Art of ancient Egypt
Ancient Egyptian art is the painting, sculpture, architecture and other arts produced by the civilization of ancient Egypt in the lower Nile Valley from about 3000 BC to 30 AD. Ancient Egyptian art reached a high level in painting and sculpture, and was both highly stylized and symbolic. It was famously conservative, and Egyptian styles changed remarkably little over more than three thousand years. Much of the surviving art comes from tombs and monuments and now there is an emphasis on life after death and the preservation of knowledge of the past. The wall art was never meant to be seen by people other than the afterlife for when they needed them.
Ancient Egyptian art included paintings, sculpture in wood (now rarely surviving), stone and ceramics, drawings on papyrus, faience, jewellery, ivories, and other art media. It displays an extraordinarily vivid representation of the ancient Egyptian's socioeconomic status and belief systems.
The Ancient Egyptian language had no word for 'art', rather, art served an essentially functional purpose that was intimately bound up with religion and ideology. To render a subject in art was to give it permanence. Hence, ancient Egyptian art portrayed an idealized, not a realistic, view of the world. There was no tradition of individual artistic expression, since art served a wider, cosmic purpose of maintaining created order.
- 1 Characteristics
- 2 Painting
- 3 Sculpture
- 4 Materials
- 5 Architecture
- 6 Jewelry
- 7 Furniture
- 8 Fashion
- 9 Cosmetics
- 10 Funerary art
- 11 Egyptian blue
- 12 History
- 13 Art of Meroë
- 14 Notes
- 15 References
- 16 Further reading
- 17 External links
Egyptian art is famous for its distinctive figure convention, used for the main figures in both relief and painting, with parted legs (where not seated) and head shown as seen from the side, but the torso seen as from the front, and a standard set of proportions making up the figure, using 18 "fists" to go from the ground to the hair-line on the forehead. This appears as early as the Narmer Palette from Dynasty I, but there as elsewhere the convention is not used for minor figures shown engaged in some activity, such as the captives and corpses. Other conventions make statues of males darker than females ones. Very conventionalized portrait statues appear from as early as Dynasty II, before 2,780 BC, and with the exception of the art of the Amarna period of Ahkenaten, and some other periods such as Dynasty XII, the idealized features of rulers, like other Egyptian artistic conventions, changed little until after the Greek conquest. Egyptian art uses hierarchical proportion, where the size of figures indicates their relative importance. The gods or the divine pharaoh are usually larger than other figures and the figures of high officials or the tomb owner are usually smaller, and at the smallest scale any servants and entertainers, animals, trees, and architectural details.
Symbolism can be observed throughout Egyptian art and played an important role in establishing a sense of order. The pharaoh's regalia, for example, represented his power to maintain order. Animals were also highly symbolic figures in Egyptian art. Some colors were expressive. The ancient Egyptian language had 4 basic colour terms: kem (black), hedj (white/silver), wadj (green/blue) and desher (red/orange/yellow).
Blue, for example, symbolized fertility, birth, and the life-giving waters of the Nile.Blue and green were the colours of vegetation, and hence of rejuvenation. Osiris could be shown with green skin; in the 26th Dynasty, the faces of coffins were often coloured green to assist in rebirth.
This color symbolism also explains the popularity of turquoise and faience in funerary equipment. The use of black for royal figures similarly expressed the fertile alluvial soil of the Nile from which Egypt was born, and carried connotations of fertility and regeneration. Hence statues of the king as Osiris often showed him with black skin. Black was also associated with afterlife, and was the color of funerary deities such as Anubis.
Gold indicated divinity due to its unnatural appearance and association with precious materials. Furthermore, gold was regarded by the ancient Egyptians as "the flesh of the god." Silver, referred to as "white gold" by the Egyptians, was likewise called "the bones of the god."
Red, orange and yellow were ambivalent colours. They were, naturally, associated with the sun; red stones such as quartzite were favoured for royal statues which stressed the solar aspects of kingship. Carnelian has similar symbolic associations in jewelry. Red ink was used to write important names of papyrus documents. However, red was also the color of the deserts, and hence associated with Seth.
Not all Egyptian reliefs were painted, and less prestigious works in tombs, temples and palaces were merely painted on a flat surface. Stone surfaces were prepared by whitewash, or if rough, a layer of coarse mud plaster, with a smoother gesso layer above; some finer limestones could take paint directly. Pigments were mostly mineral, chosen to withstand strong sunlight without fading. The binding medium used in painting remains unclear: egg tempera and various gums and resins have been suggested. It is clear that true fresco, painted into a thin layer of wet plaster, was not used. Instead the paint was applied to dried plaster, in what is called "fresco a secco" in Italian. After painting, a varnish or resin was usually applied as a protective coating, and many paintings with some exposure to the elements have survived remarkably well, although those on fully exposed walls rarely have. Small objects including wooden statuettes were often painted using similar techniques.
