Egyptian art has woven its spell on audiences for thousands of years. Its anonymous artists influenced Greek and Roman artists, particularly in creating sculpture and friezes. However, at its core, Egyptian art is unapologetically functional, created for eminently practical purposes, rather than aesthetic indulgence.
An Egyptian tomb painting depicted scenes from the departed’s life, on earth, enabling its spirit to remember it on its journey through the afterlife. Scenes of the Field of Reeds help a journeying soul to know how to get there. A statue of a deity grasped the very spirit of the god. Richly decorated amulets protected one from curses, while ritual figurines warded off angry ghosts and vengeful spirits.
While we continue to rightly admire their artistic vision and craftsmanship, the ancient Egyptians never looked at their work in this way. A statue had a specific purpose. A cosmetic cabinet and a hand mirror served a very practical purpose. Even Egyptian ceramics were simply for eating off, drinking from and storage.
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Facts About Ancient Egyptian Art
- The Palette of Narmer is the earliest example of ancient Egyptian art. It is roughly 5,000 years old and shows Narmer’s victories carved in relief
- The 3rd Dynasty introduced sculpting to ancient Egypt
- In sculpture people always faced forward
- Scenes in tombs and on monuments were inscribed in horizontal panels called registers
- Most ancient Egyptian art is two dimensional and lacks perspective
- Colours used for paintings and tapestries were ground from minerals or made from plants
- From the 4th Dynasty, onwards Egyptian tombs are decorated with vibrant wall paintings showing everyday life including the birds, animals and plants found in the natural landscape
- Master craftsman created King Tutankhamen’s phenomenal sarcophagus which was fashioned from solid gold
- The Armana Period was the only time in Egypt’s long history when art attempted a more naturalistic style
- Figures in ancient Egyptian art were painted without emotion, as the ancient Egyptians believed emotions were fleeting.
Ma’at’s Influence On Egyptian Art
The Egyptians had an idiosyncratic sense of aesthetic beauty. Egyptian hieroglyphics could be written right to left, left to right or up to down or down to up, depending on how one’s choice influenced the completed work’s charm.
While all artwork should be beautiful the creative motivation came from a practical goal: functionality. Much of Egyptian art’s decorative appeal stems from the concept of ma’at or balance and harmony and the importance the ancient Egyptians attached to symmetry.
Ma’at was not only a universal constant throughout Egyptian society but it was also thought to comprise the very fabric of creation passed down when the gods instilled order on a chaotic universe. The resulting concept of duality whether it took the form of the god’s gift of light and dark, day and night, male and female was governed by ma’at.
Every Egyptian palace, temple, home and garden, statue and painting, reflected balance and symmetry. When an obelisk was erected it was always raised with a twin and both obelisks were believed to share divine reflections, thrown simultaneously, in the land of the gods
The Evolution Of Egyptian Art
Egyptian art begins with the rock drawings and primitive ceramics of the Pre-Dynastic Period (c. 6000-c.3150 BCE). The much-heralded Narmer Palette illustrates the advances in artistic expression achieved during the Early Dynastic Period (c. 3150-c.2613 BCE). The Narmer Palette (c. 3150 BCE) is a double-sided ceremonial siltstone plate featuring two bull’s heads positioned at the top on each side. These symbols of power overlook the inscribed scenes of King Narmer’s unification of Upper and Lower Egypt. The composition’s intricately inscribed figures narrating the story demonstrate the role of symmetry in Egyptian art.
The architect Imhotep’s (c.2667-2600 BCE) use of elaborate djed symbols, lotus flowers and papyrus plant designs carved in both high and low relief on King Djoser’s (c. 2670 BCE) step pyramid complex illustrates Egyptian art’s evolution since the Narmer Palette.
Throughout the Old Kingdom (c.2613-2181 BCE) period, the influence of the ruling elite at Memphis effectively standardized their figurative art forms. This Old Kingdom art enjoyed a second flowering thanks to the influence of later pharaohs who commissioned works executed in the Old Kingdom style.
After the Old Kingdom and was replaced by the First Intermediate Period (2181 -2040 BCE), artists enjoyed renewed freedom of expression and artists had the freedom to give voice to individual and even regional visions. District governors began commissioning art that resonated with their province. Greater local economic wealth and influence inspired local artists to create art in their own style, although ironically the mass production of shabti dolls as grave goods eroded the unique style that accompanied the former handcrafted methods.
Egyptian Art’s Apogee
Most Egyptologists today point to the Middle Kingdom (2040-1782 BCE) as representing the apogee of Egyptian art and culture. Construction of the great temple at Karnak and a predilection for monumental statuary took hold during this period.
Now, social realism replaced the Old Kingdom’s idealism. Depictions of members of Egypt’s lower classes in paintings also became more frequent than previously. Following an invasion by the Hyksos People who overran large areas of the Delta region, Egypt’s Second Intermediate Period (c. 1782 – c. 1570 BCE) replaced the Middle Kingdom. Art from Thebes during this time retained the Middle Kingdom’s stylistic traits.
After the Hyksos People were expelled, The New Kingdom (c. 1570-c.1069 BCE), emerged to give birth to some of the most magnificent and most famous examples of Egyptian artistic creativity. This is the time of Tutankhamun’s golden death mask and grave goods and Nefertiti’s iconic bust.
