Color in Egyptian Art and Jewelry
By Marie Parsons
The Egyptians considered the color of an object to be an integral part of its nature or being. The word iwen was used to signify the concept of color, and could also mean external appearance, nature, being, character, or even disposition.
Not every color and variation has symbolic significance of course. When groups of objects were being depicted, colors were varied to distinguish one object from another. So rows of people or chariot horses may be alternated as light and dark. And color was often enjoyed for its own sake.
Names and uses of colors
Old Egyptian had four basic color terms:
or black, hence, Kmt, or "Black Land". The color black carried connotations of fertility and regeneration, and was also the color of the underworld, where the sun regenerated every night. The god Osiris, king of the Underworld, was sometimes referred to as kmj, "the black one." Black stones were used in statuary, and black backgrounds used in some coffins, to evoke those regenerative qualities of Osiris and the Underworld.
or white, was also used from prehistoric times. Chalk and gypsum provided the white pigment used.
White was associated with cleanliness, ritual purity and sacredness and so, was the color of the clothes worn by ritual priests. The Instructions of Merikare speaks of service as a priest in terms of the wearing of white sandals. The floors of temples were made of white calcite. White alabaster was used to make ritual objects such as small bowls to the massive embalming table of the Apis bulls mummification. Many sacred animals such as the Great White baboon were also of that color.
Khdj also meant the metal "silver" and could incorporate the notion of "light": for example, in some texts, the sun was said to "whiten" the land at dawn. White was also used to denote the metal silver, and with gold, then symbolized the moon and sun.
where the "3" actually stands for the "a" that is not our letter A, had its focus in "green", as the term for the mineral malachite. The color green was symbolic of growing things and of life itself. To do "green things" was a euphemism for positive life-producing behavior in contrast to doing "red things."
The hieroglyph that represented w3d was a green papyrus stem and frond, carrying connotations of fresh vegetation and vigor and regeneration. Osiris was often shown with green skin to signify his resurrection, and in the 26th dynasty, coffin faces were often painted green to identify the deceased with Osiris and to guarantee rebirth. Chapters 159 and 160 of the Book of the Dead give instructions for making an amulet of green feldspar, (though a variety of materials, ranging in color from green to blue, were used) The common amulet of the "Eye of Horus" or the Wedjat is usually green because of the connotations as an expression of the aspects of healing and well-being. Wadjet was the green one, the protective serpent goddess of Lower Egypt (though the color of that royal crown was red.)
Turquoise, or mfk3t, was the most valued of the green stones. Mined in Sinai, it was connected to the deity Hathor, who was called Lady of Turquoise, and as well as to the sun at dawn, whose rays and disk were described as turquoise, and whose rising was said to flood the land with turquoise. Thus, turquoise was also associated with rebirth, and faience figurines in this color were often used in funerary equipment.
Although blue pigment appears on paintings, the Egyptian language had no basic color term in Old Egyptian for "blue." Blue, or irtiu and khshdj, could represent the heavens as well as the primeval flood, and in both it functioned as a symbol of life and rebirth. Blue could also represent the Nile and its offerings, crops and fertility. The phoenix, or benu-heron, an ancient symbol of the inundation, was often painted in bright blue (the actual bird had light gray-blue plumage.) The sacred baboon was also depicted as being blue.
Blue pigment was introduced at about 2550 BCE, based on grinding lapis lazuli, a deep blue stone flecked with golden impurities. Lapis lazuli was the blue stone that figures prominently in much jewelry, but could only be acquired by import. It was called khshdj, and the term was extended to also mean blue. The stone and the color were associated with the night sky and the primordial waters. The rising sun was sometimes called the "child of lapis lazuli."
Blue pigment could also was manufactured by combining oxides of copper and iron with silica and calcium.
meant "red", hence, "Deshret", the "Red Land", the name given to the desert areas on each side of the fertile Nile Valley. Red pigments were derived from naturally occurring oxidized iron and red ocher.
Red was considered a very potent color, hot and dangerous, but also life-giving and protective. It is both the color of blood, relating to life ad death, and of fire, which could be beneficial or destructive. Expressions such as dshr ib, "red of heart" or "furious" are formed from this basic word.
Red is also a color given to the sun, red at its rising and its setting. In papyrus texts, red pigments or "rubrics" were often used to emphasize headings, but also used to write the names of dangerous entities and unlucky days.
Royal statuary was often made of rose or golden quartzite and red granite, which were used to invoke the regenerative properties of the solar cycle and the connection between the kingship and the sun. The obelisk of Senussret at Heliopolis was made of red granite.
or yellow, was symbolic of all that is eternal and imperishable. Anubis, often shown with black skin as a jackal, when depicted as a jackal-headed human male, had a black head with gold limbs and torso.
