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Why Do So Many Egyptian Statues Have Broken Noses?

Here’s the most common question from visitors to Brooklyn Museum's Egyptian art galleries: Why are the statues’ noses broken?

Edward Bleiberg, who oversees the museum's Egyptian art, was surprised the first few times he heard this question. He had taken for granted that the sculptures were damaged. Certainly, after thousands of years, an ancient artifact should show wear and tear. But the broken noses led Bleiberg to uncover a widespread pattern of deliberate destruction. He noted, “The consistency of the patterns … of damage found in sculpture suggests that it's purposeful.” A protruding nose on a three-dimensional statue is easily broken, he conceded, but the plot thickens when flat reliefs also have smashed noses.

The ancient Egyptians believed that the essence of a deity could inhabit an image of that deity. These campaigns of vandalism were therefore intended to "deactivate an image's strength." "The damaged part of the body is no longer able to do its job." Without a nose, the statue-spirit ceases to breathe, so that the vandal is effectively "killing" it. To hammer the ears off a statue of a god would make it unable to hear a prayer. Pharaohs regularly issued decrees with terrible punishments for anyone who would dare threaten their likeness.

Bleiberg noted the skill evidenced by the iconoclasts. "They were not vandals recklessly and randomly striking out works of art." In fact, the targeted precision of their chisels suggests that they were skilled laborers, trained and hired for this exact purpose.

Possible Preaching Angle: In the same way, our idols are absolutely powerless to help us, even as we keep running to them. God showed his utter contempt for the idol of Dagon in its temple (1 Sam. 5:1-5) when he threw it down and decapitated it. The prophets also spoke of the powerlessness of the idols to see, hear, or defend themselves (Ps. 135:15-18) but in contrast our God made the heavens and earth (Psalm 96:5).

Julia Wolkoff, “Why do so many Egyptian statues have broken noses?” CNN Arts (3-20-19)

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