Editor’s Note: This article was published in partnership with Artsy, the global platform for discovering and collecting art. The original article can be seen here.
The most common question that curator Edward Bleiberg fields from visitors to the Brooklyn Museum’s Egyptian art galleries is a straightforward but salient one: Why are the statues’ noses broken?
Bleiberg, who oversees the museum’s extensive holdings of Egyptian, Classical and ancient Near Eastern art, was surprised the first few times he heard this question. He had taken for granted that the sculptures were damaged; his training in Egyptology encouraged visualizing how a statue would look if it were still intact.
It might seem inevitable that after thousands of years, an ancient artifact would show wear and tear. But this simple observation led Bleiberg to uncover a widespread pattern of deliberate destruction, which pointed to a complex set of reasons why most works of Egyptian art came to be defaced in the first place.
Bleiberg’s research is now the basis of the poignant exhibition “Striking Power: Iconoclasm in Ancient Egypt.” A selection of objects from the Brooklyn Museum’s collection will travel to the Pulitzer Arts Foundation later this month under the co-direction of the latter’s associate curator, Stephanie Weissberg. Pairing damaged statues and reliefs dating from the 25th century BC to the 1st century AD with intact counterparts, the show testifies to ancient Egyptian artifacts’ political and religious functions – and the entrenched culture of iconoclasm that led to their mutilation.
In our own era of reckoning with national monuments and other public displays of art, “Striking Power” adds a germane dimension to our understanding of one of the world’s oldest and longest-lasting civilizations, whose visual culture, for the most part, remained unchanged over millennia. This stylistic continuity reflects – and directly contributed to – the empire’s long stretches of stability. But invasions by outside forces, power struggles between dynastic rulers and other periods of upheaval left their scars.
“The consistency of the patterns where damage is found in sculpture suggests that it’s purposeful,” Bleiberg said, citing myriad political, religious, personal and criminal motivations for acts of vandalism. Discerning the difference between accidental damage and deliberate vandalism came down to recognizing such patterns. A protruding nose on a three-dimensional statue is easily broken, he conceded, but the plot thickens when flat reliefs also sport smashed noses.
The ancient Egyptians, it’s important to note, ascribed important powers to images of the human form. They believed that the essence of a deity could inhabit an image of that deity, or, in the case of mere mortals, part of that deceased human being’s soul could inhabit a statue inscribed for that particular person. These campaigns of vandalism were therefore intended to “deactivate an image’s strength,” as Bleiberg put it.
Tombs and temples were the repositories for most sculptures and reliefs that had a ritual purpose. “All of them have to do with the economy of offerings to the supernatural,” Bleiberg said. In a tomb, they served to “feed” the deceased person in the next world with gifts of food from this one. In temples, representations of gods are shown receiving offerings from representations of kings, or other elites able to commission a statue.
“Egyptian state religion,” Bleiberg explained, was seen as “an arrangement where kings on Earth provide for the deity, and in return, the deity takes care of Egypt.” Statues and reliefs were “a meeting point between the supernatural and this world,” he said, only inhabited, or “revivified,” when the ritual is performed. And acts of iconoclasm could disrupt that power.