The most famous piece of Egyptian art in Europe is this 3,000-year-old bust of a Queen of Egypt named Nefertiti.
As America continues to suffer crisis upon crisis, it has never been more important to broaden our perspectives and learn about the people and places that shape our world. And for me, one of the great joys of travel is seeing art masterpieces in person. Learning the stories behind great art can shed new light on our lives today. Here’s one of my favorites.
Nefertiti has all the right features of a classic beauty: long slender neck, perfect lips, almond eyes, symmetrical eyebrows, pronounced cheekbones, and a perfect spray-on tan.
Her pose is perfectly symmetrical from every angle — front, back, and side. From the side, her V-shaped profile creates a dynamic effect: She leans forward, gazing intently, while her funnel-shaped hat swoops up and back. Her colorful hat is a geometrically flawless, tapered cylinder.
And yet, despite her seemingly perfect beauty, the real person shines through. In real life, Nefertiti was born a commoner and renowned for her beauty. Her name means “the beautiful one has come.” She married the pharaoh, Akhenaton, and soon became the most powerful woman in the land. The newlyweds moved into a large palace and had six daughters. (Nefertiti became the mummy-in-law of Tutankhamen, the famous “King Tut” whose tomb was unearthed in 1922, sparking a worldwide fascination with Egypt.) During the reign of the dynamic power couple, Egypt’s 1,000-year-old traditions were challenged, and the once-stiff art styles broke out of the rigid mold.
Unlike earlier statues of generic gods, Nefertiti’s bust has unique human details. Looking close, you can make out fine wrinkles around the eyes — these only enhance her beauty. She has a slight Mona Lisa smile, pursed at the corners. Her eyebrows are so delicately detailed, you can make out each single hair. From the back, the perfection of her neck is marked with a bump of reality — a protruding vertebra. And because she’s missing the quartz inlay in the left eye, it gives the impression she’s winking at you. Her look is meditative, intelligent, lost in thought. Like a movie star discreetly sipping a glass of wine at a sidewalk café, Nefertiti seems somehow more beautiful as a real person with real flaws.
The bust is made out of limestone, with a stucco surface. This bust served as the master model for countless other portraits of the queen scattered across the kingdom.
Today Nefertiti’s bust is displayed in a room all her own in a museum in Berlin. How the queen arrived in Germany is a tale straight out of Indiana Jones. A German archaeologist uncovered the bust in the Egyptian desert in 1912 and spirited it out under questionable circumstances. Since her arrival in Berlin, she’s been surrounded by controversy. Some scholars condemned the bust as a fake. Meanwhile, the masses adored Nefertiti and made her a virtual symbol of Germany itself — Germany’s “queen.” Hitler promoted her as a pagan symbol of his new non-Christian Reich. When Germany was split in the Cold War, both sides fought to claim her. Today Nefertiti’s timeless beauty has come to represent the aspirations of the reunited German people. And around the world, her intriguing allure has made her Egyptology’s cover girl.
This art moment — a sampling of how we share our love of art in our tours — is an excerpt from the full-color coffee-table book Europe’s Top 100 Masterpieces by Rick Steves and Gene Openshaw. Please support local businesses in your community by picking up a copy from your favorite bookstore, or you can find it at my online Travel Store.