The bust of Queen Nefertiti housed in Berlin’s Neues Museum is one of Ancient Egypt’s most famous works of art. A prime example of ancient artistry, this icon has been called “the most beautiful woman in the world”. Hypnotizing audiences since it went on display in 1923, the statue gives insight into the enigmatic queen and continues to generate controversy and debate in art and politics.
Nefertiti’s bust is the sole work of art in the dimly lit room. She stands 48 cm (19 inches) tall and weighs 20 kg (44 lbs). Positioned slightly above eye level, the viewer gazes up at her, contributing to the power and regal feeling of the piece. The statue is delicate, elegant and very symmetrical with a visual flow guiding you from the top of the crown down to the long neck. The naturalism differs from earlier more formal and rigid Egyptian art.
The estimated date of the statue’s creation is 1340 BCE during the Amarna Period. There are no inscriptions, but Nefertiti was identified by her trademark blue flat-top crown with the uraeus (cobra), which is missing. The core is limestone covered with plaster, which allowed for the exception molding and detail around the face.
Side view, Nefertiti’s bust; source: Wikimedia
Not much is known about Nefertiti, whose name means “the beautiful one has come forth”. One hypothesis is that she was a Syrian princess. She is part of the 18th Dynasty of Ancient Egypt. Her husband, Pharaoh Akhenaton was infamous for overhauling Egyptian religion – transforming it from polytheistic to monotheistic with the focus on the sun god, Aten. He also had the Egyptian capital moved from Thebes to a new site at Amarna. Nefertiti and Ahkenaton’s relationship was also depicted in a new way. In the works of art Nefertiti is shown in equal status to the king and perhaps functioned as more of a co-ruler, as opposed to the traditional role of queen. Her death is as mysterious as her origins. Twelve years into the Amarna period, she disappears from the records.
The Amarna Period (1353-1336 BCE) saw a real change in Egyptian Art. Prior works were very rigid, formal, idealized, depicting little individuality of the subject. Amarna art is still very stylized but plays with much more naturalism, emotion and fluidity. Bodies, even those of the men, become more rounded, soft and formed. Theories propose that Akhenaton’s health issues altered his mind and shape of his body, inspiring the new physical depictions.
Relief House Altar, Akhenaten, Nefertiti and Three of their Daughters, New Kingdom, Amarna period, 18th dynasty, c.1350 BCE, Neues Museum Berlin; source: davidsartoftheday.blogspot.com
German archaeologist, Ludwig Borchardt, uncovered Nefertiti’s bust in 1912 in the studio of the royal sculptor, Thutmose, in Amarna, Egypt. An agreement with the Egyptian Antiquities Service allowed Borchardt to legally transport the statue to Germany. But since the statue’s first public viewing in 1923, the Egyptian government has fought for its repatriation.
Ludwig Borchardt’s team at the discovery of Nefertiti’s bust, 1912, Amarna, Egypt; source: National Geographic
What makes this piece unique is that it was not intended for a tomb, like much of Egyptian art. This is a modello – a template to use for other works of art. Apart from the missing left eye, damaged ears and uraeus, the statue is in excellent condition. This plus the very modern and naturalistic style, and controversies surrounding her skin colour led a few historians to proclaim the statue as a modern forgery. Data analysis and tests have proven its authenticity.
The mystery that surrounds the statue is one of the aspects that keeps Nefertiti so intriguing and fascinating. This statue is admired, studied and copied. The debates and insights that she still inspires over 3000 years after her creation, shows how relevant and timeless these issues remain, and what an important role art plays in fueling these discussions.
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