This statue of Sekhemka, meaning literally “Strong of soul”, was made to serve as a “living image” of the deceased and was installed in the tomb’s chapel, accessed only by priests and members of the immediate family in order to honour their ancestors. Its chief purpose was to receive offerings in the form of incense and nourishment that would help the departed live for eternity in the afterlife.
This representation was not intended to be a portrait, but served a more timeless purpose. Stylistically, it was crafted to give an impression of a living person caught in a moment of stillness. Rather than looking to recreate naturalistic movement, the symmetry, heavy lines and angular frontality emphasise the permanence and immortality of the subject, while the sensitively-modelled body and expressive face create a sense of dynamism, imbuing the statue with a sense of liveliness. Considerable attention has been given to the modelling of the muscles and bones of his arms and legs and to fine anatomical details such as the meeting point of the collarbones at the base of the neck. The same care is noticeable on his back, with muscles, ribs and some healthy flesh above his belt delineated, as well as the roundness of the vertebra at the nape of his neck.
Sekhemka holds a papyrus scroll open on his lap. The hieroglyphic inscription lists offerings, dedicated to Sekhemka, with much detail about type and quantity, including food, beverages, unguents and liquids, incense and cosmetics, funerary equipment and royal gifts. These are the essential offerings that Sekhemka needs to subsist comfortably in the afterlife. The magical power of the hieroglyphs will make these offerings come to life when priests recite the ritual formulas for the deceased's nourishment in the afterlife.
Festival perfume, one jar
Hekenu-oil, one jar
Sefet-oil, one jar
Nehenem-oil, one jar
Tuaut-oil, one jar
First quality cedar oil, one jar
First quality Libyan oil, one jar
Green eye-paint, one bag
Black eye-paint, one bag
Cloth strips, a pair
Cool water; two pellets (of natron)
Royal offering, two cakes (?)
Royal offering of the hall, two cakes (?)
Breakfast, bread and beer
One Nemeset-jar of beer
SITMERIT AND INTIMACY IN ANCIENT EGYPT
Sekhemka’s wife, Sitmerit, meaning literally “The Daughter of Merit”, is shown kneeling to his right. Though diminutive in scale, her refined features are stately and beautiful. Her imposing wide wig frames her round face, whilst rows of straight and curling natural hair appear on her forehead. Her eyes gaze upwards, in the same direction as Sekhemka’s. She is wearing a tight-fitted white linen dress, revealing the shape of her body. The dress was patterned in blue and orange around her breasts, as the remains of pigment behind her shoulders reveal. Her wrists and ankles are adorned with bracelets and traces of a broad collar are visible on her neck. She is delicately embracing her husband’s right leg, with her left hand carved on the inside of his calf.
Canons in Egyptian art were established by the royal family and followed by the elite, who were always trying to emulate their sovereign. Although appearing quite static at first glance, representations of royal and private couples always have an element of intimacy, showing conjugal affection. In the 4th dynasty, the wife is only touching her husband with one hand, but by the 5th dynasty, she will be gently brushing his calf with her fingertips. Later examples show husband and wife holding hands, arm in arm, or even embracing by the shoulders.
Here, the position of Sitmerit’s body, as well as her composed expression are perhaps what gives peacefulness and harmony to this family portrait. It shows the close link between husband and wife, and their attachment to their family. The smaller scale should not be interpreted as a symbol of womens' place in society; rather, it is an artistic choice, for women had an equal status with men. She provides the love and support that her family needs. She prompts desire, gives life, and watches over her loved ones. She has a protective role and is the grounding force for the family.
On the front of the cubic seat, to the right of Sekhemka, is a figure of a young man, Seshemnefer, walking to the left. He is depicted nude, a sign of youth, and holds a large lotus flower with long stem in his left hand, the symbol of rebirth. As well as providing his name, the hieroglyphic inscription above his head identifies him as a scribe of the master of largess, which suggests that he worked in the same office as his father. That such a young man already has a work title may appear incongruous, however this is a depiction of Sekhemka’s son as an idealized youth. His presence reinforces the carefully constructed image of an idyllic, young, fecund family.
THE CUBIC SEAT
Another remarkable feature of this statue is the relief decoration on the cubic seat. Only five other examples are known with decoration on both the sides and the back: three in the Cairo Museum and two in the collection of the New York Historical Society in the Brooklyn Museum. The scenes are exceptional for the high quality of the carving, the finely modelled facial features and rich colours. They show offering bearers bringing some of the essential equipment to the deceased.
The scene at the back of the seat shows three offering bearers in profile, walking to the right. They are wearing short black wigs with tight curls and short kilts. They are carrying, from right to left, two long strips of cloth, incense from a censer and pointed vessels for ritual liquids. These are all mentioned on the papyrus scroll unrolled on Sekhemka’s lap.
The scene on the left side shows two offering bearers, depicted in a similar way, one carrying a goose or a duck by the wings in his left hand and two lotus flowers in his right; the one behind carefully holds a small calf. The sensitive carving of the animals shows the great craftsmanship of the sculptors of the 5th and 6th dynasties; lively scenes such as these can be found in the funerary temple of Niuserrer in Abusir. That the wings and feet of the waterfowl are slightly breaking the frame of the left and right panels shows great skill and confidence, as well as artistic licence and creativity, making the scene more dynamic.
The scene on the right side shows two offering bearers in profile, walking to the left. The one in front is holding a goose by the neck, grasping its wings in his right hand, presenting it to Sekhemka. The one behind carries a living goose, keeping it restrained with an arm around its wings and grasping its legs. The carved lines of the eyes, eyebrows, nose, mouth and cheeks show the greatest care in execution of the relief decoration.
SCULPTURE IN THE OLD KINGDOM 2500 B.C. - ETERNITY
Life after death was the primary belief in ancient Egypt and preparing for one’s welfare after death was the project of a lifetime. A tomb needed to be built, funerary equipment had to be arranged, and the mortuary cult needed to be performed. Aside from the royal family, only the elite had the resources to fully realise these demands. The tomb was made in two parts, comprising a substructure where the sarcophagus was placed, and a superstructure with decorated rooms and chapels. It was a favour of the king to be permitted to have a sumptuously decorated tomb, given only to esteemed members of the administration. Artisans from the royal workshop would create the colourfully decorated walls and lifelike statues representing the deceased and his family.
Group sculptures representing the royal family are known since the early Dynastic period, circa 3000-2650 B.C. A relief fragment from Heliopolis shows an early depiction of king Djoser with his family gathered around his legs. The intimate attitude of the wife kneeling on the ground, her legs tucked to one side, her arm around her husband’s legs was reserved only for royal women in the 4th dynasty (circa 2600-2450 B.C.). Only in the 5th dynasty did non-ruling members of the royal family adopt this style, as with the example of the statue of princess Nebibnebty and her husband Seankhuptah, dating to circa 2450-2300 B.C. This type was subsequently gradually adopted by high officials and entered private statuary shortly after.
Only one other statue is attributed to Sekhemka, Inspector of the Scribes, now in the Brooklyn Museum. The kneeling figure is made of diorite, the base is in limestone, painted to imitate diorite and is decorated as an offering table. It is suggested that Sekhemka may have had a discarded royal sculpture repaired and a base added to it. The similar quality of the carving between this and the present lot certainly serves to link the two pieces. Moreover, both statues were brought out of Egypt at around the same time; Dr. Henry Abbott, the original owner of the Brooklyn Sekhemka, returned with his collection in 1851.