Art Talk: Ancient Egypt

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I remember when I first learned about the fascinating culture of ancient Egypt. It was in middle school, seventh grade I believe, and we learned about hieroglyphs, pyramid tombs, mummification and multi-god religion that became a point of controversy among Pharaohs throughout the years. I was hopelessly obsessed with this culture that was so deliciously dramatic and different from my own sheltered, suburban life.

Therefore, I was extremely excited when we came to this time in my first art history class in high school. I hadn’t realized how much of the artifacts and architecture were studied for their artistic value and not just their historical significance. But ancient Egypt is filled with preliminary models that would help to dictate the evolution and transformation of both art and architecture in the centuries to come.

Even if you haven’t studied the fertile deserts surrounding the Nile in depth, you have undoubtedly received some education about ancient Egyptian culture. However, in this post we will focus on the significance of its relics from an artistic standpoint. The ancient Egyptians of the lower Nile were an extremely revolutionary and inventive people — they produced some of the earliest effective systems of writing, government, construction and organized religion. Most of the pieces studied in the fine art realm include sculpture, painting and architecture. Within the overarching designation of ancient Egyptian art, the years have been divided into specific periods that tended to sway the production of art under a specific pharaoh’s rule. However, the use of the art and the intent for creation remained relatively steady from the culture’s emergence in 3000 BC to it’s eventual colonization by the Roman empire in 30 AD.

We will begin with sculpture, which was essential to the culture’s religious beliefs in the 20120216-amenhotep20iii2020colossalafterlife and the preservation of the pharaoh’s being after death. Because pharaohs were believed to be gods, much work and consideration was put into the construction of their tombs and the things that would accompany them there. Therefore, several statues and statuettes of the pharaoh, often accompanied by his wife, were created as a sort of vessel for the pharaoh’s ka, a portion of the soul that would remain on earth in the statue. Tombs also included simpler figures meant to represent slaves that would serve the pharaoh’s ka, similar to those statues in the tombs of Mesopotamia. Pharaohs would also commission sculptures of various gods and goddesses that would look over them and facilitate their journey to the afterlife. Sculptors used a variety of materials to create their pieces, including quartzite, diorite, granite and basalt, which were abundant in mines surrounding the Nile. However, the most popular mediums were sandstone and limestone, which were mostly used in architecture, although sculptors were often commissioned to carve reliefs in those walls. Reliefs are carved pictures that can either go into (sunken) or come out of (raised) the surface. They also used various metals such as copper, bronze, gold and silver to create jewelry for the royal family as well as death masks, amulets and other sculpture that would be placed in the royal tomb.

In both sculpture and painting, there is little variation or identifying features in the people portrayed. There were specific conventions set for artists to follow in order to portray the pharaoh in his (or her) most ideal image. Therefore, the faces do not vary greatly and the bodies are always idealized to show the strongest and most fit form, even if the pharaoh was old and frail. Identification happened instead through ornamentation and stature. Pharaohs were shown with headdresses and fake beards and were often portrayed in giant size next to smaller figures that represented slaves or other citizens. Other gods and goddesses were portrayed larger as well to show their spiritual and powerful superiority. The paintings normally portray the pharaoh and his queen watching over their kingdom’s people as they toil away in agricultural jobs or fight against wild animals or invading enemies. The most popular scenes show both the pharaoh and his subjects offering prayers and priests conducting rituals. Painting was also done on papyrus for The Book of the Dead, which details the journey of a person to the afterlife. One scene shows a person who has died standing in judgement before Anubis who weighs the persons heart against a feather. If the heart balances with the feather, they are brought before Osiris and have a peaceful afterlife. If the heart does not balance with the feather, the person is condemned and is consumed by a strange and ferocious beast.

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Ancient Egyptian painting graced the walls of palaces and tombs throughout the centuries and bears some resemblance to the techniques of ancient Mesopotamia. There is little variation in depth and perspective, as painters portrayed two-dimensional space and figures statically engaged in different activities, including prayer, serving the pharaoh and working the land. The iconic style of side-perspective in portraying figures was done intentionally. This was an attempt of painters to show the entirety of a figure or an animal, no matter how that affected proportions or realistic interpretation. The artists wanted you to see almost every major part of the body that they could. To do this, they used a grid on which they could perfectly align the parts of the body. This accounts for the stiff rigidity of the figures as opposed to softer, more realistic renditions we will see later. The paints artists used were made from different minerals combined with egg tempera, which would bind the paint, which allowed it to withstand strong sun and many years. The paints were then applied to dried plaster on limestone walls, a technique known as “fresco secco.”

Both sculpture and painting were utilized in the decoration of the grand feats of architecture completed by ancient Egyptian society. The most widely recognized symbol of ancient Egypt are the great pyramids at Giza, which includes three looming pyramids in descending size that housed the tombs of Pharaohs Khufu, Khafre and Menkaure. They pyramids, just like every other form of creation used by ancient Egyptians, were constructed on a grid-like pattern and were mathematically configured to be in perfect alignment on every side and in relation to the sun. The pyramids have their shape because it was believed that when the tip of the pyramid aligned with the sun, it enabled the pharaoh’s soul to successfully pass over into the afterlife, where it was assumed he would become a god. Pyramids, tombs, palaces and other feats of architecture (like the Great Sphynx) were constructed out of either limestone or sandstone and were designed by a skilled architect and constructed by a combination of conscripted peasants and slaves; however, the story of masses of slaves being forced to build the pyramids is a myth. Many of the workers were simply citizens of the pharaoh’s empire.

Pyramids of Giza

There is so much more I could talk about with this era because it spanned so many years in which creation was at a peak. I hope to go more in-depth on very specific topics in the future, but in the meantime, if you are interested in learning more about all the different periods of ancient Egypt, you can view the related lessons through the Kahn Academy here. 

And now, because I’ve already rambled enough about the ancient Egyptian artists and artisans, I’ve decided that next week’s Art Talk would focus on the Contemporary Egyptian Art scene, which is extremely vibrant and pulsating with purpose. And if I added it here, we’d have a pseudo-novel on our hands. So stay tuned next week for that discussion next week!

What differences or evolutions in painting and sculpture can you see between ancient Egyptian and ancient Mesopotamian art? Art had a very important purpose in ancient Egypt. Do you think that reverence and utilization of art still persists today? What is your favorite aspect of ancient Egyptian culture? Let’s talk. 

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