The Ramesside Smile

Front view of Rameses The Great's statue in Luxor Temple

I have to excuse myself in advance, Dear Reader, that the following composition may include more personal experience and emotions than you probably expect from such a short summary. The selected topic is very hard to talk about anyway, especially from an objective point of view since the beauty is born in the eye of the receiver and everybody estimates art on his or her own way. My intention is to show the beauty of the Ramesside smile (in my view) without the necessity of intensive knowledge about the characteristics of the ancient Egyptian art.



Close-up of a the previous statue (19th dynasty)Half view of the previous statue of Rameses II.

The Ramesside smile is a concept in the history of Egyptian art and a typical feature of the king-sculpture in the Ramesside age (19-20 dynasties). It has kept Egyptologists as well as art historians interested for a long time because it is inconceivable not only concerning its effect but also its artistic technology. It is incomparable to the severity that identifies the sculpture of the Old Kingdom but in the meantime it is not devoid of the same dignity that makes people understand why these kings were considered gods in their own era. 
The sculptors of later ages made serious efforts to copy this style but only one look at the smiles of Ptolemaic royal statues will make you smile too on the result. The smiles of the Late Period do not wear the dignity of the Ramesside smile, they rather give a kind homeliness to the described pharaohs.

What made the Ramesside smile a concept, what makes it unconfusable and recognisable for the first sight?

A bit sad and mystic smile is this, very rare to see on a human face, this is why the emotions behind it are so hard to identify and insert into the system of mimic. I would rather call it a grin than a smile.


It is obvious to wonder what could inspire the first sculptor who tried to describe his king’s face through this artistic method. If we look around to the works of earlier ages it will be obvious that the initiation was not absolutely original. Let us take a look at the face of the Great Sphinx of Giza. Its (his? her?) smile has already peeled off from its 5-meter-wide face, nevertheless that indescribable expression is still clearly visible as well as the smile that returns in the art of the 19th dynasty.

Smile of the Great Sphinx

The ancient Egyptian had a word for expressing the background of this unfathomable countenance. This word is the nefer. Sir Alan Gardiner in his work “The Egyptian Grammar” provides us the following meaning of this word: beautiful, happy, good, perfect. But the real meaning of nefer reaches far beyond this translation. It concerns not only a pretty face, a lovely figure or a gorgeous dress. Its meaning is much more abstract, deeper than the word beauty of our (or any other modern) language. Nefer includes the harmony that creates beauty. It concerns the divine beauty that inhabits inside every creature, and for an Egyptian beautiful described something that this beauty shined through, something in which this beauty gained a new dimension. Nefer lives in the essence, not in the appearance. Many people represent the opinion that the Egyptian statues are the same because each of them tried to manifest the same concept: the ideal, the perfect. The idealistic representation born from the efforts to visualize anatomically perfect body and face, completed (perfect – as the language says) movements, rarely tolerated any kind of reform in the royal portrayal. The ideology behind the idealistic art is strongly linked to nefer. The sculptor did not intend to show the surface when he released the picture of his monarch from a block of stone. He wanted to show the inner essence of the pharaoh’s nature and from this point of view it made no difference if the pharaoh was paunchy, knock-kneed or cross-eyed. His inner divine self was perfect. Nefer. If the picture was meant to seize the essence then it had to model the ideal.

This is the nefer that shines through the smiles of the Ramesside statues, the inconceivable beauty and divine harmony represented by the kings on this earth.

Now, I should give you the answer to the obvious question: what is this Ramesside Smile like? I may disappoint you: I cannot give you the answer. I know what it is like for me. If you want to know what it is like for you, you have to go and find it for yourself. If my summary raised your interest and after examining the enclosed picture of the sitting statue of Rameses II you ask yourself: “what does this smile say to me?” then I did not waste server-capacity with my composition.

Rameses II's portrait "The Younger Memnon" -  British Museum

Rameses II as "The Younger Memnon" - Belzoni took the upper part of a colossus of the Ramesseum to London. It is in the British Museum now.


Front view of a Ramesside Smile


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