Sphinx of Senusret III

In this magnificent example, the face belongs to Senusret III of 12th Dynasty whose features are very distinctive. With the body of a lion and the head of a human, the sphinx symbolically combined the power of the lion with the image of the reigning king. He wears a pleated linen headcloth, called a nemes headdress, which is symbolic of kingship.

Because of their strength, ferocity, imposing mane, and awesome roar, lions were associated with kingship since prehistoric times. As divine guardians against evil, they also symbolized in cosmic myths the place on the horizon where the sun was reborn every day.

Sphinx of Senusret III
Sphinx of Senusret III

The nemes is surmounted by a cobra, which represents the goddess Udjo, one of the protectors of the king. The cobra’s hood and head were either carved separately or they were repaired in antiquity, for there is an ancient dowel hole drilled into the place where the cobra’s upright body would be.

While the Egyptians viewed the standing sphinx as a conqueror, the crouching sphinx was a guardian of sacred places. Thus pairs of sphinxes flanked avenues or entrances to important buildings. This sphinx was carved from a single block of beautifully grained anorthosite gneiss from quarries in Nubia.

Related: Sphinx of Amenemhat III

The sculptor has used the pattern in the stone to great effect on the body of the lion and has masked the potentially awkward transition from animal body to human head with the headdress and the stylized pattern representing the lion’s mane.

Note the difference between the ordered long strands of the mane in front and the short, overlapping tufts on the back of the shoulders. Below the beard, a palace facade (serekh) is incised topped by a falcon and the symbol for the sky. Both the king’s Horus name (divine of thrones) and his throne name (shining are the life forces [kas] of Re) are written in the serekh.

Midle Kingdom, 12th Dynasty, reign of Senusret III, ca. 1878-1840 BC. Gneiss. Dimensions: L. 73 × W. 29.5 × H. 42.5 cm, 114.3 kg (28 3/4 × 11 5/8 × 16 3/4 in., 252 lb.). Possibly from Thebes, Upper Egypt. Now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. 17.9.2