In Focus

Portrait of Seti I

The following essay is from the 1996 publication Gods, Men, and Heroes: Ancient Art at the Dallas Museum of Art.

This superb sculpture is a very rare portrait of one of the great kings of Egyptian history, Seti I, a dominant figure of the early Nineteenth Dynasty. The Eighteenth Dynasty had fallen on difficult times when the heretic king Akhenaten attempted to revolutionize Egyptian religion by introducing the cult of a sun god, the Aten, and moved the Egyptian capital from Thebes to a new location at the modern site of El Amarna. More traditionally powerful figures of Egyptian society, especially the priesthood at Thebes, reasserted the values of older Egyptian theology after Akenaten's death. His successors, Tutankhamun (whose tomb is the richest known royal burial to survive), the Priest Ay, and General Horemheb, attempted to restore the political, religious, and military order of Egypt. Egyptian power both at home and aborad was not fully restored until Seti's father, Rameses I, a genral of Horemheb with no connection to the old imperial family, took control of the kingdom and inaugurated a new dynasty.

Ramses I was an old man at his accession and ruled briefly; it was Seti I who regenerated the Egypt of his time. A tough and effective military man, Seti fought in Palestine against armies of the Hittite kingdom, the Phoenician city-states, and the coastal cities of Syria, thus reestablishing sea trade between Egypt and the Levant. In Egypt itself, he decisively defeated the Libyans of the western delta. Like the militant kings of the Eighteenth Dynasty, Seti made Egypt an international power. This course was also followed by his son Ramses II, who had one of the longest reigns in Egyptian history.

The works Seti I commissioned within Egypt also followed the Eighteenth Dynasty pattern. Seti supported the traditional gods and was therefore supported by the priesthood of Amun. He engaged in a large-scale building program, extending existing monuments and designing his splendid tomb at Thebes and funerary temple at Abydos. He was responsible for the first stages of the giant Hypostyle Hall in the great Temple of Amun at Karnak. The north walls of this great pillared area are covered with reliefs depicting Seti's campaigns, some in raised relief and some in sunk relief. The painted reliefs of Seti's funerary temple at Abydos, which were completed by Ramses II, are among the finest examples of Egyptian monumental art, as Seti's marble sarcophagus, now in the Sir John Soane Museum in London, is one of the loveliest of decorated coffins. Seti's artists raised the elegant court art of Amenhotep III to a colossal scale. The arts created under Ramses II retained this monumentality but usually lacked the refinement of design found under Seti I.

Seti I could be considered one of ancient Egypt's greatest kings. He displayed the energy of Thuthmosis III and Amenhotep III as well as their creative visions of Egyptian culture and religion. Like the great pharaohs of the Old Kingdom, Seti was a god-king, the living embodiment of the Two Lands.

The DMA bust, actually a head and torso remaining from a statue that was perhaps in a kneeling position, is a fitting representation of the great king. It is one of the finest of the very rare three-dimentional portraits of Seti to survive. Along with the relief portraits of Seti in the funerary temple at Abydos, in the Great Temple at Karnak, and in his tomb in the Valley of the Kings, there remain only a handful or portraits, including sculptures at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and in Hildesheim, Germany. The DMA figure is a noble and powerful sculptural conception, the ruler calm and aloof, yet imbued with vital power. Seti wears the traditional royal nemes headcloth and false beard. Supporting the back of the figure is the royal cartouche. Despite damage to the face and the headdress, the sculpture still gives a very vivid image of the king's physical presence. The boldly plastic modeling of Seti's self-confident head emphasizes the pharaoh's divine majesty and his role as ruler of Egypt and its people.

Excerpt from

Anne R. Bromberg and Karl Kilinski II, Gods, Men, and Heroes: Ancient Art at the Dallas Museum of Art. (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1996), 20-23.

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