Meritamen and Rosette Musings

For several weeks I’ve wanted to reconnect with my ancient art self. Lately I haven’t had many opportunities to think about any art created before c. 1400, which makes me sad. So tonight I sat down with this book that I recently got as a present, and just perused through the first hundred pages or so. This statue of Meritamen, nicknamed White Queen (shown left, c. 1240 BC, Egyptian Museum, Cairo) caught my eye, largely because I thought it was interesting that instead of depicting a nipple, her left breast is decorated with a rosette. I tried to do some research and see if there was any precedent or symbolism for this, but I can’t find anything definitive (although this site suggests that the rosette may be associated with kingship, but that doesn’t make too much sense in this context for a queen, right?).

I think the flower looks too different from a lotus to make any symbolic associations (which is too bad, since the lotus is associated with creation and birth, which could tie into the nurturing function of the breast). It also would have been cool (and also added significance) if this breast-rosette was drawn in the same pattern as the Flower of Life, but unfortunately I don’t much visual similarity.

Thoughts, anyone? Maybe I’m looking to deeply for answers. Perhaps the Egyptian artist just wasn’t good at depicting nipples, and decided to cover up one breast with a goddess statue and depict a rosette on the other? Ha!

Meritamen was the daughter-turned-wife of Ramesses II. There is an inscription on the back pillar of this statue, but the name is missing. This sculpture wasn’t determined as a depiction of Meritamen until after 1981, when a colossal statue of Meritamen was discovered at Akhmim. This colossal statue has similar inscriptions to the Egyptian Museum statue, which solidified the attribution. You’ll notice, though, that the Ahkmim statue does not have similar rosettes on her breasts. Hmm…

  • e says:

    I'm very interested to see what your fellow art historians think the reason is for the rosette.

  • phin says:

    Maybe the colossal statue doesn't have it because she is wearing a dress?

    I bet it was a birth mark…. :)

    I wonder if it was some kind of symbol specific to the representation of Meritamen. It would be interesting to see if frescoes and wall motifs of her and of that time period would have something similar?

    Or maybe it was a very awkward tattoo, or better yet… maybe she as just trying to one up Janet Jackson?

  • M says:

    Ha ha! Phin, you win with your Janet Jackson comment. That cracked me up.

    Yeah, it would be interesting to see if the rosette is specific to representations of Meritamen. I haven't looked at any paintings of her – good idea.

  • heidenkind says:

    Wellllll, the rosette as a symbol of kingship doesn't make much sense UNLESS the royal line of Ancient Egypt was matrilineal, for which I've read some convincing arguments.

    If I remember correctly, it was symbol of good luck in the Ancient Near East–or at least that's the dominant theory–but you definitely see it a lot in art associated with kings there. Of course, that could be because most of the art we have from that time period was associated with kings.

  • M says:

    That's true, heidenkind, the rosette would make more sense in a matrilineal society. Hmmm. If that is the case, I also wonder if there perhaps would be added significance since Meritamen became queen after her mother Nefertari died?

    The good luck symbol is neat too. I want to look into that more – it would kind of be like a four-leaf clover for the Ancient Near East, right? :)

  • heidenkind says:

    Haha, maybe. :) I've always wanted to research the rosette, but I haven't had the opportunity yet. Maybe there's some connection between it and rosette windows in Gothic cathedrals? Maybe not.

  • M says:

    Heidenkind sent me this information in an email:

    At an exhibition on King Tut, "I saw something that might fit into your possible paper about rosettes–a diadem for the Egyptian Queen with rosettes on it. According to the plaque, the diadem had the names of both the Pharaoh and his wife, Tawosret, inscribed in the petals; and rosette diadems were worn by Egyptian Queens and other elite women from the Old Kingdom on."

    Pretty cool! Now know that there is some connection between rosettes and elite Egyptian women.

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.