The head of a Colossal Statue of Ramses II is a bust of Pharaoh Ramses II, one of the most successful kings of the ancient Egyptians. It is one of the series of colossal objects that were used to decorate the front part of several rectangular pillars making a row in the courtyard of a relatively small temple in Abydos, Egypt1. The object depicts King Ramses II in a mummified state, taking the style of Osiris, one of the gods of the ancient Egyptian society2.
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Pharaoh Ramses is depicted holding the symbols of power, a tradition of ancient Egypt, a frail as well as a rod. However, the hands are now missing. The original figure was established with intentions to position it on the higher parts of the huge columns, explaining why the eyes of the object are angled slightly downwards. It also suggests that the king was considered a mortal man or an extraordinary being, probably closer to the god Osiris than other humans. Although the bust is an ancient figure, much of the original colors are still intact.
The bust shows the image of the young King, probably a few years after ascending to the throne following his father’s demise3. For instance, he has high check-bones and smooth skin. He has wide and almond-shaped eyes, large eyebrows that arch gently over the eyes, and a straight nose. In addition, the king’s lips are red and show a smiling individual. Below the mouth is a rectangular beard, which drops down towards the neck.
Like other Egyptian nobles of the time, the king’s beards are false. Some horizontal strips have been carved in the stone to give the false beard a beautiful appearance. On the head, the king is wearing the headdress known as the “nemes” tightly bound around the forehead and tucked behind his relatively large ears. A cobra-shaped diadem is surmounted on the headdress while the top of the head is the crown, one of the objects given to the kings of the time.
The back of the sculpture is anchored on one of the main pillars supporting the roof of the temple. Down the center of the pillar, two separate columns were used to inscribe the king’s name and title as the “King of the Lower and Upper Egypt.”
It is currently housed in a small museum in Egypt after the Italian art explorer Giovanni Belzoni discovered it in 1816. It is believed that the missing left arm and a large section of the crown were destroyed by Napoleon Bonaparte’s troops when trying to move it to France during the Napoleonic wars.
As described above, the object is a stone carving viewed only from the front and sides because it was intended to be positioned on one of the large pillars in the courtyard of the temple. Engraved strips make the decorations on the neck, the headdress, and the crown, where different colors are applied to give them an attractive finishing.
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Like most art objects of ancient Egypt, the Head of a Colossal Statue of Ramses II is carved out of large granite stone. With limited materials, most Egyptian arts used granite stones in carving. The presence of large granite rocks in Egypt provided the artists with a good source of materials for developing artistic and architectural designs. In addition, granite rocks are easily carved out to give the desired artistic products. Although they are easily shaped through carving, the rocks do not break or wear out easily, which explains why the statue remained intact for many centuries before the Napoleonic soldiers attempted to move it in the 18th century4.
However, there are some evidences of modifications on the stone carving, which suggests that some skilled artists must have reworked on a stone carving of a previous work, most likely the statute of Amenophis III, who had ruled Egypt years before Ramses II.
Before the hand and parts of the headdress were removed, it is evident that the object had asymmetrical form. If a straight line is drawn vertically between the eyes, the right and left parts are almost equal, which shows the use of skilled artists to produce a symmetrical object. The lines and contours have extensively been used to develop various parts of the bust. For instance, the face has been outlined with free curves and lines that distinguish between the facial parts of the kind and the materials worn on his head. Several lines were applied to make the border between the face and the headdress. A combination of colors was applied in these lines to show the edges of the headdress.
At the king’s chest, small lines and curves were used to depict the royal materials worn around the neck. The use of a combination of colors suggests that the materials were not only beautiful but also expensive and precious. Stripes of blue, yellow, brown, white, and yellowish colors were used to describe the materials worn around the neck. After making the carvings, the artists applied these colors on the contours and lines in order to give the bust a real meaning, which describes the appearance of the king in his young age, probably between 25 and 355.
The artistic work of carving on a large stone needed skills in order to give the right texture and represent the actual appearance of the subject. In this case, the artist (or artists) made sure that the object was as smooth as possible. In particular, the face was extremely smoothened to represent the face of the young king. In addition, the headdress was depicted by smoothening the stone to remove any lines, dots, curves, or other detail that would suggest that the king was wearing an old or dirty gear.
The focused eyes, soft face, as well as the lips suggest that the object was supposed to welcome and monitor the people entering the temple. As described above, the posture of the object is defined by the direction of the eyes. Since the statue was supposed to be placed in a high position, the eyes were focused on the ground, probably to show that the king was looking and monitoring the ground below him. It also shows that the king was in a still position, indicating that no movement was intended to be depicted in the object. In addition, the still nature of the statue, as well as the focused eyes, suggests the authority of the king over the subjects below him. It also suggests that the king was guarding the temple, which gives him a supernatural status.
In the front part of the object, the color and lines used to make the finishing indicate that the object was supposed to be positioned in the light. It is clear that the object was initially positioned in a well-lit position, probably facing the direction of the sun, an important religious aspect of the society.
Viewers are likely to note the general impression of power and might of the subject. The headdress, crown, objects were worn around the neck, and the false beard suggests that the king was powerful and highly respected.
The object weighs about 7.25 tons. In addition, it measures about more than two meters between the top of the headdress and the base of the ribs and more than two meters between the edges of the shoulders.
The object belongs to the Egyptian sculpture, a popular art style of the culture and period. Most aspects of the object suggest the Egyptian perception of manhood, authority, and religious attachments. For instance, the object is one of the tomb reliefs of ancient Egypt, where the kings were thought to be connected to their gods. In this case, Ramses II is thought to have great respect for the god Osiris. The statue shows that god Osiris protected the king during his reign6.
In addition, the serene smile on the lips suggests that the person was friendly while the cobra depicted on the crown suggests that religious beliefs of the society and the position of the king as a supernatural figure.
Stone carving was the most popular artistic technique in ancient Egypt. Various kings and other noble people commissioned large stone carving projects, with Ramses II is one of the kings that commissioned the largest number of stone carving projects in the history of ancient Egypt. The statue shows evidence of the use of a number of tools. For instance, it is evident that a large stone was cut and shaped using hand tools such as axes, but smaller tools were used to make the inscriptions, stripes, and other relatively delicate parts of the object.
Hill, Marsha, Gifts for the gods: Images from Egyptian temples (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art), 2009.
Manley, Bill, The Penguin Historical Atlas of Ancient Egypt (New York: Yale University Press), 2008.
Smith, Stevenson and William Kelly Simpson, The Art and Architecture of Ancient Egypt (New York: Yale University Press), 2008.
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Wegner, Josef, The colossal head of Ramses II (Pennsylvania, PA; Penn Museum), 2013.
- Josef Wegner, The colossal head of Ramses II (Pennsylvania, PA; Penn Museum, 2013), 63.
- Marsha Hill, Gifts for the gods: Images from Egyptian temples (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2009), 221.
- Hill, 231.
- Stevenson Smith and William Kelly Simpson, The Art and Architecture of Ancient Egypt (Yale: Yale University Press, 2008), 26.
- Hill, 229.
- Bill Manley, The Penguin Historical Atlas of Ancient Egypt (Yale: Yale University Press, 2008), 47.