Many ancient Egyptian paintings have survived in tombs, and sometimes temples, due to Egypt's extremely dry climate. The paintings were often made with the intent of making a pleasant afterlife for the deceased. The themes included journey through the afterworld or protective deities introducing the deceased to the gods of the underworld (such as Osiris). Some tomb paintings show activities that the deceased were involved in when they were alive and wished to carry on doing for eternity.
Egyptian paintings are painted in such a way to show a profile view and a side view of the animal or person at the same time. For example, the painting to the right shows the head from a profile view and the body from a frontal view. Their main colors were red, blue, green, gold, black and yellow.
Paintings showing scenes of hunting and fishing can have lively close-up landscape backgrounds of reeds and water, but in general Egyptian painting did not develop a sense of depth, and neither landscapes nor a sense of visual perspective are found, the figures rather varying in size with their importance rather than their location.
Block from a relief depicting a battle; 1427–1400 BC; painted sandstone; height: 61.5 cm (243⁄16 in.); Metropolitan Museum of Art (USA)
Scene from the tomb of Tutankhamun in which appears Osiris
The monumental sculpture of ancient Egypt's temples and tombs is world-famous, but refined and delicate small works exist in much greater numbers. The Egyptians used the technique of sunk relief, which is best viewed in sunlight for the outlines and forms to be emphasized by shadows. The distinctive pose of standing statues facing forward with one foot in front of the other was helpful for the balance and strength of the piece. The use of this singular pose was used early on in the history of Egyptian art and well into the Ptolemaic period, although seated statues were particularly common as well.
Egyptian pharaohs were always regarded as gods, but other deities are much less common in large statues, except when they represent the pharaoh as another deity; however the other deities are frequently shown in paintings and reliefs. The famous row of four colossal statues outside the main temple at Abu Simbel each show Rameses II, a typical scheme, though here exceptionally large. Most larger sculptures survive from Egyptian temples or tombs; massive statues were built to represent gods and pharaohs and their queens, usually for open areas in or outside temples. The very early colossal Great Sphinx of Giza was never repeated, but avenues lined with very large statues including sphinxes and other animals formed part of many temple complexes. The most sacred cult image of a god in a temple, usually held in the naos, was in the form of a relatively small boat or barque holding an image of the god, and apparently usually in precious metal – none have survived.
By Dynasty IV (2680–2565 BC) at the latest the idea of the Ka statue was firmly established. These were put in tombs as a resting place for the ka portion of the soul, and so we have a good number of less conventionalized statues of well-off administrators and their wives, many in wood as Egypt is one of the few places in the world where the climate allows wood to survive over millennia, and many block statues. The so-called reserve heads, plain hairless heads, are especially naturalistic, though the extent to which there was real portraiture in ancient Egypt is still debated.
Early tombs also contained small models of the slaves, animals, buildings and objects such as boats necessary for the deceased to continue his lifestyle in the afterworld, and later Ushabti figures. However the great majority of wooden sculpture has been lost to decay, or probably used as fuel. Small figures of deities, or their animal personifications, are very common, and found in popular materials such as pottery. There were also large numbers of small carved objects, from figures of the gods to toys and carved utensils. Alabaster was often used for expensive versions of these; painted wood was the most common material, and normal for the small models of animals, slaves and possessions placed in tombs to provide for the afterlife.
Very strict conventions were followed while crafting statues and specific rules governed appearance of every Egyptian god. For example, the sky god (Horus) was essentially to be represented with a falcon's head, the god of funeral rites (Anubis) was to be always shown with a jackal's head. Artistic works were ranked according to their compliance with these conventions, and the conventions were followed so strictly that, over three thousand years, the appearance of statues changed very little. These conventions were intended to convey the timeless and non-aging quality of the figure's ka.
A common relief in ancient Egyptian sculpture was the representation between men and women. Women were often represented in an idealistic form, young and pretty, and rarely shown in an older maturity. While men were shown in either one of two way; either in an idealistic manner or in more realistic depiction. Sculptures of men often showed men that aged, since the regeneration of aging was a positive thing for them, women are shown as perpetually young.
