An Introduction to Egyptian Art
Jimmy Dunn writing as Mark Andrews
The earliest Egyptian art is very different from that of the pyramids and temples of the Pharaonic period. As early as the eighth millennium BC, the first inhabitants of the Nile Valley began to make engraved drawings on the cliffs, particularly in Upper Egypt and Nubia. They depicted the fundamentals of their lives, from wild game and hunting scenes in the earlier times to river boats and herds of cattle in the early Neolithic period. The art of the Predynastic period has survived mainly in the form of small carved stone and ivory grave goods, together with pottery vessels, placed alongside the deceased in simple pit burials. The small votive figures of people and animals include many female statuettes made of pottery and ivory, whose exaggerated sexual characteristics suggest that they probably related to early fertility cults.
Some of the painted scenes on pottery vessels continue, during the
A number of references onancientEgypt insinuate that the Egyptians had no concept of the term, art. Indeed, we know of no word from the ancientEgyptian language that exactly conforms to our abstract use of the word. They did have words for their creations that we today regard as examples of Egyptian art, such as statues, stelas and tombs, but we have no reason to believe that these words necessarily included an aesthetic dimension in their meaning.
Though the ancient Egyptians built and decorated their monuments, and cut their statues first and foremost for religious functionality, this does not mean that the Egyptians were not aware of and did not aim for an aesthetic content. To represent was, in a way, to create, and Egyptian representation in both two and three dimensions was meant to create images that would function as a meaningful part of the cult ofthe gods and the dead.
Statues were objects in which deities could manifest themselves, while images of the dead ensured their survival in the next world and formed a point of contact between this and the next domains, where the deceased could receive the offerings of the living. Depictions of temple cult ceremonies ensured their enactment for all time, and portrayals of offering goods meant that these items would be available in the next world. Furthermore, images of protective deities found in houses, on furniture and made into amulets created a powerful shield against the malign forces of the universe.
Most of what we see of ancient Egyptian art, at museums or in books, are pieces that appeal to modern aesthetic tastes. Yet they represent only a selection of surviving Egyptian material and are usually pieces produced under royal patronage. For each of these pieces, there are many, many others collecting dust in museum reserve collections that are not so finely made. These latter items may demonstrate poor workmanship, unbalanced compositions, awkward proportions or clumsy execution, but they were came from the more common Egyptians. Though these items lack the artistic quality of the more accomplished works, they must have still been thought to have functioned for the benefit of their owners.
Hence, we must ask ourselves why those of power sought out the best artists, if not for their superior artistic abilities. And we must also question Egyptologists who tell us that art completely surrounded Egyptian religion, for it did not, nor may it have always served a specific function. We find, in tombs of common Egyptians, sometimes intricate scenes of daily life that seemingly have really very little mortuary functionality, but we also find designs on pottery and other items that today we would call art, and appear to have no further function than to adorn the pottery, making it more appealing. Indeed, while the ancient Egyptians may not have had an abstract word to denote art in general, they did appreciate fine designs and well decorated objects.
However, it should also be pointed out that artists in ancientEgypt were very different than their modern counterparts. In ancientEgyptian society, conformity and not individualism was encouraged, and there was hardly a place for an artist with a personal vision that broke the accepted norms. In fact, Egyptian artists usually worked in teams and according to strict guidelines, even though their works might be highly regarded. This does not mean that artists could not experiment and innovate within certain limits.
Many of the fundamentals of Egyptian art were established at the very beginning of Egyptian history and changed little over time. Subject matter also remained relatively unchanged over long periods of time. However, Egyptian art did not remain completely static over the three thousand years of pharaonic history. Despite the limited repertory of subject matter, Egyptian artists valued variation and avoided producing exact copies of the same forms.
To understand most of the Egyptian artwork that we see in museums and books, we must understand that it was produced by elite Egyptians, mostly for specific functions, and that it was an integral part of their world view. It is important that we understand the purpose of the artwork, or the concepts that shaped it, because a lack of such information has often led people to unfavorably compare it to the art of other cultures. For example, while the ancient Egyptians produced sculptures that were intricately detailed and lifelike in many ways, they never turned the body and twisted it through space as we find in classical Greek statuary.
Egyptian artists sometimes got left and right "muddled, and never seem to have discovered the rules of geometric perspective as European artists did in the Renaissance. In fact, such shortcomings had little if anything to do with the ability of the artists, and everything to do with the purpose for which they were producing their art. Egyptian art was not intended to merely imitate or reflect reality, but to replace and perpetuate it. Hence, for example, the religious ritual known as "the opening of the mouth" was not just performed by Egyptian funerary priest on the mummy of the deceased, but also on his or her statuary.
