Ancient Egyptian Art summary




Ancient Egyptian Art summary


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Ancient Egyptian Art summary


Ancient Egyptian Art  


3150 – 1069 BCE


“Egypt”, derived from the Greek word “Aigyptos” for the city of Memphis, in Egyptian “Hiku-Ptah”, Mansion of the Ka(soul) of Ptah(god of Memphis, and creator of all other gods of Egypt)


The area of Egyptian settlement which formed the core of the empire stretched from along the Nile Valley to the Delta, to the Faiyym (a large lake southeast of the Delta), and to the Red Sea Desert. The Libyan Desert formed the border on the West.


Egyptian art and culture are typified by an emphasis on eternal, unchanging ideals and forms. One of the earliest cultures to have a clear notion of life after death, Egypt devoted much its art to the rituals, rites, and beliefs regarding the passage to the next life. It is generally thought that the Egyptians were comfortable with the idea of life continuing in a similar form to life on this plane because life in ancient Egypt was relatively stable and good. In part this is due to the consistency of the flood of the plains along the Nile River, which each winter brought rich topsoil downriver to refresh agricultural fields, and providing a convenient source of irrigation. The settlement of Egyptian villages and cities along the banks of the Nile, surrounded by desert on either side, made for a naturally secure defensive stronghold.


Egypt is traditionally divided into Upper and Lower Egypt; the beginning of Dynastic Egypt is considered to have commenced with the uniting of these entities. Lower Egypt (Ta-Meht) from the Mediterranean Sea to Assiut, just north of Amarna, was conquered by Upper Egypt, from Assiut south to Abu Simbel.


Pre-Dynastic before 3150 BCE


From about 8000 BCE to 5500 BCE, the inhabitants of the Nile Valley enjoyed a naturally abundant environment, with plentiful fish, game, and wild plants readily available in the lush climate. As the climate began to dry, they developed the agricultural lifestyle we now associate with the Egyptians, their life ebbing and flowing with the rising and falling Nile River.


The artistic artifacts from this era consist primarily of pottery, vessels decorated with figures, scenes from the Nile, and at times sculpted in the form of the human body. They are characterized by a feature consistent throughout Egyptian artistic practice, the tendency towards the use of a continuous line in the rendering of forms. In terms of both sculptural forms and painting, Egyptian artists rendered shapes with long, smooth, unbroken lines, interrupted only by the completion of the image.


Female Dancing Figure, painted clay, 5000 BCE. Graceful clay vessels, both figures and simpler pots, adorned Pre-Dynastic Egyptian graves. Voluptuous and full-bodied, even in these early forms, these beautiful forms seem to exude life and its continuity on the banks of the Nile.


Early Dynastic/Old Kingdom 3150 - 2700 BCE / 2700 - 2190 BCE


The earliest art object from what we can properly call Egypt, The Palette of Narmer Dynasty 1, 3150 – 3125 BCE, commemorated the uniting of Upper and Lower Egypt through the military victory of King Narmer, a ruler of Upper Egypt. The palette, a stone tablet containing a depression on one side for the storage and application of black eye makeup, contains also symbols representing his subjugation of the King of Lower Egypt and acquisition of his crown, his resounding conquest, and symbols of some of the deities of the classic Egyptian pantheon. It exhibits as well the Egyptian penchant for depicting the human form in profile, with the eye in full frontal view, as well as the typically fluid boundary contour line. Figures are depicted on successive, frieze-like ground lines, with very little overlapping and depiction of illusory space. Narmer is shown being protected by, and associated with, the falcon-god Horus. Horus will come to be seen and the Pharaoh’s special protector; his place in the Egyptian spiritual cosmos is outlined below.


Egyptian Religion


Egyptian belief, which rose out of the folk practices of peoples living for thousands of years in the area of the Nile Valley, is predicated on the notion of a duality underlying creation, of spirit and matter, and of achieving harmonious unity between the two.