Statuette of Anubis; 332-30 BC; plastered and painted wood; height: 42.3 cm (165⁄8 in.); Metropolitan Museum of Art
A stela is an upright tablet of stone or wood, often with a curved top, painted and carved with text and pictures. Numerous examples were produced throughout Egyptian history for a variety of purposes, including funerary, votive and commemorative. Funerary stelae, attested from the early 1st Dynasty, typically bore the name and titles of the deceased. This basic form, which served to identify the tomb owner, evolved into a key component of the funerary equipment with a magical function. Hence, from the 2nd Dynasty onwards, the owner was usually shown seated before an offering table piled with food and drink; in the Middle Kingdom, the offering formula was generally inscribed along the top of the stela. Both were designed to ensure a perpetual supply of offerings in the afterlife. Votive stelae, inscribed with prayers to deities, were dedicated by worshippers seeking a favourable outcome to a particular situation. In the Middle Kingdom, many hundreds were set up by pilgrims on the 'terrace of the great god' at Abydos, so that they might participate in the annual procession of Osiris. One particular variety of votive stela common in the New Kingdom was the ear stela, inscribed with images of human ears to encourage the deity to listen to the prayer or request.
Commemorative stelae were produced to proclaim notable achivements (for example, the stela of Horwerra, recording a mining expedition to Serabit el-Khadim, and the Restoration Stela of Tutankhamun, celebrating the restoration of the traditional cults at the end of the Amarna period); to celebrate military victories (for instance, the Israel stela of Meren-Ptah); and to establish frontiers (for example the Semna stela of Senusret III and the boundary stelae around Amarna).
A pyramidion is a capstone at the top of a pyramid. Called benbenet in ancient Egyptian language, it associated the pyramid as a whole with the sacred benben stone. Pyramidions may have been covered in gold leaf to reflect the rays of the sun; in the Middle Kingdom, they were often inscribed with royal titles and religious symbols.
Pyramidion of Iufaa; 664–525 BC; painted limestone; height: 36 cm (143⁄16 in.); Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York City)
Glass and faience
Egyptian faience, made from silica, found in form of quartz in sand, lime, and natron, produced relatively cheap and very attractive small objects in a variety of colours, and was used for a variety of types of objects including jewellery. Ancient Egyptian glass goes back to very early Egyptian history, but was at first very much a luxury material. In later periods it became common, and highly decorated small jars for perfume and other liquids are often found as grave goods.
Ancient Egyptians used steatite (some varieties were called soapstone) and carved small pieces of vases, amulets, images of deities, of animals and several other objects. Ancient Egyptian artists also discovered the art of covering pottery with enamel. Covering by enamel was also applied to some stone works. The colour blue, first used in the very expensive imported stone lapis lazuli, was highly regarded by ancient Egypt, and the pigment Egyptian blue was widely used to colour a variety of materials.
Amphora; 1295–1070 BC; glass; height: 10.6 cm (43⁄16 in.); Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York City)
Small amphoriskos; 664–332 BC; glass; height: 7 cm (23⁄4 in.); Metropolitan Museum of Art
William the Faience Hippopotamus; 1961–1878 BC; faience; height: 11.2 cm (47⁄16 in.), width: 7.5 cm (215⁄16 in.); Metropolitan Museum of Art
Different types of pottery items were deposited in tmbs of the dead. Some such pottery items represented interior parts of the body, like the lungs, the liver and smaller intestines, which were removed before embalming. A large number of smaller objects in enamel pottery were also deposited with the dead. It was customary to craft on the walls of the tombs cones of pottery, about six to ten inches tall, on which were engraved or impressed legends relating to the dead occupants of the tombs. These cones usually contained the names of the deceased, their titles, offices which they held, and some expressions appropriate to funeral purposes.
Hathor-shaped jar; 1390–1353 BC; painted pottery; height: 24.5 cm (95⁄8 in.); Metropolitan Museum of Art
While not a leading center of metalurgy, ancient Egypt nevertheless developed technologies for extracting and processing most of metals found within its own borders and in neighbouring lands.
Copper was the first metal to be exploited in Egypt. Small beads have been found in Badarian graves; larger items were produced in the later Predynastic Period, by a combination of mould-casting, annealing qnd cold-hammering. The production of copper artifacts peaked in the Old Kingdom when huge numbers of copper chisels were manufactured to cut the stone blocks of pyramids. The copper statues of Pepi I and Merendra from Hierakonpolis are rare survivors of lage-scale metalworking.
The golden treasure of Tutankhamun has come to symbolize the wealth of ancient Egypt, and illustrates the importance of gold in pharaonic culture. Indeed, the burial chamber in a royal tomb was called 'the house of gold'. According to the Egyptian religion, the flesh of the gods was made of gold. A shining metal that never tarnished, it was the ideal material for cult images of deities, for royal funerary equipment, and to add brilliance to the tops of obelisks. It was used extensively for jewelry, and was distributed to officials as a reward for loyal services ('the gold of honour').
