A quick look at: Senwosret III, the 5th king of Egypt’s 12th Dynasty.
Who was he, and why is he so stern-looking in his artistic representations?
Pictured: Three granite statues of Senwosret III at the British Museum.
Following the decline of Egypt’s Old Kingdom (about 2613-2160 BC), royal power was devolved to nomarchs (provincial governors), leading Egypt into the First Intermediate Period.
Egyptologists traditionally distinguish between the major periods of pharaonic history on the basis of the political state of the country. ‘Kingdoms’ -defined as times of political unity and strong, centralized government -alternate with the ‘intermediate periods’, which are in contrast characterized by the rivalries of local rulers in their claims for power. (-Stephan Seidlmayer, in The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, pg. 108).
The Middle Kingdom (approx. 2055-1650 BC), however, saw the re-centralization of power and the disappearance of these nomarchs and their families. Senwosret III was an instrumental player in this, with his domestic policy focused on reorganizing the administrative system; he also greatly strengthened Egypt’s control over Nubia.
There is a significant difference between the royal statues of the Old and Middle Kingdoms. Those of the Middle Kingdom overall become larger in size, and markedly sterner-looking in expression. I side with those Egyptologists who suggest that the recent memory of the First Intermediate Period was the cause of this; following the loss of kingship to the nomarchs, the kings of the Middle Kingdom felt the need to exhort their power and authority in more obvious manners -such as through their artistic representations.
This powerfully realistic portrait of Senwosret III [the middle statue shown] was clearly intended to inspire awe in the onlooker. The authority of the Pharaoh is conveyed by the stern gaze and the downturned, almost grimacing, mouth. (-Rita Freed in Ancient Egypt, pg 218).
A good example which I usually give when comparing is this Old Kingdom statue of Khafre at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.
Artifacts shown courtesy & currently located at the British Museum, London. Photo taken by Stevan Hubbard.