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The Smile of the Sacred

The Smile of the Sacred

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Published by Pino Blasone
Although gaze and smile mostly harmonize together in facial expressions, more than with the former this paper deals with the latter, as represented by artists from Antiquity to Gothic sculpture, until Renaissance painting and a modern perception. Not seldom such a smile has been attributed to holy subjects. Through them and the like, I have striven to show how it may be referred to the sacred itself, sometimes even when assuming profane or lay forms.
Although gaze and smile mostly harmonize together in facial expressions, more than with the former this paper deals with the latter, as represented by artists from Antiquity to Gothic sculpture, until Renaissance painting and a modern perception. Not seldom such a smile has been attributed to holy subjects. Through them and the like, I have striven to show how it may be referred to the sacred itself, sometimes even when assuming profane or lay forms.

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Published by: Pino Blasone on Dec 17, 2009
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial

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12/23/2011

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Pino Blasone
The Smile of the SacredGaze and Smile in Ancient Sculpture
 
1 – Husband and Wife; Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology,London
The Smile of the
 Ka
Quite early in the history of mankind, there were attempts to reproduce individualmiens or to represent human expressions. In the former case, we have the birth of  portraiture. In the latter, the representation can be extended to the images of gods andgoddesses, or even to personal allegories. In all cases, it is to suppose, often humanindividuals were taken as models for the artistic subjects, also when some an idealizationwas added to realistic imitation. In such a context, of course the representation of the gaze isimportant. In certain circumstances, the reproduction of the smile grew important too.Referring to Greek and Etruscan sculpture, this is what scholars use to call “archaic smile”:a kind of ecstatic one giving the statues, not only of deities, an enigmatic charm. Beforedealing with that, let us just go back to Egyptian sculpture, in the same Mediterranean area.Since the 4
th
and 5
th
dynasty periods, we have a portrait statuary. Most subjects are
1
 
full length represented, with a funerary function. Recurrent typologies are the “scribe” or themarried couple. Respectively, relevant samples are the
Seated Scribe
, in the LouvreMuseum at Paris, and the prince Ra-Hotep with his wife Nofret, lived during the reign of thePharaoh Sneferu, who ruled circa in 2575-2551 B.C. (Egyptian Museum, Cairo). Bothspouses have one hand or fist put on their hearts, like before a supreme Court of Justice. Allthese statues are made of painted limestone. Their eyes are inlaid with rock crystal. Theylook so refined, as to appear a prelude to further and better developments. Yet the goldenage of Egyptian sculpture will come more than one thousand years later, at the times of the18
th
dynasty, particularly with the so called art of Al-Amarna. Our perception of a historicaltime has to be somewhat adapted to circumstances, if we consider that in such an epochchanges happened much more slowly than what usual in the modern age and perspective.
 
2 – Thutmose, Bust of Queen Nefertiti, details; Altes Museum,BerlinRather than the quest of an improving progress, ancient Egyptian art reflected asearch for the static dimension of a metaphysical time, resisting against all possiblealterations. Even some innovations produced by Amarna art were quite soon rejected, for their association with a reformation of religious traditions. Anyhow, it is interesting acomparison between the statues of Ra-Hotep with Nofret and an analogous double statuetteof husband and wife, dating from the 18
th
dynasty period and today in the Petrie Museum of 
2
 
Egyptian Archaeology at London. Made of painted limestone, both pieces of sculpture belong to the same iconic type. The latter artefact looks less refined, but more spontaneousand communicative. No longer the young, anonymous married couple, gaze at an undefined point beyond death. They are staring at a potential spectator, such as we actually are. Their simple painted eyes result more lifelike than the precious crystal ones of the former dyad.In the Brooklyn Museum at New York, we can ask to view the fragment of alimestone female head, which was probably part of a family group statuette, dating from the period of the late 18
th
or 19
th
dynasty (ca. 1336-1185 B.C., New Kingdom). On the face of the unknown woman, the tight smile is a nice, relative novelty. Already in the Amarna art, asimilar evolution may be observed. In this case more than one carved portrayals of the same,well known subject, have survived. Of some of them we know even the author: Thutmose,or the skilled workers of his shop. Most famous is a polychrome limestone bust of Queen Nefertiti (ca. 1370-1330 B.C.), now on display in Berlin’s Altes Museum. Her eyelids and brows are outlined in black. One eye is still filled with a crystal inlay. Her red lips hint at animperceptible smile. The whole stands so beautiful and elegant, that certain fanciful scholarsinsinuated it to be a modern fake. Sure, there is no doubt about the
 Face from a CompositeStatue of Nefertiti
, a brown quartzite head currently in the Egyptian Museum at Cairo.
 
3 – Thutmose (?), Face detail of a Head from a Statue of  Nefertiti, in the Egyptian Museum at Cairo; and fragment fromAmarna, Egypt, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art at New York 
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