Silver had to be imported from the levant, and its rarity initially gave it greater value than gold (which, like electrum, was readly avalible within the borders of Egypt and Nubia). Early examples of silver working include the bracelets of Hetepheres. By the Middle Kingdom, silver is more widely attested and seems to have become less valuable than gold, perhaps because of increased trade with the Middle East. The treasure from El-Tod consisted of a hoard of silver objects, probably made in the Aegean, while silver jewelry made for female members of the 12th Dynasty royal family was found at Dahshur and Lahun. In the Egyptian religion, the bones of the gods were said to be made of silver.
Iron was the last metal to be exploited on a large scale by the Egyptians. Meteoritic iron was used for the manufacture of beads from the Badarian period. However, the advanced technology required to smelt iron was not introduced into Egypt until the Late Period. Before that, iron objects were imported, and consequently were highly valued for their rarity. The Amarna letters refer to diplomatic gifts of iron being sebt by Near Eastern rulers, especially the Hittites, to Amenhotep III and Akhenaten. Iron tools and weapons only became common in Egypt in the Roman Period.
Headband with heads of gazelles and a stag between stars or flowers; 1648–1540 BC; gold; length of the headband: 49.5 cm (191⁄2 in.); Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York City)
Libation vessel; 1479–1425 BC; silver; height: 19.5 cm (75⁄8 in.), diameter: 13 cm (51⁄8 in.); from Thebes; Metropolitan Museum of Art
Statuette of Amun; 945–715 BC; gold height: 17.5 cm (67⁄8 in.), width: 4.7 cm (17⁄8 in.); Metropolitan Museum of Art
Lapis lazuli is a dark blue semi-precious stone highly valued by the ancient Egyptians because of its symbolic association with the heavens. It was imported via long-distance trade routes from the mountains of north-eastern Afghanistan, and was considered superior to all other materials except gold and silver. Coloured glass or faience provided a cheap imitation. Lapis lazuli is first attested in the Predynastic Period. A temporary interruption in supply during the 2nd and 3rd Dynasties probably reflects political changes in the Near East. Thereafter, it was used extensively for jewelry, small figurines and amulets.
Scarab finger ring; 1850–1750 BC; diameter: 2.5 cm (1 in.), length of the scarab: 1.8 cm (11⁄16 in.); Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York City)
Cult image of Ptah: 945–600 BC; height of the figure: 5.2 cm (21⁄16 in.), height of the dais: 0.4 cm (3⁄16 in.); Metropolitan Museum of Art
Ancient Egyptian architects used sun-dried and kiln-baked bricks, fine sandstone, limestone and granite. Architects carefully planned all their work. The stones had to fit precisely together, since there was no mud or mortar. When creating the pyramids, ramps were used to allow workmen to move up as the height of the construction grew. When the top of the structure was completed, the artists decorated from the top down, removing ramp sand as they went down. Exterior walls of structures like the pyramids contained only a few small openings. Hieroglyphic and pictorial carvings in brilliant colors were abundantly used to decorate Egyptian structures, including many motifs, like the scarab, sacred beetle, the solar disk, and the vulture. They described the changes the Pharaoh would go through to become a god.
The three main pyramids at Giza, together with subsidiary pyramids and the remains of other structures at the Giza pyramid complex
Illustration of various types of capitals, drawn by the egyptologist Karl Richard Lepsius
The ancient Egyptians exhibited a love of ornament and personal decoration from earliest Predynastic times. Badarian burials often contained strings of beads made from glazed steatite, shell and ivory. Jewelry in gold, silver, copper and faience is also attested in the early Predynastic period; more varied materials were introduced in the centuries preceding the 1st Dynasty. By the Old Kingdom, the combination of carnelian, turquoise and lapis lazuli had been established for royal jewelry, and this was to become standard in the Middle Kingdom. Less sophisticated pieces might use bone, mother-of-pearl or cowrie shells. The particular choice of materials depended upon pactical, aesthetical and symbolic considerations. Some types of jewelry remained perennially popular, while other went in and out of fashion. In the first category were bead necklances, bracelets, armlets and girdles. Bead aprons are first attested in the 1st Dynasty, while broad collars became a standard type from the early Old Kingdom. In the Middle Kingdom they had fallen from favour, to be replaced by finger-rings and ear ornaments (rings and plugs). New Kingdom jewelry is generally more elaborate and garish than that of earlier periods, and was influenced by styles from the Ancient Greece and the Levant. Many fine examples were found in the tomb of Tutankhamun. Jewelry, both royal and private, was replete with religious symbolism. It was also used to display the wealth and rank of the wearer. Royal jewels were always the most elaborate, as exemplified by the pieces found at Dahshur and Lahun, made for princesses of the 18th Dynasty, favoured courtires were rewarded with the 'gold of honour' as a sign of royal favour.
