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Head of a God

Although fragmentary in nature, the exceptional quality of this colossal head's remaining features, as well as the luxurious red Aswan granite in which it is sculpted, indicate that it is the work of a master. The particular headdress and false beard allow the subject to be identified as a god rather than a royal figure.

Very much in the New Kingdom style, the face is rounded with fleshy cheeks and very sensual, indented lips. Large, well-preserved ears emerge from the massive striated headdress that falls down on the shoulders in a widening volume.

With regards to identification, the extensive damage to the upper part of the face can likely be attributed to an iconoclastic event, possibly even a so-called damnatio memoriae (Latin for "damnation of memory", which means a removal from remembrance). It is chiefly known from Roman times when traitors and some emperors (Caligula, Nero, Domitian, Commodus, etc.) were erased from the historical record. However, it also occurred earlier in Ancient Egypt, where the greatest importance was attached to the preservation of a person's name. Destroying a person's name or image is destroying the person's eternal existence, and had thus serious religious consequences. The erasure was applied on names, paintings, relief sculptures, statues and even complete buildings.

If the present example was indeed the victim of a damnatio memoriae, there are five possible identifications for the XVIII Dynasty: Hatshepsut, Akhenaten, Smenkhkare, Tutankhamun and Ay. The first one, Hatshepsut (ca. 1479 - 1458 B.C.), was the first female Pharaoh. She was the wife of Thutmosis II and the stepmother of his son, Thutmosis III. After the elder Thutmosis' death, she served as his son's "co-regent" with the understanding that once he reached maturity, she would step aside. This was not the case, and she ruled Egypt single-handedly up until her own death, well into Thutmosis' adulthood. She was popular in some circles, but detested in others, where she was viewed as an usurper with no business traipsing about with a false beard and a Pharaonic head dress. After her death, Thutmosis III and his son, Amenhotep II, vandalized and destroyed her monuments and statues and removed her name from official records wherever they could find it.

Akhenaten (ca. 1351 - 1334 B.C.), son of Amenhotep III, radically changed the Egyptian religion by the sole worship of Aton, the sun disk. He also poured exorbitant amounts of gold and labor into the construction of a new capital at Akhetaten (modern Tell al-Amarna). This way, Akhenaten bankrupted society and caused the economy to collapse. These changes were obviously rather unpopular with the powerful Theban priestly caste and with the common people. During Tutankhamun's reign, Akhenaten's vizier and future Pharaoh Ay subjected him to the damnatio memoriae.

Smenkhkare (ca. 1334 B.C.) was Akhenaten's immediate successor and probably reigned for some months. Little is known about him, but due to his association with Akhenaten and the Amarna Revolution, his memory was similarly expunged by Ay.

Tutankhamun (ca. 1333 - 1323 B.C.) probably was the son of Akhenaten. Because of his young age, he was used as the plaything of Ay and Horemheb. During his reign, the first official attacks on Akhenaten's memory occurred. The same happened to him during Horemheb's reign.

The man who damaged Akhenaten's and Smenkhkare's memory, Ay (ca. 1323 - 1319 B.C.), would also be subjected to a damnatio memoriae by his successor Horemheb because of his Amarna associations and a personal slight that prevented Horemheb from succeeding Tutankhamun.

On the other hand, if we consider other causes for the extensive damage to the face (such as fall damage, or reuse as building material in Coptic times), the number of possibilities increases. More Pharaohs are under consideration, as well as male deities. Females are not possible due to the false beard. In Egyptian history only Hatshepsut was depicted dressed up as a man. Two other female Pharaohs, Neferneferuaten (XVIII Dynasty) and Tawosret (XIX Dynasty), reigned too shortly to have left evidence of this unusual practice.

A very similar granite head can be seen at the Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Florence. This head shows a queen - possibly Hatshepsut - represented as a goddess with the same headdress (with erect uraeus) and facial features. She does not wear a false beard, but has - in addition - a cylindrical support for a crown. It dates from the XVIII Dynasty and has roughly the same dimensions (45 centimetres, but including a larger remainder of the headdress and the cylindrical crown support).

Georges Gorse (1915 - 2002) was a French politician and diplomat. Of humble origins, he proved to be an excellent student and in 1939 went on to become a teacher at the French International School in Cairo (Lycée Français du Caire) as well as a professor at the University of Cairo. He left Egypt in 1942 to join the war effort for Charles de Gaulle and the Free French as Director of Information. After the war, he held several positions including (under-)secretary of State, ambassador to Tunisia and Algeria, and - in his later years - mayor of Boulogne-Bilancourt.

Georges Gorse was a well-read man with an extensive and eclectic collection. During his years in Egypt, a country that he clearly revered, he greatly enjoyed visiting the antiques shops and discussing his collection with the resident archaeologists of the Egyptian Museum. He also met and married Nadine Gelat during these years.

Further reading:
Gorse G., 1992. Je n'irai pas à mon enterrement, Paris : Plon.

Pictured: Georges Gorse's residence in Rue de Poissy, Paris.

Object information

Aswan pink granite
Date and place:
Egypt, New Kingdom, Dynasty XVIII – XIX (ca. 1550 – 1189 B.C.)
130 x 195 cm
Private collection, Belgium; Axel Vervoordt Company, 2008; Thierry de Maigret, Paris, 13 June 2008, lot 92; Private collection Georges Gorse (1915 - 2002), France, acquired before 1970.
2008: Academia: Qui es-tu?, Chapelle de l'Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, Paris (September 10 – November 23), p. 139 ill.

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