In the beginning, the god Atum forms himself out of the watery chaos that is Nun; Atum makes his first appearance on a hill where a temple was built for him, in what would become the city of Heliopolis. He soon became associated with the sun, Re (issued forth from the Lotus), and known as Re-Atum, symbolized by the scarab beetle. Re-Atum began creating other divine beings by masturbation. His son, Shu, the god of dryness, was spit from his mouth, and his daughter Tefnut, Shu’s consort and goddess of wetness. They begat Geb, god of the Earth (mass), and Nut, goddess of the heavens (space). Life in general arose from the ejaculationof  Geb, and the union of Geb and Nut resulted in the birth of, essentially, the gods of mankind, Osiris and his brother Seth, and their sisters and respective wives Isis and Nephthys. Osiris gave to mankind the gifts of astronomy, architecture, writing, mathematics, Isis have cooking, music, dancing and painting. One night Osiris mistook his brother’s wife for his; their union created the jackal-headed Anubis, the guide of the afterlife and master embalmer. Enraged with jealousy, Seth tricked Osiris into entering a beautiful coffin, which he sealed and cast into the Nile. Coming to shore on the Syrian coast, it became encased in a beautiful Erica tree which sprang from it. The king of the city of Byblos had the tree felled and made into a pillar for his palace. The grieving Isis, in the process of searching for her dead husband, becomes accepted by the court, eventually revealing her divinity. Given the pillar by the compassionate ruler, she finds Osiris’ body within, embraced him weeping, and conceives a child, Horus. The young god matured rapidly, and soon came to be at odds with his uncle Seth, overcoming him in battle, wherein Horus lost an eye while depriving Seth of a testicle. The Eye of Horus was then offered to the mummy of Osiris, resurrecting his father. Osiris, now beyond the cycle of life and death, became ruler and judge of the netherworld.


A mortal Egyptian, in death, would come before Osiris, and his/her heart would be balanced on a scale with a feather; a heavy concience making it impossible to gain immortal life. Likewise, at death the person’s Ka, or soul would leave the body. For the soul to live on, it must immediately find its likeness, its body, to inhabit and remember its life, to give the next life form. The primary means for this was mummification, to preserve the body in as perfect a form as possible. A series of dieties, Horus’ sons, ruled over parts of the preserved body, kept in Canopic Jars; Imesty, with a man’s head kept the liver (considered the seat of emotion and thought), Hapy, the baboon-headed, kept the lungs (an ape headed god is also the god of the air), Dua-motef, a dog’s head, kept the stomach, and Kebeh-senuf, with the head of a hawk, kept the intestines. These organs were removed from the body to be embalmed and kept in the tomb. The brains, considered useless, were scrambled with a wire whisk and sucked out of the nose and discarded. If the body became degraded and unrecognizable, artists created sculptural likeness, Ka Statues, for the spirit to inhabit for the remainder of eternity. It is for this preservation of human personality that most of the wealth and creativity of Egyptian culture was lavished.


Stepped Pyramid of Djoser, Saqqara, 2681-2662 BCE, The earliest known piece of monumental archetecture in Egypt, commissioned by King Djoser, built by his vizier and chief architect, Imhotep. Originally part of an elaborate walled-in complex, (including temples and a courtyard), similar to a complex built by Djoser’s father, the pyramid is the first example of the piling up of concentric mastabas, or stone funerary slabs.  The complex also includes early use of columns, which were derived from the mud and post houses of predynastic Egypt; they were embelished and stylized stone versions of those posts, with capitals sculpted to evoke important plants of the Nile, including the lotus bud, lotus flower, and the papyrus. Djoser was also the fabled hero of a legend of a seven year drought and flood; he supplicated to the god Khnum, controller of the Nile, saving Egypt by building the god a new shrine at Elephantine. He, in fact, was part of the central power entity of Egypt which brought the nomarchs, regional overlords of the nomes, administrative precincts, under the control of the Pharoah.


The Pyramids at Giza, 2601-2515, the tombs of Menkaure, Khafre, and Khufu, begun in Dynasty 4. As with the tomb of Djoser, these monuments of nearly solid massive stone,  (some say erected in the shape of the rays of the sun god Re (Ra)), covered underground tomb chambers, as well as decoy tombs, galleries, corridors, and air shafts. Each pyramid echoes one of the stars in the constellation Orion, both in size and placement, recreating the birthplace of Osiris (from within Nut). After a symbolic voyage across the Nile, with a procession through the temple district of the tomb precinct, the deceased was embalmed and buried with precious objects from his life, as well as his Ka likeness, and canopic companions. The city of Giza, a plateau area southwest of modern Cairo, near the delta area, contained one of the first major necropoli of Old Kingdom Egypt.


The city of Memphis, near Saqqara and Giza, was the primary seat of political power in Old Kingdom Egypt, and remained a significant seat of influence throughout Egyptian history. It was also an artistic metropolis, where most of the population of sculptors, painters, and other craftsmen resided. The large labor force required to create the pyramids and all the artifacts accompanying them, came from both a class of professionals, often living at least part of the year in a village constructed in the shadow of the pyramids, and farm workers who were paid to work on the projects when the rainy season made farm work impossible.


