Stone Portraits Across the World

When I was a little kid, I took art class in school and one of my projects was to draw a picture of my family.  I was not a great artist so I did the basics: a square house and little stick figures for people. Perhaps you’ve done the same.  Well, imagine if your teacher put a rock on your desk and said, “Carve a picture of your mother out of this rock.”  That would seem impossible!

First of all, to carve a face out of stone, you need special tools, like chisels and hammers.  And you need to know how to carve the stone in the right places to make a nose, eyes, and lips.  It takes a lot of time and practice to get it right – and some really big rocks!  

Well, today, we’re going to talk about some gigantic rock portraits.  You might know some already, like Mt. Rushmore in the United States, The David statue in Italy, or the Terracotta Army in China.  Today we’re going to discover some other rock portraits – faces that look like a surprised Santa, a majestic lion, or a wailing devil!

The Great Sphinx of Giza

One of my favorite stone portraits is the Great Sphinx of Giza, near Cairo, Egypt.  It is a statue of a large, reclining lion with a human head.  It measures 240 feet (73 metres) long and 66 feet (20 metres) high and was carved around 2465 B.C.E.!  And to make it even more amazing, it was carved out of one mammoth piece of limestone!  Scientists estimate it took three years and 100 workers to carve this statue – and then they painted it! Eventually the paint chipped off from sun and heat exposure but it must have looked amazing when it was finished.

And whose face is on the Sphinx?  Well, they’re not sure.  It could be the ancient Pharaoh Khafre.  Others state that Khafre’s older brother had it built to honor their father, Pharoah Khufu.  Whoever it was built for, he must have been amazing.  Unfortunately, it has decayed over time and is now missing its nose.  One legend states that Napoleon ordered the nose blown off with a canon while battling there, but that’s not true – the nose came off long before then.  Others state that the nose was cut off in the 1300’s in protest to idolatry – meaning the worship of false Gods or famous people.  Whatever the truth may be, it is an amazing piece of artwork – and history – and I hope it will remain with us for centuries to come.

Olmec Heads in Mexico

Speaking of kingly faces, I think the Olmec Heads in Mexico are fascinating.  These heads are short and round and depict ancient Olmec rulers.  The smooth faces feature almond-shaped eyes, round noses, and full lips.  On their heads are small caps with simple designs.  These faces were carved out of volcanic rock around 1200-800 B.C., and range in height from 5 to 11 feet.  They weigh a whopping 20 tons.  Unfortunately, the Olmec people vanished from the Earth around 300 B.C. for unknown reasons – maybe war or disease – but these stone statues are a reminder that they were here and were memorialized – or honored – by their talented artists. 

 Nemrut Dag, Turkey

From 700-38 B.C., a king named Antiochus the First ruled in Turkey.  He ordered a sculptor to carve his statue high in the barren Taurus Mountains.  The sculptor carved the king sitting on a throne wearing a stern, majestic face and a tall headdress.  He then carved lions, falcons, and gods seated on either side of the king, protecting him from all enemies – mortal and spiritual.  These magnificent stone gods were depicted as three men and one woman on large thrones wearing pointed hats. A large burial site was built around these statues and contains other stone ancestors and treasures.  This site has decayed over time – possibly due to earthquakes, mudslides, and other weather – but was rediscovered in 1881 and turned into a protected historic site.  

Bayon Temple, Cambodia    

In Cambodia is an amazing Hindu and Buddhist temple called the Bayon Temple that displays over 200 carved faces!  This jaw-dropping temple – more like a vast, stone city – was built around the time of King Jayavarman VII’s reign from 1181 to 1218 and shows buildings with spiked towers, tall pillars and massive stone staircases leading into cavernous rooms.  Outside the temple, a large, smiling face is carved into a stone tower, supposedly of the king.  This king looks incredibly friendly, with full lips curved into a big smile and eyes looking downward, as if he is daydreaming.  His nose has fallen off, but he still wears a tall, royal headdress with a creature or bird on top.  To his left is another rock tower with four smiling king faces looking North, South, East, and West.  

Also in this temple are 200 additional faces, as well as scenes showing Cambodian life.  Statues of large Hindu gods sit on thrones lining the paths to the temple, looking mean and menacing, unlike the smiling king.  This site is truly fascinating – like something out of an Indiana Jones movie – and I would love to explore it one day.  What about you?

The Moai Heads of Easter Island

You may have seen the Moai Heads of Easter Island in the movie, “Night at the Museum.”  They were the large rock heads munching on gum and chanting “Yum, yum.”  The actual heads were discovered on Easter Island in the Pacific Ocean near Chile around 1722.  Carved out of volcanic rock around 1250-1500 A.D., they measure anywhere from 13 feet to 40 feet and weigh 14 tons each.  These massive heads have big brows, long noses, and deep eye sockets that may have had coral for eyes.  Their mouths are carved in a straight line.  Through the years, many of these statues have toppled over – although we don’t know why.  Some say it happened due to earthquakes, others say they were pushed over during tribal battles, and some say that a woman on the island with magical powers struck them down in anger.  

And you may be wondering how 800 massive stone heads were moved across the island.  Archeologists believe this was done by loading the rocks on wooden sleds and rolling the sleds over large logs.  It is thought that the island was once covered with forest, but the trees were cut down to move the stones, which led to the destruction of the island.  The people were no longer able to build houses or make fires and many moved away. 

So, what do these heads mean?  Well, some think they are carvings of ancestors or gods, and have spiritual powers.  Some think they are protectors of the island because they face inland.  Seven are pointed out to sea, maybe to watch for invaders.

You and I may never get to Easter Island to see these amazing statues, but we can view them in museums around the world, including London; Washington, DC; France; New Zealand; Chile; and Belgium.  I would love to see them, but I think I would have a heart attack if they started chanting and chewing bubblegum!

The Devil Heads, Czech Republic 

In the lush green forests of the Czech Republic two ghoulish heads are carved into the side of a mountain, sometimes called the “Czech Mount Rushmore.”  But while Mount Rushmore shows four stately presidents, the Devil Heads show two freaky faces.  One looks like a surprised Santa with bushy eyebrows, a long flowing beard, and an open mouth.  Beside it is another head with a wailing face, furrowed brows, and crooked teeth in a gaping mouth.  It looks like a creature or devil howling in pain.  These faces were carved between 1841 and 1846 by a man who was working as a cook in a nearby castle.  Later, he carved other faces and creatures into nearby rocks, depicting characters from Czech fairytales. Well, even if these heads are a little scary, I think they are fascinating and very creative.  

Decebalus Rex, Romania

And finally, we head to Romania for a stone portrait started in 1993.  Created in honor of King Decebalus who lived around 105 A.D., this carving shows the elderly king’s face jutting out of a grey stone cliff on a wooded mountain.  He wears a bushy beard and mustache, and his mouth is set in a firm, straight line.   On top of his head are the jagged peaks of the mountain, looking like a tall Santa’s hat.  And while the faces on Mount Rushmore in the United States are an impressive 60 feet high, this king’s face is three times that large, or 180 feet, with a 23-foot nose and 14-foot eyes!  King Decebalus was said to have battled a great Roman emperor on this site many centuries ago and was ultimately defeated.  To honor the king’s courage, an Italian sculptor was hired to carve this special memorial.

So, what do you think of all these rocky portraits?  Have you seen any of them?  Some are so old it’s hard to imagine how they were created or how the artists knew how to carve faces on such a large scale.  It just shows that every civilization had its amazing architects, engineers, and artists!  If you could carve anyone to be remembered hundreds of years from now, who would it be?