Egyptian art was concerned above all with ensuring the continuity of the universe, the gods, the king and the people. The artists therefore depicted things not as they saw them but as idealized symbols intended to be more significant and enduring than was otherwise possible in the real world. The best, most inspired Egyptian art therefore blends the real with the ideal.
The essential elements of art during theOld Kingdom were the funerary sculpture and painted reliefs of the royal family and the provincial elite. One of the most impressive statues to come from this period is the diorite figure of the seatedKhafra, builder of thesecond pyramid atGiza,. On the simplest level, the statue is a portrait of a powerful individual, but is also made up of symbols that relate to the general role of the pharaoh. His head and neck are physically embraced by the wings of a hawk representing the protective god,Horus, who was also the divine counterpart of the mortal ruler. His throne is decorated on either side with a complex design consisting of the hieroglyph meaning "union" tied up with the tendrils of the plants of Upper and LowerEgypt, all of which symbolizes the unified state over which he ruled. In the same manner, an alabaster statue of the6th Dynasty rulerPepi I has the rear of the throne carved to imitate a serekh with Horus perched on the top.
After the Old Kingdom, centralized power within Egypt declined into what we refer to as the First Intermediate Period. This decline in power resulted in a period when provincial workshops at sites such as el-Mo'alla and Gebelein began to create distinctive funerary decoration and equipment rather than being influenced by the artists at the royal court, as they were earlier during the Old Kingdom and later during the Middle Kingdom.
During the Middle Kingdom, Egyptian art is exemplified both by the fragments of reliefs from the royal pyramid complexes atDahshur, el-Lisht, el-Lahun and Hawara, and by the spacious tombs of the governors buried at Beni Hassan in MiddleEgypt. In the latter, the traditional scenes of the deceased receiving offerings or hunting and fishing in the marshes are joined by large depictions of wrestling and warfare, perhaps copied from Old Kingdom royal prototypes.
The history of the Middle Kingdom is very much characterized by a tension between the artistic styles of the various provincial sites and the styles of the royal workshops at Itjtawy, the new capital established near el-Lisht. Only by the late Middle Kingdom does the distinctive provincial styles become eclipsed by the art of the royal workshops..
After the Middle Kingdom, Egypt was ruled for a period of time by Asiatics, who gained control of a considerable area of the country. The works of art surviving from this phase show that the foreign rulers simply re-used and copied traditional Egyptian sculptures and reliefs in order to strengthen their claims to the throne.
After these foreign rulers were expelled,Egypt entered one of it's most grand periods, the New Kingdom. The grand art of this period actually varied considerably so that we have the very formal art found in the greattemples such asKarnak andLuxor, the tombs in theValley of the Kings, and the private artisans' tombs atDeir el-Medina, with their intimate details. Art during this period also varied because of radical religious changes, such as theAmarna period which resulted in a dramatic change inart styles..
After the New Kingdom, the rapidly changing artistic styles of the first millennium BC demonstrate that Egyptian art could assimilate new possibilities while retaining its essential character and integrity. During the Late Period, when Egypt had really already lost much of its prestige, Egyptians attempted to revive the classic images of the Old and Middle Kingdom, which must have symbolized a lost sense of stability and certainly. Then, after the conquest of Egypt by Alexander The Great, the nature of Pharaonic art was adapted to create a compromise between the needs of the native Egyptians and the preferences of the New Greek, and later Roman rulers. Though from this period we have some of the largest surviving religious buildings, the reliefs were beginning to appear mass produced and repetitive, and the artwork was increasingly poorly formulated and executed. However, at the same time, there were new cultural elements absorbed from the Mediterranean word, such as the Fayoum mummy paintings.
Most all three-dimensional representations, whether standing, seated or kneeling, exhibit what is called frontality. That is, they face straight ahead, even though at times they may be striding. Were it not for our understanding of their purpose, it might be easy to criticize their rigidity that remained unchanged for three thousand years, particularly when viewed outside of their original context. However, such statues were not produced as pure art, but rather to play a primary role in thecults of thegods, kings and the dead. They were places in which these beings could manifest themselves in order to be the recipients of ritual actions. Hence, it made perfect sense to show the statue looking forward at what was happening in front of it, so that the living could interact with the divine or deceased recipient. Furthermore, such statues were very frequently enclosed in rectangular shrines or wall niches with an opening only in the front, making it natural for the statue to display frontality. Other statues were frequently placed in pillared courts, where they would typically be situated between pillars, and frontality worked perfectly for this context as well.
