Nefertiti's Bust
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Bust of Nefertiti: A Simple and detailed explanation

Neferneferuaten Nefertiti was the queen of the 18th-century dynasty of ancient Egypt. Nefertiti was the principal wife of the Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten. She ruled over Egypt from 1353 to 1336 BCE during one of the most controversial periods of Egypt’s cultural history. Akhenaten along with Nefertiti rebuilt Egypt’s religion. This new religion was built around the worship of the sun god Aten. Researchers have found that Nefertiti was a major proponent of the Pharaoh’s religious and cultural movement. The queen appears in various Egyptian artworks from carvings to sculptures. The Bust of Nefertiti is among the most renowned artworks in which an attempt has been made to capture her unmatchable beauty.

Nefertiti’s Mystery

The reasons and the period around Nefertiti’s death are still unknown ambiguous. What adds to her mysteriousness is the abrupt disappearance of her name from all of history. According to popular theories, Theorists suggest that Nefertiti abandoned her old title after the pharaoh’s death. Soon after she became the ruler of the Egyptian dynasty under the name of “Neferneferuaten”. Egyptologists refer to her as the ‘Female Pharaoh’.

Her name Nefertiti directly translates to “the beautiful woman has come forth”. It is believed that she was known for her unmatched beauty in lands beyond Egypt. Along with her husband, Nefertiti started a new religion based on Monotheism. As mentioned earlier this new religion revolved around the sun god Aten. For this reason Nefertiti adopted the additional name of Neferneferuaten. Her full name was then Neferneferuaten Nefertiti which translates to “beautiful are the beauties of Aten, a beautiful woman has come.”

Where is The Bust of Nefertiti

Described as the most famous face from antiquity, The Bust of Nefertiti’ is an example of her exquisite beauty. The limestone sculpture, coated with stucco is believed to have been completed by the artist Thutmose in 1345 BCE. The bust was discovered in 1912 at Amarna, an archeological site located in Egypt. Amarna is situated in what used to be the capital city of Ankhetetan during the pharaoh’s reign. This sculpture immortalized Nefertiti as the symbol of ideal feminine beauty.

The bust has been kept at various museums in Germany. Well, if you think Nefertiti has been through a lot, her bust has been through a lot as well. This piece was stored in the cellar of a bank and then has been moved from museum to museum all over the world. The bust is made of clay-like delicate material and has chipped from the edges due to transportation. Today it is on display at the Neues Museum in Berlin.

Finally, the Bust of Nefertiti is in a small glass case in a circular gallery, protected by very tight security, resting in peace. The bust rests in solitude in a dimly lit room, placed slightly above the viewer’s eye level. This positioning gives it a more regal tone and adds to the power of her expression.

Tourists can get a 90-minute tour of the Neues Museum, including Nefertiti’s bust. A trained Egyptologist shows you the highlights of the collection and provides interesting insights into Egyptian history.

Who Found it?

Ludwig Borchardt, a German archaeologist of the German Oriental Company unveiled the bust of Nefertiti in 1912 in the workshop of the royal sculptor, Thutmose, in Amarna, Egypt. An agreement with the Egyptian Antiquities Service allowed Borchardt to legally transport the statue to Germany. 

Borchardt recounted his finding in his diary and remarked:

“Suddenly we had in our hands the most alive Egyptian artwork. You cannot describe it with words. You must see it.”

Borchardt

This iconic piece of art has been through its share of controversies. The lack of clear identification and the absence of its records from the time of discovery till it was finally put on display has led theorists to suggest that it might be a fake. Moreover, the fact that the bust is still in fairly good condition and its style is very different from that of the Egyptian era has made some historians proclaim that the statue is forged. The function of the bust is not clear, however, researchers believe that it served as sculptor’s modello or model reference to be used for other official portraits.

The Bust of Nefertiti

Nefertiti was considered as an equal to the king, and not his subordinate. No literature reveals that the sculpture is a representation of Nefertiti. However, there are a few tell-tale signs such as her characteristic blue flat-top crown also known as the “Nefertiti cap crown” with a golden diadem and a cobra that is common in other identifiable representations that help us identify the bust as hers.

The bust is 48 cm (19 inches) tall and weighs approximately 20 kg (44 lbs). The statue exudes elegance with a visual flow that accentuates her long neck and very symmetrical facial features. If you look closely you’ll notice some dimension on her neck. Soft contours slightly reflect the muscles of her neck. To enhance the realism, these contours have been done on the inner limestone layer and later covered in stucco which acts as the skin.

“With this elegant bust, Thutmose may have been alluding to a heavy flower on its slender sleek stalk by exaggerating the weight of the crowned head and the length of the almost serpentine neck.”

Gardner’s Art Through the Ages 

Recent research using CT Scans shows that the sculpture has a limestone core plastered by a gypsum stucco layer. It was observed that the sculptor had constructed the bust with varying layers of thickness. Just like the deep muscles on her neck, several small details of the skin have been revealed through detailed scans. These details include a slight dip under the eyes, wrinkles on her neck, slight creases around the mouth and cheeks, and even some swelling on the nose. It is possible to understand Nefertiti’s actual age at the time from the sculpture through more intensive research.

When you look at the bust from a distance, Nefertiti’s face seems flat and two-dimensional. The paint on the uppermost stucco layer covers these natural signs of aging producing a more flawless image of Nefertiti. This may have been done to match the aesthetic ideals of the era.

Art at the Time

Egyptian art is usually characterized by rigid, formal, and a very generalized representation of its subject. However, in the Amarna Period (1353-1336 BCE) during which the bust of Nefertiti was created, important changes took place in Egyptian art styles.

Amarna art style was different from Egyptian art because it put more emphasis on naturalism and emotions. The human figures were depicted in natural, more realistic, fluid, and soft forms. The figures of men were earlier characterized by straight lines and flat silhouettes, but in the Amarna period, they were more liberally contoured and curved. It would be easy to just look at the bust and say there are no emotions on her face. However, a deeper analysis will reveal a slight smile and calm eyes. This overall expression gives the bust a regal quality.

The bust’s remarkable effect is mainly due to its vivid colors. Egypt is known for their skills in preservation whether it be mummies or their pigments. The paintings still retain their original hue, due to this piece looks fresh to this day. There are various types of ancient Egyptian natural pigments used in the painting, such as red ochre, yellow orpiment, and carbon black, along with artificially produced “Egyptian blue”, which created the queen’s skin tone, to name a few. Apart from the slightly damaged ears, the missing eye and the uraeus of the crown, the skin of the bust is in mint condition.

Her Missing Eye

Nefertiti’s nearly intact face has a missing left eye inlay. The right eye has been made out of quartz and the iris has been drawn on with black paint. This piece is fixed in place with the help of beeswax. Through the empty eye socket, the limestone underneath the stucco is visible.

According to Dietrich Wildung, the left eye was never put in place but was used by a master sculptor for teaching his students how to carve the inner eye. Borchardt’s records reveal that no remnants of the binding agent were found on the empty eye socket.

Nefertiti's Bust
Nefertit’s Missing Eye. CC BY SA 3.0

On its discovery, the bust had no quartz eye in the left eye socket. Even after a prolonged and intensive search no sign of the left eye was found. A reward of 1000 pounds was put up for whoever could find the missing eye. This strengthens the theory that the eye never existed in the first place.

This missing eye also led people to theorize that Nefertiti might have contracted an eye disease due to which she lost it. However, the presence of her eye in other artworks contradicts this theory.

Conclusion

Since the time of its discovery, the bust of Nefertiti has been surrounded by controversies. When the German Archeologist Borchardt found this piece, he illegally smuggled it to his country. Perhaps just like the others Borchardt too was captivated by her beauty and the mysteries around the Pharaoh. What makes Nefertiti even more interesting is the lack of any evidence that she actually existed. She has no tomb and all scriptures about her are slightly contradictory. Was she just an imaginary symbol of beauty and feminism, used to inspire people? This statue has been copied, studied, and admired for years. She still inspires debates and insights over 3000 years after her creation, demonstrating how relevant and timeless these issues remain, and what an important role art plays in fostering these discussions.

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