Egyptian Queen Won Throne, But Her Steward Steals Show

041006 article naves Egyptian Queen Won Throne,  But Her Steward Steals ShowA queen who proclaimed herself king is the spectacular subject of a spectacular new exhibition at the Met. Hatshepsut: From Queen to Pharaoh spotlights a woman who rose to govern Egypt way back in the 18th Dynasty, more than 3,000 years ago. Today’s sensibilities will undoubtedly applaud the feminist overtones of this venture. Certainly, the museum’s officials at the press preview underlined their wonderment at the notion of a matriarch steering a male-dominated culture.

As it turns out, though, the thematic focus of From Queen to Pharaoh isn’t that astonishing. Women in command were, if not the rule in Egypt, then not unheard of. Thanks to Hollywood, Elizabeth Taylor and an excess of eyeliner, we all know about Cleopatra. But there were at least a handful of other, less familiar females who led the country. Most of them inherited the throne upon the death of their royal husbands. When the true successor, the son, was too young, Mom would prudently take hold of the reins.

For Hatshepsut, it was the untimely death of her husband and half-brother, Thutmose II, that led to her ascension. She was called queen as well as “king’s mother,” the traditional designation for women who inadvertently came to power, but those titles didn’t last long. Shortly into her reign, and with chutzpah to spare, Hatshepsut dubbed herself king.

Her reasons for doing so are unknown. The youth and immaturity of Thutmose III, her nephew and stepson, may have been a factor, but her kingship was a radical step nonetheless. Hatshepsut’s self-ascendance, it should be noted, may not have been entirely unprecedented. There’s some evidence of at least three female kings before Hatshepsut. What is more certain is that, in becoming king, Hatshepsut didn’t depose Thutmose III but became his co-ruler or (as the Met has it) “senior co-ruler.”

The best we can tell from contemporary accounts is that Hatshepsut’s political authority was acknowledged as legitimate, as was her divinity—kings were, by definition, gods entitled to rule for life. Her accomplishments were significant: She saw to the restoration of monuments damaged during times of political strife and renewed trade with western Asia, Punt (another African kingdom) and the Aegean Islands. Though her reign was one of relative peace and prosperity, she may also have led soldiers into war. It seems safe to say that this was a woman of uncommon ambition and drive.

Regular visitors to the Met will be familiar with Hatshepsut: Artifacts from her regime are an integral part of the museum’s Egyptian holdings. What they might not be prepared for is the commanding sweep of From Queen to Pharaoh. The curators have left no chunk of rubble unturned. Exquisite commemorative statuary abounds, as does relief sculpture of unbelievable concision and skill. An ivory clapper, scarabs and amulets carved with eye-challenging precision, jewelry, Hatshepsut’s sarcophagus, a pair of tweezers and, yes, chunks of rubble—it’s hard to imagine what’s missing.

The intensely regimented style of Ancient Egypt clearly challenged artisans faced with Hatshepsut’s particularities; her gender prompted subtle and often amusing modifications to tradition. Rarely in the history of art have there been breasts as grudgingly depicted as this king’s. Ironically, though, Hatshepsut’s considerable thunder is stolen somewhat by her own functionary.

The artifacts devoted to Senenmut, steward of Hatshepsut and tutor to her daughter, are among those that elicit the most curiosity and amazement. Senenmut’s origins were lowly, betokening little chance of gaining great influence. Yet he eventually became indispensable to Hatshepsut the King. Deemed the Great Steward of Amun during the seventh year of Hatshepsut’s rule, Senenmut oversaw the construction of the temples of Karnak, Luxor, the mortuary temple of the king herself and a massive funerary complex in Thebes.

He may also have had a significant impact on the development of sculpture, not least as it pertained to portrayals of himself. Writing in the catalog, Peter F. Dorman, an Egyptologist at the University of Chicago, lists a number of “firsts” in the Senenmut corpus, many of which re-imagined traditional renderings of official functions. A raft of innovations specific to Senenmut’s tenure can’t be mere coincidence; his influence is wide and deep.

Surely the “tutor” motif was close to Senenmut’s heart. Carved from diorite, Senenmut Seated, with Neferure (circa 1479-73 B.C.) depicts the royal tutor holding Hatshepsut’s daughter in his lap. It is rare—or, at least, unexpected—to encounter tenderness in an art as codified as that of Ancient Egypt.

But tenderness is unmistakably and indelibly present—in the firm grasp with which Senenmut holds the young princess and the uncanny manner in which Neferure’s body emerges from that of her tutor. The wisp of a smile playing over Senenmut’s face is similarly telling. His expression indicates feelings of guardianship and affection, but it’s not completely transparent. Senenmut’s love for his pupil is plain to see, but his sly smile guards untold secrets. The anonymous artisan responsible for this masterwork clearly tapped into Senenmut’s humanity—and his cunning.

The portion of From Queen to Pharaoh devoted to Senenmut is tantalizing and beautiful, the sculptures strange and surprising. It makes you wish for a better handle on the man—even a separate exhibition devoted to the Great Steward. But that doesn’t mean you’ll leave the Met unimpressed by the lady king.

Hatshepsut: From Queen to Pharaoh is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, until July 9.