Most of the statues produced in ancientEgypt were made of stone, wood or metal. Stone statues were produced usually from a single rectangular block. Stone between the arms and the body, as well as between the legs in standing figures or the legs and the seat in seated ones, was commonly not cut away, adding to the strength of the physical sculpture. This method also added to the image of strength and power of the being depicted, and frequently the statue was "engaged" to the front of a pillar orcolumn which added to this effect.
Wooden statues, on the other hand, were generally carved from several pieces of wood and pegged together, while metal statues were either made by wrapping sheet metal around a wooden core or cast by the lost wax process. In these, the arms were sometimes held away from the body and could carry separate items in their hands. However, though wooden and metal sculptures have a completely different effect, altogether lighter and freer than their stone counterparts, they still display frontality.
There was one other type of statuary aside from those depicting deities, kings and other elite members of society. These small statuettes depicted generic figures, frequently servants, from the non-elite population. Their function varied considerably from other statues, for these were made to put in tombs of the elite in order to serve the tomb owner in the afterlife. These funerary figurines depict a wide range of actions, from grinding grain to making music, while some are simply standing figures, depending on the time frame in which they were produced. They were not used in any cult, and are not meant to help perpetuate the existence of a particular person. In effect, they are merely a component of the overall funerary equipment placed in tombs for the benefit of the owner. Unlike formal statues, these were not limited to static poses. Depending on the activity in which they are engaged, they may be bending or squatting or take another position suitable to their work. In fact, it is the action and not the figure itself that is important.
Producing the three dimensional world on a two dimensional surface is very different than working with statuary. In a number of cultures, artists have found ways by which to obtain the illusion of the third dimension, adding depth to their work, while in others the two-dimensionality of the drawing surface has been accepted and even exploited. The ancient Egyptians belong to this latter group. Rather than attempting to create the appearance of depth, they instead arranged the objects they wished to depict over the flat drawing surface. Such objects were drawn using their most characteristic and easily recognized aspect, usually in profile, full view, plan or elevation. Because these different views can occur together in the same picture plane, the result is not rendered as though from a single viewpoint. Rather, it is a composite assemblage containing information that can be interpreted by the educated viewer.
The human figure was usually formed from a composite built up from its individual parts. Hence, the head may be shown in profile, though with a full view of the eyebrow and eye set into it. The shoulders of formal figures are most usually shown frontally, while the waist, buttocks and limbs are in profile. Normally, the nipple on male figures and the breast on females are drawn in profile on the front line of the body, while items that lie on the chest such as collars, necklaces, pectorals and clothing are shown in full frontal view on the expanse of the torso framed by the front and back lines of the body. The navel is shown full view and is placed inside the front line of the body at the appropriate level. Prior to the18th Dynasty, the two feet are depicted identically from the inside, showing the big toe and the arch. Later, the near foot was increasing shown from the outside with all the toes showing.
Even when the figures on the walls of Egyptian tombs andtemples are acting out myths, rituals and historical events, they are nevertheless carved or painted with the stiffness and formality ofhieroglyphs.
The ancient Egyptians sought order in their world, and it was also fundamental to their art. Only when the concept of chaos was intended, were figures placed haphazardly on the drawing surface. Otherwise, they were set within a system of registers, the lower border of which acted as the ground line for the figures within the register.
The position of figures within a scene could be determined by the viewer according to several rules. Objects could be overlapped within the register, which means that the object partially covered by another is farther away. Items higher up in the register are further away than those lower down. The hierarchical ordering of society was reflected in both two-dimensional and three-dimensional art by scale. Hence, the king's figure is usually the same size as the gods whom he interacts with, though larger than his queen, children or subjects.
Whether in two or three-dimensions, Egyptian art was usually combined with text. Short captions might describe the figures depicted and the actions taking place, while longer texts included requests for offerings for the dead, hymns to deities, works spoken by deities to the king, etc. The hieroglyphic texts within any scene typically formed an integral part of the whole composition. Because the blocks of hieroglyphic texts was often set against representational elements, the composition would lack balance without them.
In fact,hieroglyphs were small images drawn according to the principles that underlie Egyptian two dimensional art. Nevertheless, the images often do not resemble the objects that they describe, but are phonetic, representing different consonantal sounds in the Egyptian language. However, other hieroglyphs are logographic, representing literally or metaphorically an object or idea. Interestingly, hieroglyphs can act as determinative. That is, they are placed at the ends of individual words to "determine" a category. For example, the name of a man may be followed by an image of a man identifying the word as a man's name. However, so clearly connected is art and hieroglyphs that when a figure is identified by its name in hieroglyphs, the expected determinative is usually omitted because the picture the name identifies acts as its determinative.
