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The Lion Queen #2 – the purpose and artistic significance of the maned sphinx of Hatshepsut

Djeser-Djeseru, the mortuary temple of the 18th Dynasty female pharaoh Hatshepsut, is located adjacent to, and modelled on, the mortuary complex of Mentuhotep Nebhepetre of the 11th Dynasty and founder of the Middle Kingdom. However, Hatshepsut has not simply copied the source of her inspiration, but rather made her complex her own in a prominent example of archaism. When examining the artistic conventions employed in depictions of sphinxes, further evidence of Hatshepsut’s archaising tendencies are revealed.

Since the Old Kingdom, sphinxes have been used in royal iconography (the most well known example being the Great Sphinx at Giza which is believed to be the work of the 4th Dynasty pharaoh, Khafre) but underwent a ‘renaissance’ of sorts during the Middle Kingdom. The pharaohs of the 12th Dynasty, in particular, used sphinxes voraciously.

Pectoral of Mereret (Robins, 1997, 114, fig. 122).

The pectoral of Mereret (above) shows the 12th Dynasty pharaoh Senwosret III as a sphinx trampling his enemies, a typical image of royal iconography which is seen again in a scene from the 18th Dynasty New Kingdom tomb of Anen (below), this time depicting Amenhotep III.

Detail of a scene from the tomb of Anen (Robins, 1997, 137, fig. 155).

The recumbent lion form of the sphinx has also been used widely in royal iconography of the 12th Dynasty, with examples from Senwosret III and Amenemhat II. One example of the use of sphinxes in Middle Kingdom royal sculpture is particularly noteworthy (below) – the so-called ‘Hyksos sphinxes’ (or ‘Tanite sphinxes’) of Amenemhat III, the 12th Dynasty pharaoh. The granite pieces are another rare example of maned sphinxes and were usurped by a number of New Kingdom kings including Ramesses II and Merenptah, clearly indicating that they were greatly admired during this period. Another example of a maned sphinx is accredited to Amenemhat IV, again dating to the Middle Kingdom.

Maned sphinx of Amenemhat III (JE 1520-13 Cairo Egyptian Museum, Global Egyptian Museum Online Catalogue).

The archaism of Mentuhotep Nebhepetre’s mortuary temple combined with the evidence of maned sphinxes from the Middle Kingdom gives rise to the possibility that Hatshepsut once again employed archaism for her limestone sphinxes. When juxtaposed, the striking similarities between the Hatshepsut sphinx and the Amenemhat III and Amenemhat IV sphinxes are perceptible, including the body shape, the rounded ears, the mane around the cheeks, the ‘feathered’ mane covering the front of the body and the uraeus on the top of the mane. In all three cases, the mane has been regularised at the top of the head to resemble the traditional nemes headdress. As in the case of the temple itself, Hatshepsut has not simply copied the earlier sculptures, but has personalised them by giving them youthful, idealised features which contrast sharply with the severity of the features in the faces of Amenemhat III.

The regularisation of the mane and the inclusion of the uraeus are important when considering the content of the limestone sphinx in terms of kingship iconography. Traditionally 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 iconography into her maned sphinxes, utilising the same method employed for the ‘Tanite sphinxes’, in order to reiterate her kingly status, however this traditionally masculine feature, combined with the false beard, contradicts the femininity inherent in the facial features, and highlights Hatshepsut’s wish to be recognised as a king, but also as a female.

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

Further evidence of the ‘dual recognition’ of the female king is present when examining the traces of colouration on the face. The face was painted yellow (above), the iconographic colour for females, as opposed to red which signifies masculinity. There is further contradiction in the inscriptions on each of the limestone sphinxes.

The New York sphinx bears an inscription which reads ‘Maatkare, beloved of Amun, may she live forever’, using the feminine pronouns, however the inscription on the Cairo sphinx reads ‘Maatkare, beloved of Amun, may he live forever’, using the masculine pronouns. Although a scribal error cannot be dismissed, when considering this information in conjunction with the colouration and aforementioned male and female iconography, it is likely that this was an intentional contradiction, employed to reinforce Hatshepsut’s desire to be seen as a female king.

