The Lion Queen #1 – the purpose and artistic significance of the maned sphinx of Hatshepsut

Djeser-Djeseru, the mortuary temple of the 18th dynasty female pharaoh, Hatshepsut, is an astounding example of ancient Egyptian architecture. Much of its statuary is now housed within museum collections across the world, and it is evident from the high quality works that Hatshepsut had extremely skilled craftsmen at her disposal. Among the statues recovered from the site are a number of sphinxes. The majority of these are sculpted in red granite, but particularly noteworthy are a pair of maned sphinxes, in the medium of limestone, which bear striking differences to the red granite examples. The sphinxes were found in the so-called ‘Senenmut Quarry’ at Deir el-Bahri in western Thebes, where they are believed to have been discarded by Thutmoses III during his campaign of ‘damnatio memoriae’.

Limestone maned sphinx (Cairo Egyptian Museum JE 53113, Global Egyptian Museum Online Catalogue).

One of the sphinxes resides in the Cairo Egyptian Museum (above) and still retains much of its original colouration, although it has areas of considerable damage. The second sphinx, housed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (below), has been restored using casts of the Cairo sphinx, and is therefore ‘complete’ in terms of restored sculptural features, as well as retaining small portions of the original paint, making it a particularly useful candidate for analysis.

Limestone maned sphinx believed to have topped one of the newel posts at the top of the stairway of the mortuary temple of Hatshepsut at Deir el-Bahri (MMA 31.3.94, Metropolitan Museum of Art Collections Database).

This high quality pair of sculptures raises questions regarding the reasons behind their choice, their purpose and function within the mortuary temple complex and their artistic significance, both within their systemic context and chronologically. As the sphinxes were discovered outside of their systemic context, their exact location within the mortuary temple complex is not certain, however Winlock posits the theory that they topped the newel posts at the top of the stairway leading up to the middle terrace, stating that the posts are the correct size to accommodate the bases of the limestone sculptures. He also concludes that the red granite sphinxes would have lined the two sides of the lower terrace.

Determining the original location of the maned sphinxes is crucial when aiming to ascertain their purpose within the temple complex, and combining this information with a comparison between the limestone and the granite sculptures enables the rationale behind their inclusion to be evaluated. The limestone sphinxes are much smaller than their granite counterparts, a variation of approximately 0.7 – 1m in their respective heights, however the most striking differences are evident when the faces of the leonine sculptures are juxtaposed.

Face of red granite colossal sphinx (MMA 31.3.166, Metropolitan Museum of Art Collections Database).

The granite sphinx (above) has a far more serious visage. The harsh lines of the nemes headdress give the face of Hatshepsut a stern appearance whereas the round lines of the mane and ears of the limestone sculpture (below) soften the face and enhance the femininity of the features, creating gentility and warmth in the peaceful countenance.

Face of limestone maned sphinx (MMA 31.3.94, Metropolitan Museum of Art Collections Database).

The reason for this stark contrast would appear to be to emphasise a differentiation in the function of each type of statue. Keller argues that the granite sphinxes provide guardianship while the limestone sphinxes ‘communicate tranquil expectancy’ and therefore appear to have been employed for a welcoming role as opposed to a protective one. This intimates a clear break from the conventional use of sphinxes which were employed for the protection of royal mortuary complexes and, when paired in the recumbent form, traditionally guarded the entrance to temples.

If the locations of the sphinxes suggested by Winlock are accurate, the red granite sphinxes would have been approached from the side, with the musculature of the body clearly visible, and therefore emphasising the quiescent strength and power of the lion. In contrast, the maned sphinxes would have been approached head-on, with their bodies concealed from the view of their audience, and would have lacked the latent power of the granite sculptures.