The techniques of jewelry-making can be reconstructed from surviving artefacts and from tomb decoration. A jewelers' workshop is shown in the tomb of Mereruka; several New Kingdom tombs at Thebes contain similar scenes.
Signet ring; 664–525 BC; gold; diameter: 3 cm (11⁄8 in.); length of the bezel: 3.4 cm (13⁄8 in.); British Museum (London)
An amulet is small charm worn to afford its owner magical protection, or to convey certain qualities (for example, a lion amulet might convey strength, or a set-square amulet rectitude). Attested from the Badarian period onwards, amulets were produced both for the living and the dead. Particular amulets were placed at specific places in the mummy wrappings. The heart scarab was a scpecialized form of amulet to protect the heart of the deceased in the afterlife. Amulets were made from a wide variety of materials, including faience, glass, and precious stones - with colour often playing an important symbolic role - and in a wide variety of forms. They might depict sacred objects (such as the Djed pillar, Tyet girdle or Wedjad eye); animals (bull's head amulets were particularly common in the late Predynastic period); or hieroglyphs (for example, Ankh or Sa). From the New Kingdom onwards, deities – especially household deities such as Bes and Taweret – were popular subjects for amulets.
Amulet depicting Taweret; 664–332 BC; faience; height: 9.7 cm (313⁄16 in.); Metropolitan Museum of Art
Djed pillar-shaped amulet; 664–30 BC; faience; height: 4.5cm (13⁄4 in); Metropolitan Museum of Art
Although, by modern standards, ancient Egyptian houses would have been very sparsely furnished, woodworking and cabinet-making were highly developed crafts. All the main types of furniture are attested, either as surviving examples or in tomb decoration. Charis were only for the wealthy; most people would have used low stools. Beds consisted of a wooden frame, with matting or leather webbing to provide support; the most elaborate beds also had a canopy, hung with netting, to provide extra privacy and protection from insects. The feet of chairs, stools and beds were often modelled to resemble bulls' hooves or, in later periods, lions' feet or ducks' heads. Wooden furniture was often coated with a layer of plaster amd painted. Royal furniture was more elaborate, making use of inlays, veneers and marquetry. Funerary objects from the tomb of Tutankhamun include tables, boxes and chests, a gilded throne, and ritualbeds shaped like elongated hippos and cattle. The burial equipment of Hetepheres included a set of travelling furniture, light and easy to dismantle. Such furniture must have been used on military campaigns and other royal journeys.
Chair of Hatnefer; 1492–1473 BC; boxwood, cypress, ebony & linen cord; height: 53 cm (207⁄8 in.); Metropolitan Museum of Art
Artistic representations, supplemented by actual surviving garments, constitute our main sources of evidences for the ancient Egyptian fashion. The two sources are not always in agreement, however, and it seems that representations were more concerned with highlighting certain attributes of the person depicted than with accurately recordings their true appearence. For example, in art created for men, women were often shown with restrictive, tight-fitting dresses, perhaps to emphasize their figures.
As in most societies, fashions in Egypt changed over time; different clothes were worn in different seasons of the year, and by different sections of society. Particular office-holders, especially priests and the king, had their own special garments.
For the general population, clothing was simple, predominantly of linen, and probably white or off-white in colour. It would have shown the dirt easily, and professional launderers are known to have been attached to the New Kingdom workmen's village at Deir el-Medina. Men would have worn a simple loin-cloth or short kilt (known as shendyt), supplemented in winter by a heavier tunic. High-status individuals could express their status through their clothing, and were more susceptible to changes in fashion.
Longer, more voluminous clothing made an appearance in the Middle Kingdom; flowing, elaborately pleated, diaphanous robes for men and women were particularly popular in the late 18th Dynasty and the Ramesside period. Decorated textiles also became more common in the New Kingdom. In all periods, women's dresses may have been enhanced by colourful bead netting worn over the top. In the Roman Period, Egypt became known for the manufacture of fine clothing. Sandals of leather or basketry are the most commonly attested types of footwear. Examples of these, together with linen shirts and other clothing, were discovered in the tomb of Tutankhamun.