This burst of New Kingdom creative excellence was stimulated in part by the adoption of Hittite advanced metalworking techniques, which flowed through into the production of outstanding weaponry and funerary objects.
Egypt’s artistic creativity was also stimulated by the Egyptian Empire’s expansive engagement with its neighbouring cultures.
As the gains of the New Kingdom inevitably receded, the Third Intermediate Period (c. 1069-525 BCE) and then its Late Period (525-332 BCE) looked to continue championing New Kingdom art stylistic forms, while looking to recapture past glories by reviving Old Kingdom artistic forms.
Egyptian Art Forms And Its Rich Symbolism
Across the majestic span of Egyptian history, their art forms were as diverse as their sources of inspiration, the resources used to create them, and the ability of the artist’s patrons to pay for them. Egypt’s wealthy upper class commissioned elaborate items of jewellery, ornately decorated sword and knife scabbards, intricate bow cases, ornate cosmetic cases, jars and hand mirrors. Egyptian tombs, furniture, chariots and even their gardens were bursting with symbolism and decoration. Each and every design, motif, image and detail communicated something to its owner.
Men are usually shown with reddish skin representing their traditional outdoor lifestyle, while a lighter shade was adopted in depicting women’s skin tones as they spent more time indoors. Different skin tones were not a statement of equality or inequality but simply an attempt at realism.
Whether the item was a cosmetic case or a sword it was designed to tell a story to the observer. Even a garden told a story. In the heart of most gardens was a pool surrounded by flowers, plants and trees. A sheltering wall, in turn, surrounded the garden. Access to the garden from the house was via a portico of ornate columns. Models made of these gardens to serve as grave goods illustrate the great care given to their narrative design.
Paint was mixed using naturally occurring minerals. Black came from carbon, white from gypsum, blue and green from azurite and malachite and red and yellow from iron oxides. The finely ground minerals were mixed with pulped organic material to different consistencies and then mixed with a substance, possibly egg whites to enable it to adhere to a surface. Egyptian paint has proved to be so durable that many examples remain brilliantly vibrant after more than 4,000 years.
While the walls of palaces, domestic homes and gardens were mostly decorated using flat two-dimensional paintings, reliefs were used in temples, monuments and tombs. The Egyptians employed two forms of reliefs. High reliefs in which the figures stood out from the wall and low reliefs where the decorative images were inscribed into the wall.
In applying a relief, the surface of the wall was first smoothed over with plaster, which was then sanded. Artists used miniatures of the design overlaid with gridlines to map out their work. This grid was then transposed onto the wall. The artist then replicated the image in the correct proportions using the miniature as a template. Each scene was first sketched and then outlined using red paint. Any corrections were made using black paint. Once these were incorporated, the scene was carved and finally painted.
Wooden, stone, and metal statues were also brightly painted. Stonework first emerged in the Early Dynastic Period and was refined over the passing centuries. A sculptor worked from a single stone block using only wooden mallet and copper chisels. The statue would then be rubbed smooth with a cloth.
Wooden statues were carved in sections before being pegged or glued together. Surviving statues of wood are rare but several were preserved and show phenomenal technical skills.
Given the cost and complexity associated with casting metal firing ancient times, metal figurines and personal jewellery were small-scale and cast from bronze, copper, gold and occasionally silver.
Gold was enduring popular for shrine figures depicting the gods and especially so for personal ornamentation in the form of amulets, pectorals and bracelets as the Egyptian believed their gods had golden skins. These figures were created either by casting or more commonly, by affixing thin sheets of worked metal over a wooden frame.
Coffins, model boats, cosmetic chests and toys were fabricated in Egypt using the cloisonné technique. In cloisonne work, thin strips of metal are first inlaid on the item’s surface before being fired in a kiln. This bonded them together, creating sections, which are subsequently filled usually with jewels, semi-precious gemstones or painted scenes.
Cloisonne was also used in making pectorals for Egyptian kings, together with ornately decorating their crowns and headdresses, together with personal items such as swords and ceremonial daggers, bracelets, jewellery, chests and even sarcophagi.
While Egyptian art is admired around the world, its inability to evolve and adapt has been criticised. Art historians point to Egyptian artists inability to master perspective, the relentless two-dimensional nature of their compositions and the absence of emotions in their figures whether showing warriors on the battlefield, kings on their throne or domestic scenes as being major flaws in their artistic style.
However, these criticisms fail to accommodate either the cultural drivers powering Egyptian art, its embrace of ma’at, the concept of balance and harmony and its intended eternal functionality as a force in the afterlife.
To the Egyptians, art represents gods, rulers, people, epic battles and scenes of everyday life that the person’s spirit would require in their journey in the afterlife. An individual’s name and image needed to survive on earth for their soul to continue on its journey to the Field of Reeds.
Reflecting On The Past
Egyptian art ran the gamut of monumental statuary, decorative personal ornamentation, elaborated carved temples and vividly painted tomb complexes. Throughout its long history, however, Egyptian art never lost focus on its functional role in Egyptian culture.
Header image courtesy: Walters Art Museum [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons