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pharaoh menkaure triad statue

Discovered: 1910, by George Andrew Reisner (1867–1942)
Material: Graywacke/Gray-green Schist
Date: c. 2490 BC
Period: Old Kingdom, Dynasty 4, Reign of Menkaure (ca. 2494-2472 BC)
Location of creation: Valley Temple of Menkaure, Giza, Egypt
Current Location: The Egyptian Museum, Cairo, Egypt
Theme: Mortuary
Subject: Royalty, Gods

sculpture summary

This statue, portraying Pharaoh Menkaure and the goddesses Hathor and Bat, is a fine example of the Egyptian artistry and knowledge of materials and anatomy. A testimony left from the last king of the Fourth Dynasty, during the Old Kingdom, the Pharaoh Menkaure Triad Statue, set the tone for a more refined aesthetic sense, and is now seen as one of the most exquisite works left behind from the Pyramid Age.

general description

Pharaoh Menkaure Triad Statue depicts, as the name clarifies, Pharaoh Menkaure with the goddess Hathor, on the left, and the goddess Bat, to the right. Hathor (whose name means “The House of Horus”) is the goddess of the sky, of women and fertility, whereas Bat is the cow goddess and a deification of the Milky Way. However, other interpretations claim that it’s not Bat, but the personification of a nome (a geographic designation, similar to the modern idea of a region, district, or county). Pharaoh Menkaure, at the centre, was an ancient Egyptian king or pharaoh, of the Fourth Dynasty. The statue is made of graywacke (a dark kind of schist, a grey earthy rock), highly polished, depicting the figures in a royal presence, yet endowed with a serene beauty. It is an example of the Egyptian artistry, showing great anatomical accuracy for time, an artistry that results in a very silky smooth looking and interesting piece.

Detail of Pharaoh Menkaure

Detail of Hathor

Detail of Bat

Menkaure was a significant king of Ancient Egypt, known to be pious and just, it was said that he alleviated the suffering that his father’s reign had caused the inhabitants. The length of his reign is uncertain. Following the footsteps of his ancestors, and believing the same fundamental beliefs in a rich and prolific afterlife, Menkaure prepared for the next world by erecting a massive tomb for himself, next to the temples of his father and grandfather. These temples were often filled with all the things that would be needed in the afterlife, and were considered sacred places that needed to be sheltered and protected. His father Pharaoh Khafre, had built the second pyramid and the Great Sphinx, (c. 2520 BC), and his grandfather, Pharaoh Khufu had built the Great Pyramid (2550 BC). So too Menkaure proceeded, circa 2490 BC, building the smaller of the three pyramids, yet with a much more complex mortuary temple. Each pyramid was always part of a larger complex, which included small subsidiary pyramids, and a second temple which is usually known as a valley temple, which is usually placed somewhat distant from the main pyramid, which was often filled with images of the king, the valley temples were often places of worship for centuries after the death of the king. These monumental burial places, and memorials to their significant rulers, were built by their respective rulers, designed to endure an eternity, in a time frame totalizing a mere 40 years, from roughly 2550 to 2490 BC. Menkaure’s pyramid was called Netjer-er-Menkaure, which meant “Menkaure is Divine”. The Pharaoh Menkaure Triad Statue, along with various other sculptures (all of the pharaoh) were uncovered from the Valley Temple connected to the Pyramid of Menkaure by various excavators in 1910. Led by George Reisner, The Menkaure Valley Temple was completely excavated between 1908 and 1910, and these various artifacts were found. This Valley Temple had been ignored in previous excavations, and, whereas the sarcophagus had been removed and lost, the items in the Valley Temple had remained untouched. In addition to the triads, the excavators also found the Dyad Statue of Menkaure and a Queen (2490–2472 BC), and numerous other sculptures of the same genre.

The Giza Pyramids, Giza, Egypt (CC BY-SA 2.0, by Ricardo Liberato)

Menkaure’s Pyramid, Giza, Egypt (CC BY-SA 3.0, by Hajor) | Pyramid’s Diagram

Burial Chamber of Menkaure

In Ancient Egypt, artworks had a fundamental functional purpose, which was intrinsically connected to their spiritual beliefs, their religion and overall ideologies. During the Old Kingdom, between the Third and Sixth Dynasties, the pharaohs gained more and more power, something measured by the art and architecture of the time.

  • Fourth Dynasty: The kings of the Fourth Dynasty are known for incredible feats in construction, engineering. architecture, and the most wonderful pieces of art. Even though not much is known about Huni, the first king of the Dynasty, most of the other rulers distinctly left their mark. The second ruler, Snefru, who ruled roughly between 2613 and 2589 BC, is known for his wealthy and prosperous reign, and for the construction of three of the largest pyramids in Egypt: the Step Pyramid in Meidum, the Bent Pyramid and the Red Pyramid in Dahshur. During the third reign (c. 2589-2566 BC), King Khufu erected the Great Pyramid, known for 3,800 years as the tallest structure on Earth, even though it was never finished. Followed by his brother, Djedefre, who reigned between 2566 and 2558 BC, did not have a reign as memorable as his predecessor, and chose not to finish his project for the pyramid. Khafre, however, the son of Khufu and king between 2558 and 2532 BC, continued the great tradition, and is now known for having built the Great Sphinx and a pyramid almost the same size as his father’s. Khafre’s successor and son, Menkaure, and his reign (c. 2532-2503 BC) mark a time of a shift in power. As the last king of the dynasty, his pyramid, from which this sculpture was extracted, was built mostly in granite (unlike the others that were built in a much lighter material), was much smaller than the others and was accompanied by larger temples, resulting in structures closer in size. This was a reflection of the king’s priorities, different from the previous Egyptian rulers.

The Great Pyramid of Giza, Egypt

The Great Sphinx, Giza, Egypt (CC BY 3.0, by Sailko)

  • Egyptian Art: Rigid and static, the Egyptian style is a reflection of this civilization’s hierarchy. As a style that remained unchanged for nearly three thousand years, the Egyptian show a great sense of tradition and continuity. The Egyptians favored luxurious materials and monumental scale, across all art forms. They all are a reflection of the Egyptian’s obsession with death and the afterlife, as they saw death as a transitory phase of life. The role of the pharaohs as gods incarnated on earth, is translated in the importance of their mortal remains, which are matched by the monumentality of their tombs and the wealth displayed in them. The greatest ancient Egyptian architectural feats were intended for royalty and the elite only. Among them, pyramids and mortuary temples, designed to hold the bodies (mummies in sarcophagus) and possessions of those groups. These were adorned with mural paintings, stone reliefs and statues, such as this one. Amongst all of depictions, both in painting and sculpture, are many human representations. These depictions show an attempt to capture the human form as accurately as they could, resulting, however, in very rigid figures in static positions – so not that naturalistic. On the other hand, slaves, dancers and musicians were depicted much more naturalistically – as lesser the importance of the subject, the more naturalistic it was. Something noticeable across all art pieces is its inherent frontality. Meaning that all pieces are meant to be looked at from the front side, paintings and reliefs depict only figure in profile, and sculpture, in particular, shows elaborate work at the frontal side of the piece, neglecting the back side (which was often left as a block of the material itself).

Stele of Princess Nefertiabet Eating (Khufu’s daughter and King Menkaure’s sister) (2590-2565 BC) (CC BY-SA 3.0 fr, by Rama)

Portrait head of pharaoh (c. 2450 BC) (CC BY-SA 4.0, by ArchaiOptix)

The importance and contribution of Egyptian culture and art to humanity is incalculable. The various sculptures found at Menkaure’s temple, of which  Pharaoh Menkaure Triad Statue is one of its fundamental examples, are considered to be the “finest sculptures of the Pyramid Age.” Like this sculpture, most of the surviving art comes from tombs and monuments, playing a fundamental role in clarifying Egyptian’s beliefs in the afterlife. The tombs themselves, constructed over 4,500 years ago, are testaments to Egypts architectural capacities, and a living tribute of humanity’s power. Along with the Dyad Statue of Menkaure and a Queen (2490–2472 BC), the triads are a true testament of the ancient Egyptians’ knowledge of material and sculpting techniques. The smooth surfaces and serene expressions immortalized Menkaura, but more so, it allowed for the Egyptian sense of immortality to be perpetuated until today. The sculptures marked the beginning of a more refined aesthetic quest.

Dyad Statue of Menkaure and Queen (2490–2472 BC) (CC BY-SA 4.0, by Miguel Hermoso Cuesta)

Although it is known that they were placed in the Valley Temple of the main pyramid, and therefore could have been used in common worship for centuries, the exact meaning and significance of these sculptures remains a mystery. The triads, placing the pharaoh next to gods, symbolically seems to accentuate the king’s power over life, both on earth and in heaven. Some theories claim that there was one triad for each ancient Egyptian nome, while others suggest that they were connected to a major site associated with the cult of Hathor (due to her prominence in most of the triads), however these are broad speculations.