Use of makeup, especially around the eyes, was a characteristic feature of ancient Egyptian culture from Predynastic times. Kohl (eye-paint) was applied to protect the eyes, as well as for aesthetic reasons. It was usually made of galena, giving a silvery-black colour; during the Old Kingdom, green eye-paint was also used, made from malachite. Egyptian women painted their lips and cheeks, using rouge made from red ochre. Henna was applied as a dye for hair, fingernails and toenails, and perhaps also nipples. Creams and unguents to condition the skin were popular, and were made from various plant extracts.
Cosmetic dish in the shape of a tilapia fish; 1479–1425 BC; glazed steatite; height: 8.6 cm (33⁄8 in.); width: 18.1 cm (71⁄8 in.); Metropolitan Museum of Art
Perfume vase in shape of an amphoriskos; 664–630 BC; glass: height: 8 (31⁄8 in.), diameter: 4 cm (19⁄16 in.); Metropolitan Museum of Art
The earliest purpose-built funerary containers for bodies were simple rectangular wooden boxes, attested in the 1st Dynasty. A coffin swiftly became an essential part of the burial equipment. Known euphemistically as the 'lord of life', its primary function was to provide a home for the Ka, and to protect the physical body from harm. In the 4th Dynasty, the development of longer conffins allowed the body to be buried fully extended (rather than curled up on its side in a foetal position). At the end of the Old Kingdom, it became customary once more for the body to be laid on its side. The side of the coffin that faced east in the tomb was decorated with a pair of eyes so that the deceased could look out towards the rising sun with its promise of daily rebirth. Coffins also began to be decorated on the outside with bands of funerary texts, while pictures of food and drink offerings were painted on the inside to provide a magical substitute for the real provisions placed in the tomb. In the 1st Intermediate Period, decorated coffins became a substitute for tomb decoration; in the Middle Kingdom, coffin texts made their first appearance, sometimes accompanied by detailed maps of the underworld. Middle Kingdom coffins show a number of distinct regional styles, echoing the cultural fragmentation of the preceding period. In the 17th and early 18th Dynasties, the Theban area produced characteristic anthropoid rishi (feathered) coffins. These were replaced (except for kings) by other styles of anthropoid coffins which became the standard form throughout the country for the remainder of Egyptian history. The predominance of decorated tombs in the New Kingdom removed the need of object friezes, so coffins were generally undecorated on the inside. However, this situation was reversed again in the 3rd Intermediate Period when new types of coffin decoration focused on the Osiris myth and extracts from the Book of the Dead, to aid the resurrection of the deceased. In the Ptolemaic and Roman periods, a cartonnage mask was often fixed directly onto the mummy wrappings as a substitute for a coffin.
Coffins were generally made of wood; those of high-status individuals used fine quality, imported cedar. From the Middle Kingdom onwards, wealthy individuals were often provided with a set of two or three nested coffins. The most somptuous coffins might be inlaid with glass or precious stones, while royal coffins were often made from gold or silver.
Inner coffin of Amenemopet; 975–909 BC; painted wood & gesso; length: 195 cm (763⁄4 in.); Metropolitan Museum of Art
Coffin of Irtirutja; 332–250 BC; plastered, painted and gilded wood; length: 198.8 cm (781⁄4 in.); Metropolitan Museum of Art
Vessels used for storing the internal organs removed during mummification, and named after the human-headed jars that were worshipped as personifications of Kanops (the helmsman of Menelaus in Greek mythology) by the inhabitants of ancient Canopus. The practice of evisceration is first attested in the burial of Hetepheres in the early 4th Dynasty. Her organs were stored in a travertine chest divided into four compartments. Later, each organ - the liver, lungs, stomach and intestines - was provided with a separate jar, of stone or pottery, and placed under the symbolic protection of one of the Four sons of Horus. During the 1st Intermediate Period, the stoppers of canopic jars began to be modelled in the form of human heads. From the late 18th Dynasty, they were more commonly modelled to resemble the heads of the protecting genii (baboon, jackal, falcon and human). This became the standard for canopic equipment in the 19th Dynasty. In the 3rd Intermediate Period, the mummified organs were generally returned to the body, but wealthy burials could still include a dummy set of jars. The last known royal set of canopic jarsnwere made of Apries. The manufacture of canopic equipment continued into the Ptolemaic Period, but ceased by Roman times.
Funerary masks have been at all periods. Famous examples range from the gold masks of Tutankhamun and Psusennes I to the Roman 'mummy portraits' from Hawara and the Fayum. Whether in a funerary or religious context, the purpose of a mask was the same: to transform the wearer from a mortal to a divine state.