Usually, the orientation of scenes in two dimensional art for hieroglyphs and figures was facing to the right. However, it was not uncommon for both to also face left, dictated by the circumstances, or for the hieroglyphs to be written in horizontal lines or vertical columns. Of course, this allowed for considerable versatility and subtlety when combining text with depictions. Usually, hieroglyphs faced the same direction as the figures they refer to, and in fact, the art was intended to be read like an elaborate code much like the hieroglyphic text.
The mediums with which Egyptian artists worked were varied. One of the most easily obtained was limestone, which composed the cliffs to either side of much of the Nile Valley. Other common soft stone materials included calcite (Egyptian Alabaster), a crystalline form of calcium carbonate, sandstone, schist and greywacke. Harder stones included quartzite (a crystalline form of sandstone), diorite, granodiorite, granite and basalt. Stone was almost always used in royal free standing and rock cut temples and tombs after the earliest periods. It was also used to make statues, stelae, offering tables, libation bowls, vessels and other ritual equipment.
Soft stone, whether cut in place such as a rock cut tomb, or carved into blocks as in free standing temples, was usually covered by plaster prior to being decorated. Paint was sometimes also applied to hard stone, but often it was left visible for its symbolism. Hence, black stone such as granodiorite was representative of the life giving black silt left by theNile inundation, thus symbolizing new life, resurrection and the resurrected god of he dead,Osiris. Red, brown, yellow and gold were associated with the sun, and so stones of those colors, such as red and brown quartzite and red granite, symbolized the sun. Green stone referred to fresh, growing vegetation, new life, resurrection and Osiris as well, who sometimes appears with black skin and sometimes green.
Limestone and other soft stones were carved with copper chisels and stone tools. Hard stones were worked by hammering and grinding them with tools made of even harder stone together with sand, which is basically quartz, acting as an abrasive. Stone vessels were hollowed out using drills with copper bits, together with an abrasive. These tools were also used to apply details and inscriptions to hard stone monuments. Afterwards, the finished object was polished with a smooth rubbing stone.
If the stone was to be painted, the surface had to be smoothed and any holes in the stone or joints between blocks filled in with plaster.
Scenes on stone surfaces were often cut into relief before painting (or when not painted at all). There were two main types of reliefs, consisting of raised and sunk relief. In both, chisels were used to cut around the outlines of figures. Then, in raised relief, the stone of the background was cut away, so that the figures were left standing out from the surface. In sunk relief, it was the figures that were cut back within their outlines, leaving the surface of the background at a higher level. In both methods, the figures were modeled to a greater or lesser extent within their outlines. Traditionally, sunk relief was used on outside walls and raised relief on interior walls, because bright sunlight has the effect of flattening raised relief and enhancing sunk relief. It should be noted that such work could also be applied to plastered surfaces on soft stone.
In Theban tombs which were often simply painted, as opposed to relief-cut, rock cut walls, the walls were first covered with mud that was then plastered before painting. Treated similarly to soft stone, mudbrick was used in houses, palaces and other public buildings. And like the walls inTheban tombs, the mud was prepared for decoration with a layer of plaster.
Prior to actually painting the prepared surfaces of stone or plaster over stone or mud brick, scenes were laid out by first marking off the area to be decorated and then drawing in the initial sketches in red, to which corrections were often made in black, probably by the master draughtsman in charge of the project. Squared grids were introduced at the beginning of the Middle Kingdom. Used to assist the artist in obtaining the proper proportions of their figures and often also to lay out the composition as a whole, the grids were drawn out on the surface before the scene was sketched in. The lines of the grid were either drawn against a straight edge, or more commonly made with a string that was dipped in red paint and stretched taut across the surface before being snapped against it like a modern chalk line.
The sketches were drawn with brushes, similar to those that were used by scribes. They were made from fine reeds that were trimmed at one end to an angle and chewed or split to fray the fibers. For the actual application of paint, thicker brushes were made from fibrous wood such as palm ribs, or from bundles of twigs tied together that were than beaten at one end to separate the fibers and make a course brush.
Pigments for paint came primarily from minerals that occur naturally in Egypt and the surrounding desert. White was usually made from calcium carbonate (whiting) or calcium sulphate (gypsum). However, huntite, which was already in use during the Middle Kingdom, and which became common during the New Kingdom, produced a more intense white. It was frequently used to paint white areas, such as clothing, so that it would stand out against the less white background of calcium carbonate.
Ochre (iron oxide) could produce a range of colors from light yellow to dark brown depending on the level of hydration. It was frequently used for reds and yellows. During the New Kingdom, realgar was also used for red, but is unstable in light, and has often degraded over time to yellow. Orpiment was used from the Middle Kingdom onward to obtain a very bright yellow that was used to simulate gold. However, it fades in light to a dull off-white so that its effect is often lost. Jarosite was also used to produce a pale yellow. The artists used different yellow pigments side by side, showing that they were not mere substitutes for each other.