The difference in the effect of each type of sculpture upon the intended audience can be discerned when considering the function of the temple complex. During Hatshepsut’s reign, Djeser-Djeseru played host to a major religious festival, ‘The Feast of the Valley’. In the month of Smw, the cult statue of Amun, accompanied by the statues of Khonsu and Mut, would travel by barque from Karnak to the Deir el-Bahri temple to spend a night within the confines of the Amun shrine before returning to the Karnak temple. Amun, and the priests assigned to carrying the barque, would have passed through the ‘imposing gauntlet’ of red granite sphinxes, whose permeating protection would have served not only the temple itself, but the religious processions entering the complex, before reaching the two limestone sphinxes. This reinforces the theory that they functioned as greeters rather than guardians, welcoming Amun into the temple. The Hathor cult statue also visited the Chapel of Hathor at the Deir el-Bahri temple complex, and the close affinity of Hatshepsut with the goddess offers a further theory for the rationale behind the inclusion of the maned sphinxes.

It is evident that Hatshepsut was particularly devoted to Hathor, dedicating many shrines to the goddess and also utilising her to great effect in the legitimisation propaganda witnessed in the Deir el-Bahri temple, including a relief scene showing the infant Hatshepsut being suckled by Hathor in the form of a cow. Furthermore, the Speos Artemidos and the Speos Batn el-Bakarah, two temples in Middle Egypt near Beni Hassan, were dedicated by Hatshepsut to Pakhet, the local lion-headed form of Hathor.

This strong link between the female pharaoh and a leonine deity could have influenced the choice of the maned sphinx as opposed to the more traditional sphinx form, and be interpreted as an effort to be more closely equated with the lion, and subsequently Hathor. Hatshepsut has adopted a greater quantity of the characteristic features of the great cat, the artistic significance of which betrays an insight into Hatshepsut’s admiration of the art and architecture of the preceding Middle Kingdom.

Tyldesley, J. (1998) Hatchepsut: The Female Pharaoh. London: Penguin Books Ltd.

Winlock, H. E. (1942) Excavations at Deir el Bahri. New York: The Macmillan Company.

Keller, C. A. (2005) ‘The Statuary of Hatshepsut’, in Hatshepsut From Queen To Pharaoh. (ed., Roehrig, C.), New York: The MetropolitanMuseum of Art: 158-172.

Robins, G. (2001) Egyptian Statues. Buckinghamshire: Shire Publications Ltd.


7 comments on “The Lion Queen #1 – the purpose and artistic significance of the maned sphinx of Hatshepsut

  1. I agree with you regarding how different the limestone sculpting and the Granite sculptings appear one looking softer than the other. I enjoyed this post Thankyou.

    • Thank you for reading! And thank you for your comments – they are appreciated as always. I’m glad you enjoyed reading – the second part will be posted next Wednesday!

      • Re Hatshepsut #1
        Two comments on this fascinating article G. Wasn’t Hatshepsut the first (ever) pharaoh to use an avenue of ‘protective’ sphinxes on her temple approach that we know of? (This assumes that Keller, Winlock & co. are correct re. original placement of the apotropaic sphinxes on the approach to Djeser Djeseru). So, in terms of ‘the clear break from the conventional use of sphinxes’ in a protective function, perhaps Hatshepsut was – and not for the first time – innovative in her use of sphinxes for this purpose? I know, unanswerable question! Your article was fascinating re. two possible types of sphinx and a range of function!

        The other point I wanted to make is regarding the significance of this temple’s particular location. I’ve long believed (and am in good company here!) that Hatsheput’s choice of this particular spot for Djeser Djeseru was as strongly influenced by Deir el Bahri’s status as a sacred Hathoric site long before her time, as it was a means of placing Djeser Djesuru right next to the temple of her ‘other’ father, Mentuhotep II (who predated Hat by 500 years). Of course this is assuming that H. chose this location, not her short-lived husband, T.II!

        Great blog!

      • Thanks for your comments, Barbara! Extremely interesting!

  2. […] The Egyptiana Emporium – Gemma writes about the purpose and artistic significance of the maned sphinx of the female pharaoh Hatshepsut. […]

  3. […] the nemes headdress with attached uraeus was employed on sphinx sculptures, including the red granite colossi at Deir el-Bahri, to emphasise the fact that the person depicted was the king. Hatshepsut has incorporated this […]

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