The Mask of Tutankhamun; c. 1327 BCE; gold, glass and semi-precious stones; height: 54 cm (211⁄4 in.); Egyptian Museum
Ushabtis (also known as shawabti or shabti) are funerary figurines, the purpose of which was to act as a substitute for the deceased when he was called upon to perform agricultural work or corvée labour in the afterlife. Ushabtis evolved in the Middle Kingdom from the servant statues included among funerary gods. The earliest examples were crude statuettes in wax, clay or wood; later, they were fashioned as mummiform figures and, from the end of the 12th Dynasty, they were customarily inscribed with the 'ushabti text' (chapter 6 of the Book of the dead which specifies the ushabti's duties).
Shabti of Sennedjem; 1279–1213 BC; painted limestone; height: 27 cm (105⁄8 in.); Metropolitan Museum of Art
Four ushabtis of Khabekhnet and their box; 1279–1213 BC; painted limestone; hieght of the ushabtis: 16.7 cm (69⁄16 in.); Metropolitan Museum of Art
Egyptian blue as a material related to, but distinct from, faience and glass. Also called frit, Egyptian blue was made from quartz, alkali, lime and one or more colouring agents (especially copper compounds). These were heated together until they fused to become a crystalline mass, of a uniform colour throughout (unlike faience in which the core and the surface layer are of different colours). Egyptian blue could be worked by hand, or pressed into moulds, to make statuettes and other small objects. It could also be ground to produce a pigment. It is first attested in the 4th Dynasty, but became particularly popular in the Ptolemaic Period and the Roman period, when it was known as caeruleum.
Figurine of a hippopotamus; early 16th century BC; height: 12.7 cm, width: 8.1 cm, length: 20.5 cm; Louvre
The Amarna period and the years before the pharaoh Akhenaten moved the capital there in the late Eighteenth Dynasty form the most drastic interruption to the continuity of style in the Old and New Kingdoms. Amarna art is characterized by a sense of movement and activity in images, with figures having raised heads, many figures overlapping and many scenes full and crowded. As the new religion was a monotheistic worship of the sun, sacrifices and worship were apparently conducted in open courtyards, and sunk relief decoration was widely used in these.
The human body is portrayed differently in the Amarna style than Egyptian art on the whole. For instance, many depictions of Akhenaten's body give him distinctly feminine qualities, such as large hips, prominent breasts, and a larger stomach and thighs. This is a divergence from the earlier Egyptian art which shows men with perfectly chiseled bodies. Faces are still shown exclusively in profile.
Not many buildings from this period have survived the ravages of later kings, partially as they were constructed out of standard size blocks, known as Talatat, which were very easy to remove and reuse. Temples in Amarna, following the trend, did not follow traditional Egyptian customs and were open, without ceilings, and had no closing doors. In the generation after Akhenaten's death, artists reverted to their old styles. There were still traces of this period's style in later art, but in most respects Egyptian art, like Egyptian religion, resumed its usual characteristics after the death of Akhenaten as though the period had never happened. Amarna itself was abandoned and considerable trouble was gone to in defacing monuments from the reign, including dis-assembling buildings and reusing the blocks with their decoration facing inwards, as has recently been discovered in one later building.
Blue-painted storage jar; 1353–1336 BC; painted pottery; height: 69 cm (273⁄16 in.); Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York City)
The Late Period
In 525 BC, the political state of Egypt was taken over by the Persians, almost a century and a half into Egypt's Late Period. By 404 BC, the Persians were expelled from Egypt starting a short period of independence. These 60 years of Egyptian rule consisted of an abundance of usurpers and short reigns. Again the Egyptians were plagued with Persians as they conquered Egypt again until 332 BC with the arrival of Alexander the Great. Sources state that were cheering when Alexander entered the capital since he drove out the immensely disliked Persians. The Late Period is marked with the death of Alexander the Great and the start of the Ptolemaic Dynasty. Although this period marks political turbulence an immense change for Egypt, its art and culture continued to flourish.
Starting with the Thirtieth Dynasty, the fifth dynasty in the Late Period, and extending into the Ptolemaic era. These temples ranged from the Delta to the island of Philae. While Egypt was outside fluencies through trade and conquered by foreign states, these temples were still in the traditional Egyptian style with very little Hellenistic influence.
Another relief originating from the Thirtieth Dynasty was the rounded modeling of the body and limbs. This rounded modeling refers to giving the subjects the sculpture or painting a more fleshy or heavy effect. For example, for women, their breast would swell and overlap the upper arm in painting. In more realistic portrayals, men would be fat or have wrinkled.