The soft stone was carved, probably, by using copper chisels and other stone-carving tools. The high degree of polishing of the stone makes for a smooth and silky feel – an elaborate technique, which allows for a meticulously finished surface. The black stone used, graywacke, also known as gray-green schist, was mostly associated with the one of the most popular gods in ancient Egypt, the god linked to many pharaohs and death, Osiris – who is usually depicted with black or green skin, a reference to its connection to the fertility of the Nile valley. Capturing the physical ideals of the time, the sculptures allow us to envision the archetypal beauty of the time. And aesthetically, although very abstractly, the serene emotions of the faces seem to echo the purpose of art itself. These ‘realistically’ depicted statues represent an incredible evolution in skills from the sculptures conducted of Menkaure’s grandfather, Pharaoh Khufu. The only surviving example of the latter is a small  roughly carved depiction of the King. Despite its great advances in technique, it is curious to note that the sculptures portrayed an idealized view of the figures, using abstraction and an archetypal language to depict reality. This example, showing the figures standing in a commanding posture and with idealised features, differs from many others of the time, that used to depict seated figures (mainly royalty in thrones). For example, the Statuette of the seated King Khufu (2589–2566 BC) and the Dersenedj Seated as a Scribe (c. 2400 BC), presented seated as their title suggests, carved in ivory and rose granite, respectively, differ not only on colour, as they were made from light coloured materials, but also lack the polished finish and the gracious anatomical interpretation. Unlike these two, the Triad statue shows a great understanding of the material itself, bringing an idealized vision of the human body even further by the silkiness and smoothness of the deep green-black stone.

Detail of Pharaoh Menkaure

Statuette of the seated King Khufu (2589–2566 BC) (CC BY 3.0, by Olaf Tausch)

Dersenedj Seated as a Scribe (c. 2400 BC) (CC BY-SA 4.0, by ArchaiOptix)

Egyptian Art in the Age of the Pyramids
By James P. Allen (1999)


related works

related works

Title:Princess Nefertiabet Eating
Date: 2590-2565 BC (Old Kingdom, Dynasty 4)
Medium: Limestone and paint
Dimensions: 37.7 x 52.5 x 8.3 cm
Location: Louvre Museum, Paris
Image Credits: CC BY-SA 3.0 fr, by Rama

Title: Ushabti Figures
Date: 570–526 BC (Dynasty 26, reign of Pharaoh Amasis)
Technique: Extrusion in mould, baking
Medium: Faience
Dimensions: 17.9 x 4.6–4.9 cm
Location: Archaeological Museum of Kraków, Poland

Title: Cylinder Seal of Pharaoh Menkaure
Date: 2490–2472 BC (Old Kingdom, Dynasty 4, reign of Menkaure)
Medium: Basalt
Location: Neues Museum, Berlin, Germany
Image Credits: CC BY-SA 4.0, by Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP(Glasg)

Discovery: Menkaure Pyramid Temple, Giza, Egypt
Title: Colossal Statue of King Menkaure
Date: 2490–2472 BC (Old Kingdom, Dynasty 4, reign of Menkaure)
Medium: Travertine
Dimensions: 243.8 x 115.6 x 83.8 cm
Location: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Image Credits: CC BY-SA 3.0 fr, by Rama

Title: Portrait head of pharaoh
Date: c. 2450 BC (Old Kingdom, Dynasty 5)
Medium: Breccia
Dimensions: 243.8 x 115.6 x 83.8 cm
Location: Neues Museum, Berlin,Germany
Image Credits: CC BY-SA 4.0, by ArchaiOptix

Discovery: Menkaure Pyramid Temple, Giza, Egypt
Title: Dyad Statue of Menkaure and Queen
Date: 2490–2472 BC (Old Kingdom, Dynasty 4, reign of Menkaura)
Medium: Greywacke
Dimensions: 142.2 x 57.1 x 55.2 cm
Location: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Image Credits: CC BY-SA 4.0, by Miguel Hermoso Cuesta

Discovery: Akhenaton’s capital Amarna on December 6, 1912
Title: Bust of Nefertiti
Date: c. 1340 BC (Amarna Period, New Kingdom, Dynasty 18)
Medium: Limestone, gypsum, crystal and wax
Dimensions: (H) 50 cm
Location: Neues Museum, Berlin, Germany
Image Credits: CC BY-SA 3.0, by Philip Pikart

Title: Dersenedj Seated as a Scribe
Date: c. 2400 BC (Old Kingdom, Dynasty 5)
Medium: Rose Granite
Dimensions: (H) 68 cm
Location: Neues Museum, Berlin, Germany
Image Credits: CC BY-SA 4.0, by ArchaiOptix

Title: Statuette of Amun
Date: c. 945–712 BC (Third Intermediate Period, Dynasty 22)
Medium: Gold
Dimensions: 17.5 x 4.7 x 5.8 cm
Location: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Title: Statuette of the seated King Khufu
Date: 2589–2566 BC (Old Kingdom, Dynasty 4)
Medium: Ivory
Dimensions: 7.5 x 2.5 x 2.9 cm
Location: Egyptian Museum, Cairo, Egypt
Image Credits: CC BY 3.0, by Olaf Tausch