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Statue of an Offering Bearer' (c.1985 BC)
The work of art to be considered in this paper is a statue from Ancient Egypt. The statue is large, nearly four feet in height (112.1cm), and consists of a female figure standing on a substantial rectangular base. The material used is carved wood treated with gesso, a water-based preparation consisting of glue and gypsum or chalk (Aldred, 1980, p. 24), and elaborately painted. The statue depicts a woman carrying a basket on her head, and holding a bird in her right hand. The figure is upright and slender, with the left leg advanced slightly and the left foot placed slightly ahead of the right, giving the impression that she is in the act of taking a step forward. The left arm is raised to steady the basket on the woman's head, while the right arm is held straight downwards, in line with the body, to where she holds the bird in her right hand. The bird appears to be a duck or some other water fowl, and is being held by the wings. The woman looks straight ahead, and the basket is centered squarely on top of the head. The basket is trapezoidal in form and contains articles representing cuts of meat (Stevenson Smith, 1958, pp. 92-3).
The carving is delicate and uses careful balancing of mass and form to achieve visual harmony. The shape of the raised left arm is echoed by the form of the bird held in the right hand and visually balanced by the advanced left foot, creating an impression of symmetry and unity. The statue is divided compositionally from top to bottom into three equal portions: from the top of the basket to the level of the breast, from breast to the level of the right hand, and from the hand to the top of the base. The disposition of the figure and her burden across this equidistant structure also reinforces the balanced and harmonious nature of the composition. The figure is given movement by the raised arm and extended leg, but achieves stasis through its innate balance and symmetry.
The statue is made up of smoothly surfaced volumes, with no physical treatment of the surface to represent the texture of hair or fabric. The surface is uniform, showing the marks of the sculptor's chisel but no other treatment. Textures and the differing qualities of the substances represented -- the fabric of the clothing, the feathers of the bird, the reeds and wooden frame of the basket, the skin and hair of the woman -- are represented by painting alone. The most immediately striking passage is the woman's colorful clothing. The statue represents a sheath-dress of a kind widely worn by women in Ancient Egypt, stretching from just above the ankles to just below the breasts, with wide straps across the breast and shoulders, the whole being tightly fitted around the body (Brier and Hobbs, 1999, p. 123). The woman is also shown as wearing a decorative collar and patterned anklets and bracelets. This dress is shown as expensive and of high quality, with fabric of four colors -- red, black, pale blue and gold -- woven in an intricate pattern of scales (perhaps intended to represent feathers) and decorative bands. A silvery gray or white paint is used to represent additional embellishment, giving the whole garment an iridescent quality.
The woman's skin is represented by a light brown pigment, the plainness of which accentuates the rich patterning of the dress; her hair or wig, formally dressed in the Egyptian manner, is a dark gray-blue in color, echoing the hair-color used on representations of deities such as the goddess Isis. The basket is painted to represent reeds in what is presumably a wooden frame, while the items in the basket are individually painted to represent the various articles being carried -- mainly cuts of meat. Finally, the bird in the woman's hand is a dark red-brown with strikingly variegated patterns in its feathers, adding a note of vibrancy to the composition.
The arms, base, basket and bird were made separately and attached to the main body of the sculpture, which appears to have been carved from a single tree trunk or limb (MMA website). The use of wood rather than stone for this statue enables the sculptor to open the space between limbs and body completely and achieve a delicacy in the modeling of the form that would not otherwise be possible, giving a more naturalistic appearance than the heaviness of stone sculpture. Overall, the statue is undoubtedly a work of high quality, carved and painted with care and craftsmanship. Despite its great age it is in good condition, with no significant damage or deterioration.
This statue was found in the tomb of Meketre (also known as Meket-ra and Meket-r?), a prominent royal official of the Middle Kingdom, at Deir el-Bahri (Thebes) on the western bank of the Nile, one of a large number of wooden statues representing various scenes of daily Ancient Egyptian life as well as the activities associated with a high-status burial such as that of Meket-ra (Aldred, 1980, pp. 114-5; Stevenson Smith, 1958, pp. 92-3). Meketre was chancellor and chief steward of the royal household during the reign of Pharaoh Mentuhotep II. When his tomb was excavated in 1920 the articles recovered were shared out among various European and American museums and research institutes, with this statue being added to the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Another very similar and equally large and elaborately painted statue, with bread and beer in the woman's basket, is in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo (MMA website).
The statue represents an offering bearer, and the stance is consistent with depictions of offering bearers to be found in tomb paintings, reliefs and other statues (Tyldesley, 1994, pp. 18-19). The purpose of such figures was to ensure that the soul of the dead man would have the provisions he needed for his journey into the afterlife: food and drink, but also servants to attend to his needs and the facilities for entertainment and relaxation (Aldred, 1961, p. 106). Tomb decoration commonly featured the deceased sitting at a huge and very rich funerary meal, symbolizing both his status in life and his preparedness for the continuation of life after death (Brier and Hobbs, 1999, p. 111).
The carrying of such offerings in Egyptian funerary art is typically the job of domestic servants, both male and female, although it is common for food and drink to be carried by female attendants while male servants bear goods and treasures and lead living animals (Tyldesley, 1994, p. 123). The pale brown used on this statue to represent the skin is typical of the coloration used to represent the skin of women in Egyptian art, the point being that women worked within the house while men, whose skin was represented as darker, worked outdoors; although the reality was rather more complicated than this simple division would suggest (Brier and Hobbs, 1999, p. 80). In general terms, a tomb such as that of Meketre can be said to represent the house and household of its occupant in life, with rooms for different functions, all the necessaries of life provided, and a domestic staff of servants such as the woman represented in this statue.
The statue dates from around 1985 BC, from the early part of the period of Egyptian history known to archaeologists as the Middle Kingdom (MMA website). This period marked a resurgence of Egyptian prosperity and power after the crisis which marked the beginnings of the Middle Kingdom (Aldred, 1961, pp. 102-3). The offerings being made for Meketre's afterlife represent in microcosm the riches of the entire country, embodying the prosperity and fertility of his estate and thus symbolizing the concept of good stewardship that was central to the Ancient Egyptian model of good government from the Pharaoh downwards (Brier and Hobbs, 1999, p. 61). The large size of this figure and the high quality of the workmanship indicates the value of the offerings she carries and the status of the man to whom the offerings are made.
The importance of the role being performed by this figure is also conveyed by her stance, with one foot advanced. This posture was normally reserved for the depiction of men; women were shown in more passive poses, with the feet placed together, in inert postures and on a smaller scale and in less prominent positions than male figures (Tydesley, 1994, p. 20). That this figure is striding in an active way, albeit with her overall stance suggesting the elegant harmony that was always applied in Egyptian art to the female form, indicates her significance as an embodiment of the dead man's wealth and status in life.
Any observer with even a superficial knowledge of the art of Ancient Egypt would successfully identify this statue as Egyptian. Such characteristics as the woman's stance, the face of the figure, particularly…[continue]
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