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The Bust of Nefertiti

Updated: Apr 4, 2022

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. Her missing left eye indicates 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. I hope these details aren't boring, I mention them because 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. It probably goes without saying but there’s been a back-and-forth saga of Egyptian requests for her return and German rebuffs. It doesn't seem likely the impasse will every be broken but I can think of one instance where it came close. The number 2 man in the German government thought her return would be a gesture of goodwill and made overtures to Egypt for a deal. The Chancellor at the time intervened and blocked the repatriation, though. Turns out that he was too personally enamored with the piece to give it up. Plus he had grand plans to build a massive world-class museum in which Nefertiti would be the prized centerpiece of its Egyptian wing. So she remains in Berlin to this day. And she was never installed in a new, stately museum, either, because it was never built. The plans were shelved when the man who dreamt them up took his own life in a Berlin bunker. You guessed it, that Chancellor who was so in love with the African Queen was Adolf Hitler.

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