Sneferu’s Contribution to Egyptian Art

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: HISTORY OF ANCIENT EGYPT

By Bob Brier, Ph.D., Long Island University

Among other great things, King Sneferu also set the standards for art in Egypt. During his reign, he created jewelry that nobody else had ever seen. He also had spectacular life-sized statues of his children made out of stone. They were the masterpieces of Egyptian art. His vision and eye for detail inspired artists in the coming centuries.

An image of Egyptian art in stone.
Egyptian art consisted of stone sculptures, paintings, and jewelry with great detailing. (Image: Krikkiat/Shutterstock)

Sneferu: Setting Standards for Sculptures

Sneferu kept all the power in his family. His Viziers, the Prime Ministers of Egypt, and the Architects who built the other pyramids were all his sons. Some of Sneferu’s neat artwork was represented in those full life-size statues of his sons, who were all shown as fat. For example, his son, Hemiunu, who was an architect and a vizier, had got rolls of fat, which wasn’t considered a bad thing but a sign of prosperity. That showed one could afford to eat well. In others, Ankhhaf was shown as bald, fat, and paunchy which meant success. These were beautiful, realistic statues, and Sneferu was the one who showed Egypt how to do these statues. He set the standards for sculptures that lasted thousands of years.

Learn more about what Mummies tell us.

Prince Rahotep and his wife, Nofret at Cairo Museum
Princess Nofret wearing a wig, which was a common practice in Ancient Egypt. (Image: Djehouty/CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

Realistic Statues in Ancient Egyptian Art

There was a wonderful statue in the Egyptian Museum of Rahotep, a priest of Memphis, his son, and his wife Nofret who wore a wig with her natural hair peeking out on her forehead. Wealthy Egyptian women often wore wigs made of human hair, fairly large, putting it over their natural hair. These statues were realistic, life-size, beautifully painted, and had rock crystal eyes that looked real with perfect detailing.

Personality Traits of Sneferu

There are personal anecdotes as well as some details about Pharaoh Sneferu available, which make him alive for others. There is a story in a papyrus, called Papyrus Westcar, located in Berlin, which conveyed something about Sneferu’s personality. In this story, Sneferu one day got bored so his Prime Minister suggested that he go rowing with the women of the court, who were provided with fishnet dresses to cheer him up.

 Turquoise jewelry was the favorite of Egyptian women.
Sneferu went to the turquoise mines in Sinai to collect this precious stone. (Image: Metropolitan Museum of Art/CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication)

On the boat with Sneferu, one of the young women was wearing a turquoise fish amulet pendant around her neck, which was considered a real treasure from the mines. Leaning over the ship to look down, the necklace fell off her neck. The young woman wanted her turquoise amulet back, so Sneferu, the King of Egypt, offered to get her another amulet. But she wanted her lost pendant only; thus, Sneferu called a magician who parted the waters. (this was like Exodus but a thousand years before Exodus.) There on a rock was the turquoise fish amulet. The magician fetched it and gave it back to the girl.

It was fiction and may not have happened but the story suggested that Sneferu, the pharaoh, was approachable. He was a good human being and not a domineering pharaoh.

Learn more about Ancient Egyptian Magic.

Sneferu: The One Who Did Not Give Up Easily

Sneferu’s personality, it seemed, was that of an approachable Pharaoh with whom one could talk. He was also a person who would just not quit. The way he built the first pyramid, Meidum, which was abandoned since the casing stones perhaps were not tied in well enough. Then he went on to build the largest building in the history of the world at that time, the Bent Pyramid, and it started imploding as well. He was at that point, running out of time because of his old age. He wanted to get it right or else he would not have a burial place for himself. He did not give up to settle for a small tomb. He instead built a third pyramid which was a sign of a fearless man who would not give up at all.

This is a transcript from the video series History of Ancient Egypt. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Sneferu’s Overall Contribution to Egypt

Sneferu’s contributions to Egypt in different areas were manifold. He showed Egypt how to build true pyramids. He built three pyramids, twice the volume of the Great Pyramid. He made Egypt an international power by going to Lebanon for cedar. He also went into the Sinai for turquoise. Then he established artistic conventions and standards which according to many were never met again. The art of Sneferu’s era was the best art that Egypt ever produced. It was an incredible legacy for one man.

Apart from Seneferu’s own contributions in adding to Egypt’s growth, he had still got one more legacy, which might even be his greatest legacy, which was his son, Khufu, who built the Great Pyramid at Giza.

Common Questions About Sneferu’s Contribution to Egyptian Art

Q: Why is Sneferu important?

Sneferu was a man of many talents. He built the first real Pyramid, created masterpieces in jewelry, and made sculptures in stone which were spectacular.

Q: What did Sneferu accomplish?

Sneferu accomplished success in many fields of work as a Pharaoh. Not only was he a keen art lover but he also had the sense to increase bilateral trade with other nations. Sneferu established artistic conventions and standards which were never met again.

Q: What was the world’s first true Pyramid?

Red Pyramid was the first true Pyramid built by Sneferu at Dahshur.

Q: What was turquoise used for in Ancient Egypt?

Turquoise, which was considered a precious stone, was used to create neck jewelry especially for the women of ancient Egypt. The stone was bought from the mines of Sinai which involved a lot of effort.

Keep Reading
Ancient Egyptian Tools: Building Civilizations
Ancient Egyptian Creation Myths: Of Water and Gods
The Great Pyramid at Giza: A Marvel of Ancient Egyptian Engineering