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Museum piece #4 – MMA 2008.454

MMA 2008.454 (The Metropolitan Museum of Art online collection).

Object MMA 2008.454 is the head of a Ptolemaic pharaoh carved from gabbro, an igneous rock similar to basalt. The Ptolemies were a dynasty of Greek Macedonian kings, who ruled Egypt from 305 BC to 30 BC. They were the last ‘dynasty’ to rule Egypt.

What is most striking about this portrait, is the way in the which the Ptolemaic king has chosen to present himself with both Greek and Egyptian attributes. The nemes headdress is typically Egyptian and can be seen in many portraits of pharaohs, including the Cairo Museum statue of Nectanebo I (below), a pharaoh of the 30th Dynasty, and the last native Egyptian pharaoh.

Cairo JE 87298 Statue of Nectanebo I (Stanwick 2002, 216: fig. 201a).

When looking at the art of the period, it is evident that the Ptolemaic kings were keen to link themselves to the last native ruler of Egypt. The facial features of a statue of Ptolemy II Philadelphus in the Vatican Museum (below) closely resemble those of the statue Nectanebo I. The emphasis placed upon the legitimacy of the Ptolemaic kings’ claim to the throne by linking themselves to the last native dynasty of Egypt stemmed from a need to protect against rival claims to the throne by other Hellenistic rulers.

Vatican 22681 Statue of Ptolemy II Philadelphus (Stanwick 2002, 157: A3).

The gabbro head also displays Greek attributes, particulary the visible locks of hair, a typically Greek feature, indicating this particular king’s desire to be seen as both Greek and Egyptian.

Further reading:

Stanwick, P. E. 2002. Portraits of the Ptolemies: Greek Kings as Egyptian Pharaohs. Austin: University of Texas Press.

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