Blue was sometimes provided from azurite (copper carbonate), which over time becomes green as it changes to malachite, another form of copper carbonate. However, Egyptian blue was more common, which consisted of a compound made from heating quartz, ground malachite and calcium carbonate together. Different shades of blue were obtained according to the way in which the resulting compound was ground for use, since the finer the grain the paler the blue. Green rather than blue could be produced if the proportions of malachite and calcium carbonate were varied. However, green was more frequently made from naturally occurring malachite. Sometimes, the pigments were mixed together to make different colors prior to application. For example, black might be mixed with white to obtain gray, or red and white to make pink
Pigments were prepared by grinding them on a hard stone mortar before mixing them with a medium such as plant gum or animal glue.
Paint was laid on in flat washes, pigment by pigment, so that painters mixed as much of one color as they needed, painted in all the appropriate areas, and then moved on to another color. However, colors could also be painted over one another in layers to obtain different color effects. The final stage of painting was to outline figures and add interior details with a fine brush. Many details in relief work and on statues were often only added in paint and not cut into the stone.
No discussion of stone art would be complete without reference to Ostracons, rock fragments that were used for various purposes. They were generally discarded fragments, which were frequently used to draw plans and sketch out drawings. However, some of the most interesting artwork ever produced inEgypt were recorded on their small surfaces, usually by craftsman, but also by anyone else. They were the scratchpads of ancientEgypt, used by the common man to do the ancient equivalent of doodling. As such, there were no real rules that applied and so we find a completely unique art form known perhaps no where else inEgypt other than perhaps the graffiti drawn on the faces of cliffs.
Even thoughEgypt has very little wood, there is nevertheless a long tradition of working with this material. Most Egyptian timber consists of tamarisk, acacia and Sycamore figs, wood that tends to be irregular, small and knotted, at least in comparison to the coniferous wood imported from Syria. However, Egyptian artisans became skilled at piecing together uneven lengths of native Egyptian wood in order to build furniture, chests, coffins and even statues. Wood was shaped with chisels and adzes and the surface smoothed down with rubbing stones. Sometimes the surface of these objects were plastered over and painted, but on good quality wood, paint was sometimes applied to the wood itself
Egyptians worked with metals for earlier than many realize. There are scenes in Old Kingdom tomb depicting metal working, and we know that they used copper from during the earliest periods, arsenic bronze (copper and arsenic) from the late Old Kingdom, and bronze (copper and tin) from the later Middle Kingdom. Gold and silver were also highly prized as precious metals, though initially silver was very rare.
In addition to wood and stone, linen could also be plastered and painted to make decorated funerary and votive cloths. Alternating layers of linen and plaster were used to build up cartonnage, from which painted funerary masks, coffins and mummy wrappings were manufactured.
We must also mention papyrus paper as a medium. It was primarily used as a writing surface for a wide range of administrative, economic, literary and ritual documents, but it was also used for other purposes. Specifically, papyrus was used for the production of funerary texts, such as versions of the Book of the Dead, which also included illustrations drawn and painted with the fine scribal brush. Other non-funerary papyrus were also sometimes painted or sketched upon with little or no text.
Metal was used in the production of statues, temple fittings and cult implements, jewelry and funerary equipment. Both silver and gold were used to product cult statues, which were then frequently inlaid with materials such as precious stones. Obviously, many of these statues did not survive, for they were repeatedly melted down for their valuable metal and stones. Gold and Silver were not used in religious statuary simply because of their value, but also because of the symbolism associated with these metals. Gold was considered the flesh of the gods, particularly the sun god, and silver was the material from which the bones of the gods were made. Furthermore, silver was associated with the moon, so lunar disks on statues were sometimes made from this material.
The Egyptians also manufactured a material which we often call Egyptian faience or glazed composition. Faience consists of a quartz core with a glazed surface. The material could be modeled and molded, and because it was inexpensive, this material was used to mass produce many small objects such as statuettes, amulets, rings and ear studs. It was often made to imitate stone and used as a substitute for that material.
The color of the glaze depended on additions to the basic mixture. One of the most common colors was a blue-green, imitating turquoise, which was associated with the important goddess, Hathor, sometimes known as the "Lady of Turquoise". Also, the ancient Egyptian word for faience was tjehenet, from the root tjehen, meaning "to dazzle or gleam". Hence, the material also had a solar symbolism.
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Last Updated: October 24th, 2011