The Bust of Nefertiti

The Ancient Egyptians left behind a lot of amazing stuff but the bust of Queen Nefertiti has to be one of the best.

Her sculptor was named Thutmose and he created her some time in the 1340s BC. She was unearthed from his studio in 1912. That she was found in the artist’s workshop rather than a temple, tomb, or palace is my favorite detail of the story. If she captivates you now, imagine being in on the find. The expedition’s leader was so taken that he seemed at a loss for words when he described her in his diary “Colours as if paint was just applied. Work absolutely exceptional. Description is useless, must be seen.”

It’s by any measure a stunning piece of art. The facial symmetry is practically perfect, cross-hatching was used to detail her eyebrows, and her skin is delicately textured and life-like. He achieved that effect by layering stucco in varying thicknesses over a limestone core. And keep looking at her skin because the tone of it is beautiful. CT scans have shown that the color is a combination of red, yellow, green, black, and blue all applied in varying shades. I’m sure you noticed her missing left eye, which is proof that they were inlaid rather than painted on. Some experts think that missing eye never existed. But that’s too long of a discussion and I like the air of mystery it lends her anyway. The right eye is made of molded beeswax carefully overlaid with a thin sheet of crystal. These are all probably boring details but they help me imagine the care and effort Thutmose took to get his queen perfect.

Archaeologists say that busts were a fairly rare art form in Ancient Egypt. The Egyptians of that world preferred to represent full figures rather than partial ones. From an academic point of view, therefore, the original purpose of her sculpture is unknown. And just like her missing left eye, a good mystery rather suits that beautiful face, don’t you think? You can see her today in Berlin’s Neues Museum. As you can probably imagine, there’s been a back-and-forth saga of Egyptian requests for her return and German rebuffs. There was one instance where that impasse was almost broken. A high ranking German official offered to return her out of goodwill and I think the deal was going forward. It’s just that his superior the Chancellor was too personally enamored with the piece to give it up. It turns out he had grand plans to build a massive world-class museum in which Nefertiti would be the prized centerpiece of its Egyptian wing. So he overruled his subordinate and blocked the repatriation. It may come as a shock, but that Chancellor who was so in love with the African Queen was Adolf Hitler.

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