Saturday, December 27, 2008

Women In Charge

    Though women frequently appear in art playing allegorical roles, as incarnations of some abstract idea, there are remarkably few female heroes who emerge as distinct personalities in Western art. This is something that can also be said of Western culture in general-it reflects the tendency to relegate women to a passive role. Of these heroic images that do exist, many, not surprisingly, portray royal personages. The images presented here of the ancient Egyptian woman pharaoh Hatshepsut and of Queen Elizabeth I  of England and Ireland speak eloquently of the special circumstances that surrounded these remarkable women's possession of power. 

   Hatshepsut (c.1478- 1452 BC) was a queen of Egypt, one of very few who ruled in her own right. Following Egyptian royal custom, she was married to her brother, Tuthmose II. Brother-sister marriages were in an Egyptian royal custom because the succession to the throne, at least in theory, passed through the female line. When her brother died, after a brief reign, Hatshepsut assumed the regency for tuthmose III, born of a minor royal concubine. After fulfilling this role for about seven years, she seized full control of the government, had herself crowned a pharaoh and adopted no only the royal Horus name-reserved for male rulers- but also male pharaonic regalia, including the false beard worn by kings. In every outward aspect, her official statues portray her as a man, yet there is always something subtly feminine about them, thanks to the delicacy of the features.


    One of the most striking of Hatshepsut's portraits is the image which portrays her as a sphinx. The convention of showing the ruler of Egypt as a lion with a human head was long established in Hatshepsut's day. It went back as far as the Old Kingdom. The Great Sphinx at Giza, for example, is a portrait of King Khafre, the fourth king of the Fourth Dynasty ( c.2575 - c. 2465 BC). In this case the queen's face peers out from the mane of an undoubtedly male beast. The effect is not really androgynous, despite the presence of the formal false bread. Hatshepsut's  tranquil, confident face remains recognizably that of a woman.  

    From what we know, she had much to be confident about. She emphasized good administration and commercial expansion rather than war, and sent a major trading expedition to Punt, on the African coast at the southern end of the Red Sea. It is these qualities, not military triumphs, which are recorded in the reliefs which adorn her mortuary temple at Deir el Bahri, one of the most elegant of all ancient Egyptian buildings.

   Elizabeth I of England ( r. 1558 - 1603) was an even more substantial figure, with an equally shrewd feeling for self presentation. One of the things we know about her is that she maintained extremely strict control over her own image, insisting, for example, that her face always be shown without shadows. She began her reign in the knowledge that there was immense contemporary hostility to female rulers. In the last year of her sister Mary's reign, the Scottish Calvinist preacher John Knox had proclaimed, in his book The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women, that 'God has revealed to some in this age that it is more than a monster in nature that a woman should reign and bear empire above men.' Mary had been Catholic, which was one very basic reason for enmity, and it was part of Elizabeth's defence against ingrained sexual prejudice that she herself was a Protestant. But she knew she had to create a fresh cultural model to justify the fact of female rule. She did so by turning herself into a kinda of Secular divinity, even daring to take on some of the Characteristics her Catholic opponents allocated to the Virgin Mary. Her state portraits proclaim that she is a Virgin Queen,wedded only to her kingdom. Her semi-divinity was emphasized by the dazzling richness of her dress.  

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