The Great Sphinx, Giza 2570-2544. The Sphinx at Giza is the largest example of a type of sculpture demonstrating the divine power of the Pharaoh, placing his portrait atop the body of a crouching lion. Carved from the live sandstone quarried from around it, the Sphinx exhibits those qualities most often associated with Egyptian sculpture: a solid, squared aesthetic, evoking the block from which it was carved, combined with a sensual, lifelike rendition of human flesh. One Egyptian creation story describes a Celestial Sphinx as the original creator god, forming the world from one long breath, Huuuu. The word Sphinx is derived from the Greek, meaning “enigma” or “riddle.” What the Egyptians called the Sphinx we do not know, but it was likely Hu, or breath. The placement of the Great Sphinx has, like other important monuments, celestial and mythic significance. The builders of the pyramids were surely amazed to find a natural outcropping of stone, which would later form the foundation of the Sphinx, aligned on a nearly perfect east-west axis. The temples built as attendant to the Sphinx fall along a line between the head of the sculpture and the Nile River; the Sphinx could gaze at the rising sun in the east over the roofs of his sanctuaries.  The West inherited its basic understanding of astronomy and astrology from the Greeks, through the Egyptians, from initially, the Babylonians. The great creatures which represented the four directions of the universe in ancient Mesopotamia, the Lion, Eagle, Man, and  Bull,  and were delineated in the heavens by the ancient astronomers as the constellations we know as, Leo, Scorpio(Eagle), Aquarius, and Taurus. Each of these constellations presided over the great markers of the seasons: Summer Solstice/Leo, Autumn Equinox/Scorpio, Winter Solstice/Aquarius, and Spring Equinox/Taurus. The annual flooding of the fields by the Nile began in June/July, around the time of the Summer Solstice of Leo, which was also the beginning of the Egyptian New Year, marked by the rise of the brightest star in the heavens, Sephet (Sirius), the known also as the Dog Star. The Sphinx, then, represents the Pharaoh as not only possessing the powerful body of a lion, but as representing the beginning of all things, as the source of life sustaining the Egyptian people. As with the Ka Statue of Khafre, the sensation of a continuous line around the 65 foot high Sphinx creates an atmosphere of eternal, conscious serenity.


The Seated Scribe, 2510-2460, is an example of the high esteem of the Scribe in Egyptian society; the importance of the retention and transmission of complex knowledge is affirmed in this sculptural tribute to one of the King’s most valued servants.


Ti Watching a Hippopotamus Hunt, 2510-2460, Saqqara. An example of both Egyptian symbolic painting/relief (King Ti is shown as large, more important), exhibits a sophisticated inherent feeling for the depiction of nature, especially in its sensitive rendition of the elaborate menagerie of animals in the boughs overhanging the Nile).


Middle Kingdom 2190 – 1552 BCE (inclusive of the First Intermediate, Middle, and Second Intermediate periods)


In 2134, the Khety clan of Herakleopolis rebelled against the central government of Egypt, carving a fiefdom for themselves out of middle Egypt. Unable to rout the strong military of Thebes, they held middle and lower Egypt until the Thebans finally siezed the city in 2040 under Mentuhotpe II, creating a brief period of unified stability, known as the Middle Kingdom proper. This ended when Asiatics, called the Hyksos, took the Nile Delta in 1674. In 1552 Amhose I took up his older brother Kamos’ aggression against the occupying Asian forces, and expelled the invaders, beginning the New Kingdom. All three periods were marked with intense and brutal warfare, and architectural and artistic programs were of a different scale and spirit than those of the Old Kingdom.


Many of the most impressive art objects from the period include mostly finely made jewelry and domestic items, an increase in naturalism in painting, and the use of rock cut tombs made into the sides of overhanging cliffs. These tombs took advantage of the natural security of the live rock cliffs, therefore more defensible from looters and grave robbers. Precious objects and person were hidden from view, not so proudly displayed as in the more stable Old Kingdom.


Model of a house and garden, Tomb of Meketra, 2125-2055. Models of the deceased’s residence were often included in tomb offerings; this house and garden, replete with lotus columns, sycamore trees, and the indication of plentiful water, is thought to be typical of upper class Egyptians of the period. The sycamore as well is a symbol for the overarching protection of the sky-goddess Nuit, whose seed resembles the winged scarab cartouche associated with Horus and Osiris.


Hippopotamus, tomb of Senbi, 1985-1795. This life-like figurine of the ubiquitous Nile Hippo is decorated with the plants of the wadi where it would have been often seen, and made with famous Egyptian faience, a lustrous glass ware formed on a ceramic core dipped in molted glass. 