The color yellow was often associated with the sun disk and with gold, or nbw. Gold was not only associated with the sun, it was also the flesh of the gods, and the divine snake in the Story of the Shipwrecked Sailor was also gold.
Color in Art
In paintings deities were not often colored to indicate gold flesh. Most male deities were represented with reddish-brown skin, and female with yellow skin. But other colors, as green and blue were indicated above for Osiris, were used. The fertility deities Min and Amun-Re-Kamutef were shown with black skin. Amun-Re was depicted as blue-skinned from the 18th Dynasty onward, emphasizing his status at that time as king of the gods. The jackal that represented Anubis and Wepwawet was colored black, although most jackals were actually sandy-colored, to signify their funerary role and connection with the underworld.
Kings were often shown painted in different contexts with different colored skin. For example, the eleventh dynasty king Nebhepetre Montuhotep I was shown regularly with reddish-brown skin at his mortuary temple at Deir el-Bahri. But one statue found ritually buried shows him with black skin to symbolize his renewal in the afterlife. In addition, some faces on nonroyal coffins during some periods were also painted black for the same reason. But the most common color for coffin faces, apart from natural red for males and yellow for females, was gold, linking the deceased with the sun god and showing the deceased successfully transformed into a divine being.
Certain colors were often set side by side as well, to signify completeness. For example, red and white, or its alternate hue yellow, find completion together in the colors of man and woman, and the red and white crowns. Green and black are also often used in the same way as the symbolic opposites of life and death.
Some colors were interchangeable. While hair was often shown as black, it was sometimes depicted as blue for the gods. However, they too could also be shown with black hair. The converse could also be true, as illustrated in the example where the god Anubis is shown as blue, as is the mummy. In the pectoral of Tut, Ptah is shown with black hair, the Blue Crown is colored black. In the same way, light blue and green could be interchanged. In that Tut pectoral, the god Ptah, often shown with green skin, is shown here as light-blue skinned.
The heavens may be colored black, though blue is more commonly used. Yellow gold, the color of sun and stars, could also represent the heavens, though its use for such is relatively rare. Black also represented Egypt itself, the fertile Nile soil, but the color green also signified earth as opposed to heaven or the sea.
Horemheb and Ramesses I both used a blue-gray background on the walls of their tombs, perhaps to represent the entrance of the deceased King into the underworld or the heavens. Since the underworld was described in some texts as the field of malachite (a green stone) green could also represent the underworld as well.
Earlier it was stated that male figures, whether divine or human, were given reddish-brown skin tones. Women were given yellow-gold skin tones. A poem from the Papyrus Chester Beatty I describes a female object of affection with "bright skin," arms more "brilliant than gold," and "white-breasted."
Since Egypt included people close to the Mediterranean as well as to sub-Sahara, its people showed many skin tones. But the men of Egypt had to be distinguished from non-Egyptians, from foreigners. Foreign peoples of different races were given appropriate skin colors by stylized characterizations. While Nubians and Kushite kings living to the south of Egypt were depicted as black in contrast to the red-brown skin hues of the Egyptian male, Libyans, Bedouin, Syrians and Hittites, living to the north, west, and closer to the Mediterranean were all shown with light yellow skin, as well as distinctive clothing and hair-styles.
Color in Hieroglyphics
Hieroglyphics illustrate the dual use of color, one, where objects are given the same hue they have in nature, and two, where objects are assigned colors to which they are symbolically linked. Each glyph had its own color or combination, which was faithfully kept whenever multiple colors were used. Sometimes difference in color was used to distinguish between two otherwise identical signs. Color was omitted in everyday writing, in order to save time or expense, but it was nevertheless viewed as a very real part of a complete sign.
Where the signs were not painted black or red, each sign received its own basic color or combination of colors. The colors assigned to the various signs are in most cases simply the colors of the objects themselves. So signs for leg, arm, hand, mouth, or other body parts, were usually in red, whereas reeds and other plants were green, water was blue, etc. Other objects had more symbolic coloration, for example, metal butcher knife was red, the sickle was green, and the bread loaf was blue.
The Painters Work
The paintings extant in the beautiful tomb of Nefertari are excellent examples of the symbolic and practical uses of color. After the outlines of the scenes were completed, color was applied with coarse brushes made from bundles of palm fibers, or pieces of fibrous wood chewed or beaten at one end.
Dry pigments were prepared by crushing various substances in a mortar or on a grinding palette with a stone pestle. These were then mixed with a water-soluble gum or egg white to bind them. Intermediate shades were derived by laying one
Many of the reliefs seen today in museums and even on the temple and tomb walls in Egypt itself have little of the tints originally placed upon them. But conservation is underway, and hopefully, as with Nefertaris tomb, the vibrancy of the Artists craft, part of the soul of ancient Egypt, will return.
From Symbol and Magic in Egyptian Art by Richard Wilkinson
From Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt
Last Updated: June 16th, 2011