When Beauty Is More than Skin Deep


The news in March was that science had at last revealed the “real” face behind the iconic bust of Nefertiti in Berlin’s Altes Museum. Beneath the skillful handiwork of Thutmose, the royal sculptor, was exposed yet another face also carved by him in stone. Researchers, we were told, using CT scans, had come “face-to-face” with the hidden image be­neath the outer stucco layers. Long regarded as one of the most beautiful women who ever lived, the queen, quoth science, was actually “wrinkled.”

The report, however, revealed more about the workings, if not the arrogance, of contemporary science-think, than it did the truth about Nefertiti, who, along with her royal consort the Pharaoh Akhenaten, ruled Egypt over 3,300 years ago. Once again reductionist science had kindly offered to show us the reality behind our childish illusions. All we needed was some new device or technique and we could learn at last how we have all been fooled for so long. Iron­ically, though, the case has ended up reminding us that when it comes to understanding anything as ephemeral as beauty, today’s science hasn’t got a clue.

For one thing, the underlying stone sculpture on which Thutmose built his finished image may have provided de­tails which he later opted to cover over, but still it must be considered, at that point, just a foundation whose rough­ness was well suited for his intended finishing applications of stucco. It certainly takes no more from the transcen­dent beauty of the subject than finding hidden layers of paint would do for the Mona Lisa.

Longfellow once wrote: “In the elder days of art, workers wrought with greatest care each minute and unseen part, for the gods see everywhere.” When it came to Nefertiti, Thutmose, it appears to us, was, in fact, seeing through the eyes of an initiate—with consummate love and veneration—beholding an inner light which had deeply penetrat­ed his psyche. In another of his works, now seen in Berlin’s Ägyptisches Museum, he carves the queen in limestone in full figure as a striding nude. Though the face is painted in the manner of the period, it shows her in regal manner— albeit with some details missing which appear in the more celebrated bust—and reveals for us an unmistakable strength of character of which the sensitive artisan was clearly in awe.

The problem for modern science has always been: accounting for quality by quantitative means. What do you do when the whole is greater than the sum of the parts? Understanding, it has been noted, is more than measurement and data points; and real insight is best conveyed by experience and initiation. Only thus can Isis—or spiritual knowl­edge, if you will—ever truly be unveiled.

By J. Douglas Kenyon

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