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The Great Sphinx of Giza in Pictures - 5


Sphinx in Pictures

The Giza pyramids and Sphinx according  to Sundys in the seventeenth century


The Giza pyramids and Sphinx according

to Sundys in the seventeenth century

The earliest pictures of the Sphinx were produced by the ancient Egyptians themselves in New Kingdom times, when the Sphinx was already more than a thousand years old. Archaeological finds at the site of the Sphinx, particularly those made by Selim Hassan in the 1930s, include many stelae with depictions of the monument, showing considerable variation as to the details they record, or purport to record.

The Sphinx according to the "Description de l'Egypte" at the end of the eighteenth century

The Sphinx according to the "Description de l'Egypte"

at the end of the eighteenth century

On some of the stelae, the Sphinx sits on a corniced pedestal, on others there is no pedestal. Sometimes a crown tops the head of the Sphinx: in some cases the combined Red and White Crowns of Lower and Upper Egypt, in others a tall plumed crown. Sometimes the beard is shown wedged like a king's beard, at other times curled at the tip like a god's (as is the case with the actual fragments of the beard). On some of the stelae, the Sphinx wears the plumage of a bird, and a collar or cape.

On most of the stelae, the proportions of the Sphinx are shown more in accordance with the standard design of sphinxes after the Great Sphinx, but it is interesting to note that the Dream Stela itself depicts the proportions of head and body a little closer to the real Sphinx than the rest do; this stela of Tuthmosis IV between the Sphinx's paws shows no crown on its two Sphinx representations and the beard is of the divine pattern. But on the Dream Stela, no statue is shown before the Sphinx's breast, though many of the others do show it there. One of the most interesting of these is that of the scribe Mentu-Hor which uses unconventional artistic means, by the standards of the ancient Egyptians, to suggest that the statue is between the Sphinx's forelegs, by hiding the lower part of the statue's legs behind the outstretched limb of the Sphinx.

In a similarly bold way, two pyramids are shown behind the Sphinx, part-hidden by its body, and one part-obscuring the other. This sort of perspective drawing is very unusual in Egyptian art and suggests that on this occasion a more than usually naturalistic effect was sought, which inspires confidence in the potential accuracy of details like the presence of the statue and the collar about the neck.

The Sphinx according to Pococke, 1743 and Norden, 1755.

The Sphinx according to Pococke, 1743 and Norden, 1755.

The Sphinx according to Pococke, 1743 and Norden, 1755.

Some two-and-a-half thousand years after Mentu-Hor, the German traveler Johannes Helferich visited Giza and left us an account of the Sphinx which, though it contains that fanciful material about the ancient priests' getting inside the Sphinx's head to address the multitude, does circumstantially suggest that he was reasonably familiar with the site. The woodcut he had made for publication in 1579 would suggest the opposite: this Sphinx is blatantly female and about all that has come through of the real situation of the monument at Giza at the time is that the breast is shown buried in the sand and, perhaps, that the hair resembles the damaged head-dress of the Great Sphinx. We recall that Helferich thought the Sphinx was an image of Isis.

The illustrator of George Sandys' Relations of a Journey began in 1610 made a much better job of depicting the Sphinx. Sandy's noted that 'Pliny gave it a belly' though only its head was visible to him, and he must have made a pretty detailed sketch of it in the field, for the woodcut in his hook is really remarkably apt in showing the erosion of the neck, with knobbly protuberances, and the damage to the head-dress, with grooves and notches. What is more, this illustration of Sandys' book largely avoids the cultural contamination with the classical style that spoils many of the renditions of Egyptian art made before the end of the eighteenth century.

Back Next

An Introduction to the Great Sphinx

The Great Sphinx Temples

The Meaning of the Great Sphinx

Conservation of the Great Sphinx

Age of the Sphinx

Sphinx in Pictures

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