The Funerary Statues of Prince Rahotep and Nofret, His Wife

The Funerary Statues of Prince Rahotep and Nofret, His Wife

At the beginning of Old Kingdom Egypt, a rather rapid development of characteristics that defined “classical” Egyptian art took place. Later works would strictly adhere to these guidelines. In relief and painting, the human figure is represented with the head, pelvis, legs and feet sideways, or in profile. Much the opposite, the eye and shoulders are shown in front view. In early Egyptian art there was little or no attempt made to produce a photorealistic product. The Relief’s produced around this time period are very shallow and color is applied in flat hues. Another signature of early Egyptian art is the lack of linear perspective, or depth. These “rules” also carried over into the works of statuary produced contemporaneously with these wall paintings and reliefs.

In the realm of statuary, various standing and seated positions were adopted. The exacting frontality seen in earlier works resurfaces in statues produced in and around the same period. A hallmark of Old Kingdom works is the tendency to emphasize uniformity and to minimize the suggestion of motion. Notable Old Kingdom works of sculpture are: Chephren (Fig. 1), The Sheik-el-Beled , and the Seated Scribe (fig. 2). Because painting is not very permanent it was used very little as a medium of representation; it appears to have been used primarily in accenting of sculpture. An unusual example of painting in Old Kingdom Egypt is the Meidum geese (Fig. 3). This rather uncommon painting was found in the mastaba tomb of Nefermaat and Atet . Another work found close-by is an incredible pair of painted limestone funerary statues. This couple, represented as equals, is the prince Rahotep and his wife Nofret. Constructed by a masterful craftsman, at around 2630 BC, this couple has come to single-handedly represent Fourth Dynasty painted statuary.

As mentioned before, early dynastic works adhere to very precise formulae, and these two royals are no exception. The prince is seated facing forward, with his knees and ankles touching. His right hand is clenched, and held over his heart. His gaze is straightforward and vacant. Lastly, as in most other contemporary works, his skin is represented as a deep red/brown. The figure epitomizes the Fourth Dynasty tendency to make forms heavier, thicker, and more durable. This is surely so to deter theft, vandalism, or to insure permanence. If it can be said, at all, that this statue is rather unadorned, the same can not be said for his regal wife.

The Princess Nofret sits serenely with her arms crossed, gazing into nothing, much like her Prince. She wears an elaborate daidem , which offsets her rather heavy wig. The statue also alludes to a thin, gauze-like cloth used in her dress through showing a trace of nipples. The necklace worn by this aristocratic Egyptian Princess is also given the utmost attention, with its elaborate painting, gilding, and prominence as placed against the plain ecru hue of the dress. Works of this sort were reserved for nobility. As such, no commoner could afford the sheer luxuriance of contracting such an opulent statue, even for his or her burial. This is due not only to the cost of construction, but also to the religious and social ramifications of the statues, and the meaning inherent in them. Statuary of this sort was used as the eternal home of the ka , and as the organic body, even if well preserved, decomposed; the spirit would live forever in the statue. This explains the photorealim, and very idealistic proportions used in ancient Egypt.

The somewhat vacant stares shown in funerary statues also serve an integral purpose in the afterlife. These were tumultuous times, war, and civil unrest was commonplace. Therefore, a serene gaze, and a comfortable position would be best for the deceased, ending all the worry, and troubles of earthly life, it also assured others that death was noble, even beautiful.

If death was noble for members of royal families, then it surely had to be so for the peasants at that time, even if it was simplified. The statues of commoners were less grand than those of their rulers, but they showed the same artistic principle, and serenity. Most plebeians were shown seated, cross-legged, or in a chair, not of a royal proportion, but of a more modest scale, as in the seated scribe (Fig. 2). The common citizen in Old Kingdom Egypt was also shown to be bodily less perfect than their god-like rulers. To show that they were of less divine blood, Most had sagging pectoral muscles, fat stomachs and were made of less expensive materials.

The conventions established in Old Kingdom statuary, whether for a royal, or even the commoner, influenced Egyptian art immeasurably. The strict poses and positions of the deceased would be used for 3 millennia following. If the statues presented are truly the eternal home of Rahotep, and Nofret they have definitely withstood the test of time. And will continue to do so, influencing countless other works, as they have for 5 millennia already.

Fig. 1. King Chefren, diorite, Fourth Dynasty, Cairo, Egypt

Fig. 2 Seated Scribe, painted limestone, Fifth Dynasty, Louvre, Paris

Fig. 3. Meidum Geese, wall painting, Fourth Dynasty, Egypt

Fig. 4. Rahotep and Nofret, painted limestone, Fourth Dynasty, Egypt


Bibliography of the funerary statues of Rahotep and NofretHuyghe, Rene, Ed. Larousse Encyclopedia of Prehistoric and Ancient Art. New York: Prometheus, 1957.

Silcotti, Albert. Guide to the Pyramids of Egypt, New York: Barnes and Noble, 1997.

Smith, W.S. The Art and Architecture of Ancient Egypt. New Haven: Yale University, 1998.

Reeves, Nicholas. Ancient Egypt: the Great Discoveries. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1999

Tiraditti, Francesco. Egypt: Treasures from the Museum of Cairo. New York: Abrams, 1999