Another piece of art that increasingly common during was Horus stela. Horus stela originates from the late New Kingdom and intermediate period but was increasingly common during the fourth century to the Ptolemaic era.These statues would often depict a young Horus holding snakes and standing on some kind of dangerous beast. The depiction of Horus comes from the Egyptian myth where a young Horus is saved from a scorpion bite resulting in him gaining power over all dangerous animals. These statues were used "to ward off attacks from harmful creatures, and to cure snake bites and scorpion stings."
Magical stela or cippus of Horus; 332–280 BC; chlorite schist; height: 20.5 cm (81⁄16 in.); Metropolitan Museum of Art
Nectanebo I temple on Philae
Discoveries made since the end of the 19th century surrounding the (now submerged) ancient Egyptian city of Heracleum at Alexandria include a 4th-century BC, unusually sensual, detailed and feministic (as opposed to deified) depiction of Isis, marking a combination of Egyptian and Hellenistic forms beginning around the time of Egypt's conquest by Alexander the Great in 332-331 BC. However this was untypical of Ptolemaic sculpture, which generally avoided mixing Egyptian styles with the general Hellenistic style which was used in the court art of the Ptolemaic Dynasty, while temples in the rest of the country continued using late versions of traditional Egyptian formulae. Scholars have proposed an "Alexandrian style" in Hellenistic sculpture, but there is in fact little to connect it with Alexandria.
Marble was extensively used in court art, although it all had to be imported, and use was made of various marble-saving techniques, such as making even heads up from a number of pieces, and using stucco for beards, the back of heads and hair. In contrast to the art of other Hellenistic kingdoms, Ptolemaic royal portraits are generalized and idealized, with little concern for achieving an individual portrait, though thanks to coins some portrait sculpture can be identified as one of the 15 King Ptolemys. Many later portraits have clearly had the face reworked to show a later king. One Egyptian trait was to give much greater prominence to the queens than other successor dynasties to Alexander, with the royal couple often shown as a pair. This predated the 2nd century, a series of queens did indeed exercise real power.
In the 2nd century, Egyptian temple sculptures did begin to reuse court models in their faces, and sculptures of priest often used a Hellenistic style to achieve individually distinctive portrait heads. Many small statuettes were produced, with Alexander, as founder of the dynasty, a generalized "King Ptolemy", and a naked Aphrodite among the most common types. Pottery figurines included grotesques and fashionable ladies of the Tanagra figurine style. Erotic groups featured absurdly large phalluses. Some fittings for wooden interiors include very delicately patterned polychrome falcons in faience.
Box decorated with a rhinoceros beetle; 664–30 BC; cupreous metal; height: 6.4 cm (21⁄2 in.), width: 5.9 cm (25⁄16 in.); Metropolitan Museum of Art
Zodiac ceiling; circa 100 BC; sandstone; length: 2.5 m (81⁄4 ft.), width: 2.5 m (81⁄4 ft.); from Dendera; Louvre
Art of Meroë
Ancient Egypt shared a long and complex history with the Nile Valley to the south, the region called Nubia (modern Sudan), and the Nubian kingdom of Meroë absorbed Egyptian influences at various times, for both political and religious reasons. The result is a rich and complex visual culture.
The artistic production of Meroë reflects a range of influences. First, it was an indigenous African culture with roots stretching back thousands of years. To this is added the fact that the wealth of Meroë was based on trade with Egypt when it was ruled by the Ptolemaic dynasty (332-330 BC) and the Romans (30 BC-395 AD), so Hellenistic and Roman objects and ideas were imported, as well as Egyptian influences.
Votive plaque of king Tanyidamani; circa 100 BC; siltstone; 18.5 × 9.5 (71⁄4 × 33⁄4 in.); Walters Art Museum
|Ancient art history|
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- Historical Atlas of Ancient Egypt, Bill Manley (1996) p. 83
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- Sweeney, Deborah (2004). "Forever Young? The Representation of Older and Ageing Women in Ancient Egyptian Art". Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt. 41: 67–84. doi:10.2307/20297188. JSTOR 20297188.
- Jenner, Jan (2008). Ancient Civilizations. Toronto: Scholastic.
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- Smith, R.R.R., Hellenistic Sculpture, a handbook, Thames & Hudson, 1991, ISBN 0500202494
- Smith, W. Stevenson, and Simpson, William Kelly. The Art and Architecture of Ancient Egypt, 3rd edn. 1998, Yale University Press (Penguin/Yale History of Art), ISBN 0300077475
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