Seated Statues of Rahotep and Nofret

Prince Rahotep and his wife Nofret life-like painted limestone statues are considered among the most famous private statues from ancient Egypt. The statues were discovered in the mastaba tomb (a tomb in the form of a rectangular platform) of Rahotep, north of the pyramid of Snefru, in Meidum, dating to the reign of King Snefru of the 4th Dynasty.

The colors are well preserved and the faces have realistic expressions. The torchlight reflecting on the inlaid eyes of these two statues caused the workmen who first gazed at them to be afraid. The reddish brown for the man and cream wash for the woman. This was an artistic convention followed throughout ancient Egyptian history.

Seated Statues of Rahotep and Nofret. Egyptian Museum, Cairo.
Seated Statues of Rahotep and Nofret. Egyptian Museum, Cairo. CG 3, 4

Representations of Rahotep and Nofret

Rahotep might have been a son of King Sneferu and thus, a brother of King Khufu. He held the titles of High Priest of Re at Heliopolis, General of the Army, and Chief of Constructions. He is seen here wearing a short kilt, short hair, a fine mustache, and a heart-shaped amulet around his neck.

Princess Nofret, is described as “the one acquainted to the king.” Nofret or Nefert means “beautiful”. She is seen wearing a shoulder-length wig, decorated with a floral diadem and a broad collar. Her natural hair can be seen under the wig. We recognize the distinction in the skin coloring of the two statues.

The prominent forms of the woman emerge voluptuously but discreetly from behind the light material that covers her and create a pleasant contrast with the lean, flaunted physique of her husband; the contrast is further emphasized by the elaborate necklace that adorns her decollete compared to Rahotep’s sober choker.

It is these small technical points that give life to the whole work. The unknown artist was able to distribute the volumes and opulence of the forms and attributes so as to break the static symmetry of the two figures, though without detriment to the intimate communion of the couple.

The Mastaba of prince Rahotep and his wife Nofret is one of the largest from the necropolis of Meidum. Below the east facade, decorated with the customary false-door niche, archaeologists discovered an earlier wall face with a cross-shaped shrine decorated with low reliefs and superbly executed paintings on plaster. It is not known why the earlier wall face was overlaid.

Statues of Rahotep and Nofret
Statues of Rahotep and Nofret. Egyptian Museum, Cairo. CG 3, 4

The two statues and the items with which they were discovered are examples of Egyptian art produced during the transition from the 3rd to the 4th Dynasty.

With regard to the execution, the pair are a fine illustration of the strict canons that governed the iconography of this period; the couple are portrayed in the unavoidable conventional pose on a square seat painted white to give contrast to the black hieroglyphs.

The lower part of the body is treated perfunctorily, almost negligently, while all the artist’s attention is concentrated on the upper half, culminating in the brilliant quartz and alabaster eyes.

Old Kingdom, 4th Dynasty, reign of king Sneferu ca. 2575-2551 BC. Rahotep: height 121 cm; Nofret: height 122 cm. From Mastaba of Rahotep and Nofret in Meidum. Excavation by A. Mariette (1871). Now in the Egyptian Museum, Cairo. CG 3, 4