ARCH0030: Art in Antiquity—An Introduction
Goddess of Truth and Order: Maat as a Powerful and Yet Fragile Figure
Maat, the Egyptian goddess of truth and order, is a recurring icon in Egyptian imagery and sculpture. One representation of Maat appears in the RISD museum collection as a small bronze figure seated atop an ornately decorated altar. Though at first this figure may not seem particularly impressive, all of its attributes work to present Maat as the supreme source of order and justice in the universe. Still, this figure suggests a number of elements that distinguish it as a unique work of art.
One feature of this statue catches the eye of the viewer perhaps more than anything else: the statue itself is very small in dimension—perhaps less than one foot in height. This is clearly not a figure that was meant to intimidate or humble anyone into submission or fear. Perhaps it was even carried by a king or priest as some sort of charm or ornament. By representing a humanoid figure such as Maat in smaller-than-life-sized proportions, part of the human element of the figure disappears, and it actually becomes in a way more godlike—more separate from the human world. The statue’s small scale also contributes to the idea of it as more of an icon than a real, physical, being. The fact that Maat represents abstract concepts—truth, order—makes this significant.
Aside from simply being small in size, our statue of Maat is presented in a rather submissive, diminutive position—not exactly what one might expect in a depiction of an Egyptian deity. This Maat is seated rather than standing, and moreover, its entire body appears to be wrapped up in some kind of shawl, rendering its arms and legs invisible and its entire body shown as a single mass devoid of any detail beyond general shape. The fact that this figure is not standing, and that its arms and legs are not visible, seems to indicate a kind of fragility. Also, though the figure does not really appear to be hunched over, its arms are bent and its hands are brought together in what appears to be perhaps some kind of prayer or supplication. These seem to be indications that truth and order are delicate concepts that must be handled carefully.
It is also interesting to note that a great amount of detail is present in the head, while almost no detail exists in the body. The hair is represented in a series of straight, striking lines, causing it to pop out visually from the rest of the head. In fact, the entire headdress is very ornate, with some kind of band encircling the head above the eyes and tied at the back in a neat knot. Every feature of the face is presented in lifelike detail: large ears; high cheekbones; slender nose; calm and seemingly emotionless eyes and mouth.
The expression portrayed on the eyes and mouth of Maat seems particularly representative of the calm and controlled look of Egyptian gods and goddesses. An emotionless expression is particularly significant on the face of Maat, as she represents to the Ancient Egyptians unbiased, objective truth. Her gaze is straight ahead, there is no visible tension in her face, and her hair is even and well groomed. Her head is an image of simple and yet powerful beauty.
The rest of the body is presented as a single smooth surface with no visible detail. The chest swoops down from the neck into two small bumps for breasts and then angles sharply up again to the point where the knees of the seated figure meet. Nowhere can individual fingers, toes, or details on clothing be seen. It seems likely that the form of the body was left intentionally vague, as so much detail exists in the head and on the altar upon which the figure is seated. Perhaps the sculptor wished to draw the viewer’s focus primarily to the head. The head is the element of this figure that most strongly identifies it as Maat, and it is also the location from which the highly symbolic feather emerges and is thus a natural place from which to first grab the attention of the viewer.
Still, despite this lack of engraved detail on the body, a great amount of depth is conveyed throughout the entire statue with the use of light and shadow. The figure is fashioned of bronze, and light plays off the angles and curves of Maat in a very striking manner. The ridges in the hair appear to have two colors as a result of the differences in depth. The cheekbones appear as the most prominent features of the face due to the large dark areas of shadow they cast. Contrasting areas of dark and light emphasize the many curves of the otherwise ambiguous body. Despite the lack of detail in the body, the statue is quite clearly one of a female figure.
The use of bronze as a building material is also significant in that it represents solidity and durability. Bronze is a material that does not easily corrode, just as the ideas of truth and order represented by Maat were seen as eternal and able to remain constant throughout the passage of time. The color of the bronze is also significant, as it is dark and somewhat somber. The sculptor’s decision not to paint the bronze a brighter and livelier color was likely a conscious one.
Perhaps the single most prominent feature of the statue as a whole is the proportionally massive ostrich feather that protrudes from the top of Maat’s head as a beacon of what the goddess symbolizes. In Egyptian mythology, Maat’s feather is weighed against each human soul in the underworld to determine that soul’s purity. As such, the feather itself seems to symbolize the sum total of what is good and just. It is fitting that the feather is the largest and most prominent feature of the statue. The feather, like the head and altar, is presented in relatively ornate detail, with a series of horizontal ridges to represent individual strands of hair. Interestingly, the feather also appears to be tilting slightly to the left. If intentional, this could be symbolic of the weight, either physically or metaphorically, of the feather and of its size relative to the rest of Maat. If unintentional, it could simply be a result of the difficulty of placing such a long and narrow piece of bronze accurately atop such a small figure.
Another major component of this statue of Maat is the large and ornate altar upon which the goddess sits. The altar is nearly as tall as the seated Maat (not including her feather) and is engraved with two abstract scenes. One scene appears to be what is the head of a female figure—possibly Maat herself—flanked on either side by two humanoid figures with wings. The other scene appears to be three possibly human figures seated in a row. The meaning of these scenes is unclear, but the fact that Maat sits atop an altar on which scenes of human activity are portrayed suggests the idea of Maat having supremacy over human affairs. The altar itself could in some way represent Egypt or perhaps the entire planet Earth.
The figure of Maat we see here is one that represents not only power, in its symbolism of the ostrich feather, its calm expression, and its durable craftsmanship, but also fragility, in its seated position, its small scale, and its relatively undefined form. This statue demonstrates that gods and goddesses are not always represented as large, physically powerful, overbearing figures, and that there is power in the fragility and simple beauty of an object. Maat is the goddess of order, and order is something that can be easily disrupted. The elements of this figure that represent fragility demonstrate this fact. This statue is something of a paradox in its own right, and it helps to provide a window into a deeper understanding of gods and goddesses that the sculptors of these ancient artifacts may have had.