right foot to suggest movement and coming forward, as he, along with all pharaohs of ancient Egypt, was destined to become as great as the gods after his death.
King Sahure and a Nome God is a ka statue that depicts the key elements of ancient Egyptian life through the artistic style and convention of the era. From its medium to its stylization to its purpose, it conveys the divine kingship and strong belief in the afterlife that defined the ancient Egyptian culture itself.
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