In the absence of the inscription, it would be difficult to avoid attributing the maned sphinxes to Hatshepsut, purely due to their kingship iconography combined with the feminine features and colouration. When comparing these sculptures to the ‘Tanite sphinxes’, to assume that they are usurped Middle Kingdom sculptures could only be a plausible conclusion when ignoring their faces.

Head of Ahmose I (MMA 2006.270, Metropolitan Museum of Art Collections Database).

The idealised and youthful features can be traced back to the beginning of the 18th Dynasty, in the sculptures of Ahmose I. The head of this pharaoh (above) displays many artistic features that are present in the limestone sphinxes of Hatshepsut – the eyes are large, elongated and almond-shaped, the brows arch high, the nose has a curved profile and the lips are curved into a gentle smile.

These artistic conventions continued through the Thutmosid period, and are evident in the sculptures of Hatshepsut’s predecessors, an example of which is the group statue of Thutmoses I, Hatshepsut’s mother, Queen Ahmose and Amun-Re (below), and this places the maned sphinxes into the 18th Dynasty for dating purposes. Furthermore, Hatshepsut’s combination of feminine features and masculine power symbols appears to have occurred when she assumed the full titulary of the pharaoh rather than when she was acting as regent to Thutmoses III. This enables the limestone sphinxes to be more accurately dated to the joint reign of Hatshepsut and Thutmoses III and this is also considered to be the time at which the Thutmosid style was fully developed.

Group statue of Thutmoses I (Cairo Egyptian Museum JE 37394, Global Egyptian Museum Online Catalogue).

By determining the systemic context of the limestone sculptures and analysing the artistic conventions employed in their creation, it is evident that Hatshepsut’s choice of using maned sphinxes within her mortuary complex is anything but insignificant, disclosing the female pharaoh’s intentional political statement and her admiration of the successful preceding Middle Kingdom. By contrasting their peaceful countenance with their stern red granite guardian counterparts, their purpose as greeters is unveiled and the rationale for the choice of their inclusion in the mortuary complex is revealed as a means of differentiating their function from the other sphinxes at the site.

The limestone maned sphinxes of Hatshepsut are artistically beautiful examples of a rare form of royal iconography, only previously seen in the Middle Kingdom. Her use of archaism combined with the juxtaposition of feminine physiognomy and masculine royal power symbols indicate her desire to be dually recognised, as both a king and a woman, and assists in dating the piece when considered alongside the use of the artistic conventions of the 18th Dynasty Thutmosid period.


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

Zivie-Coche, C. (2002) Sphinx: History of a Monument. (trans., Lorton D.), Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Hall, H. R. (1928) ‘A Sphinx of Amenemhat IV’, The British Museum Quarterly 2: 87-88.

Russmann, E. and Finn, D. (1989) Egyptian Sculpture: Cairo and Luxor. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Ćwiek, A. (2007) ‘Red, yellow and pink. Ideology of skin hues at Deir el-Bahari’, Fontes Archaeologici Posnanienses 43: 24-50.

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

Russmann, E. R. (2005) ‘Art in Transition: The Rise of the Eighteenth Dynasty and the Emergence of the Thutmoside Style in Sculpture and Relief’, in Hatshepsut From Queen To Pharaoh. (ed., Roehrig, C.), New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art: 23-43.

Robins, G. (1997) The Art of Ancient Egypt. London: The British Museum Press.


One comment on “The Lion Queen #2 – the purpose and artistic significance of the maned sphinx of Hatshepsut

  1. […] week: Examining the role of archaism in Hatshepsut’s choice of sphinx. Bibliography: Tyldesley, J. (1998) Hatchepsut: The Female Pharaoh. London: Penguin Books […]

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