The Statues of Rahotep and Nofret
Date: Old Kingdom, Fourth Dynasty, Reign of King Snefru (ca. 2575- 25551 BCE)
Provenance: Meidum, Mastaba tomb of Rahotep
Current Location: Egyptian Museum, Cairo, Egypt.
Discovered in 1871 by French archaeologist Albert Auguste Mariette, Prince Rahotep and his wife Nofret’s life-like painted limestone statues are considered among the most famous private statues from ancient Egypt. The statues were discovered in the mastaba tomb (a tomb in the form of a rectangular platform) of Rahotep, north of the pyramid of Snefru, in Meidum, dating to the reign of King Snefru of the Fourth Dynasty (c. 2575-2551 BC). They are currently housed in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Rahotep (121cm) and Nofret’s (122 cm) figures are classic manifestations of the strict rules that governed the art of this period. Unlike Greek sculpture, that is carved to be viewed from all sides, these seated statues are sculpted to be seen from the front.
Rahotep and his consort are represented seated on white cubic thrones, on the backs of which their names and titles are painted in black hieroglyphs. In the inscription Rahotep is identified as “King’s son, of his body, Rahotep.” This, combined with the location of Rahotep’s tomb north of Snefru’s, suggests that he was Snefru’s son, and therefore the brother of Khufu, the owner of the Great Pyramid of Giza. Nofret is identified as a “royal acquaintance,” which demonstrates her closeness to the King.
As is typical of most ancient Egyptian sculpture, these statues are idealized representations of their subjects. Rahotep and Nofret are depicted as youthful: the form they wanted for eternity. Abiding by the conventions of ancient Egyptian art, Rahotep’s skin is painted a reddish-brown while Nofret’s is a pale yellowish-beige, reflecting the active, outdoor lifestyle of men, versus the more domestic existence of women, sheltered from the darkening rays of the sun. Like the famous statue of Djoser, Rahotep wears a moustache, which was popular during the Old Kingdom, but unfortunately cannot be seen on most statues, since it was usually painted on and the paint usually does not survive. He wears a white kilt and his pose—having one arm bent at the elbow across his chest, with the hand clenched, and the other fisted hand extended over his knee—is typical of Old Kingdom sculpture. Around his neck is a necklace with a heart amulet. The heart in ancient Egypt was the seat of intelligence and emotion, and it was weighed against the feather of truth and justice at the judgement of the deceased. Wearing a heart amulet helped ensure a positive outcome on judgement day.
As for Nofret, she wears a white sheath dress with two straps, covered by a white shawl, wrapped tightly around her body outlining her voluptuous figure. She wears a heavy wig, under which her natural hairline can be seen. Her head is crowned with a floral diadem and a broad collar adorns her neck. These two accessories add color to the otherwise almost monochromatic figure. The idealized static rigidity of these statues gives them the appearance of being frozen in time, awaiting resurrection in the hereafter. Their perfect state of preservation and their hypnotic rock crystal inlaid eyes grant them a life-like appearance, making them among the Egyptian Museum’s most treasured masterpieces.