New Kingdom 1552 – 1069 BCE


With a large, organized standing army, the Pharoahs of the New Kingdom slowly amassed and consolidated their power along the Nile and Mediterranean. Beginning with Ahmose through Amenhotep I, Tuthmosis I, and culminating with Tuthmosis III, Egytpian culture became again a powerful, dynamic, and ambitious artistic force. Due in part to the large part that Thebes’ military had in subduing the violence of the Middle era, the area around Thebes became especially lush in elaborate tombs and temples, and the Theban pantheon of Amun or Amon, (meaning “hidden”, the dynamic life-force; related to the ancient, self created god Atum), his consort Mut, and their son Khonsu were elevated by their priests over the other dieties of Egypt. Amon was symbolized by the ram. The two great remaining temples to Amon from this period are at Karnak and Luxor.


Great Temple of Amon at Karnak,  1294-1212. The sacred space of this temple, built initially by Tuthmosis III, is composed of a series of courtyards and courts, accessed through symbolic gateways known as Pylons, leading to a sanctuary containing the statue of the god, which was washed, clothed, and fed each day by the elaborate system of priests. The Hypostyle Halls and Peristyle Halls, spaces defined by massive, carved columns in respectively closed, and open, courtyards, typified these religious precincts. These precincts were edited and added to freely by successive rulers.


Temple of Rameses II, Abu Simbel, 1297-1212. The legendary Rameses II brought order onto the empire of the Nile again by expressive shows of overwhelming force, politically, militarily, and religiously. The massive effigies of the king outside the temple bring the great tradition of figurative sculpture out of the tomb in this extroverted statement of strength. Rameses’ extensive military exploits helped create the capital required for such impressive displays.


Pylon of Rameses II, Temple of Amon, Mut, and Khonsu, Luxor, 1279-1212. Luxor possessed a great and beautiful temple begun in the period preceding Rameses, but the  dynamic pharaoh added a massive peristyle court and large pylon, or gateway, exclaiming his power and majesty. He added likenesses of himself, his eight wives, and hundreds of children to the walls of the temples, and erected the two graceful obelisks which detail in hieroglyphics the extent of his war conquests.


The Funerary Temple of Hatshepsut,  Deir el-Bahri, 1473-1458. Across the river from Luxor and Karnak. Queen Hatshepsut, Daughter of Tuthmosis I, and mother of the mighty Tuthmosis III, built this elaborate rock-cut sanctuary. After the death of her husband, Thuthmosis II, Hatchepsut maintained her role as regent of the empire for the first twenty years the heir to the throne, her son’s, life. Her power and influence was such that she was often depicted as a pharaoh, a living god. Her temple, originallydedicated to her patroness Hathor and Anubis, included long colonnades, an image of her as a Sphinx, and gardens replete with fountains and pools of water. After her death, it fittingly became her funerary complex.


Amarna Period, 1348-1336


The sun-disc god, Aten, who was known in the times of Tuthmosis IV and Amenhotep III, was embraced by the Pharoah Amenhotep IV so fervently that he renamed himself “Akhenaten (the horizon of Aten)”, and declared Aten the one true god. He established a new capital, Ahkenaten (now known as el-Amarna) far north of Thebes, and broke, for seventeen years, the powerful grip of the priesthood of Thebes on the affairs of Egypt. He and his wife Nefertiti were the high priests of the new religion, which stressed reliance on Ma’at, or divine truth. This principle extended into art, where the King exhorted artists to depict he and his family with a high degree of naturalism.


Akhenaten and his Family, Painted limestone relief from Tell el-Amarna, 1348-1336. The royal (and holy) family is depicted in a moment of intimate tenderness, inundated by the rays of Ma’at streaming from Aten. Ahkenaten is depicted realistically, with distended belly, swelling thighs, exaggerated chin and nose, and elongated skull.


Portrait of Akhenaten, limestone relief, 1348-1336. Although most of the radical young pharaoh’s images were destroyed after his death, the images that remain are remarkable in their consistent naturalism. Akhenaten apparently believed more devoutly in the beauty and perfection of the immortal soul than the body, or simply felt at ease with his natural appearance, resulting in art eccentric in its candor and realism.


Nefertiti, painted limestone bust, 1352-1336. This image, emblematic for viewers in the modern world of the epitome of elegance and refinement, was probably a model used by artists creating portraits of the queen. Her almost atmospheric sense of grace strangely celebrates physical beauty as evidence of spiritual perfection beyond the bodily state.


Queen Tiy, decorated clay bust, from Kom Medinet el-Ghurab, 1352. The chief wife of Ahkenaten’s father Amenhotep III, Queen Tiy continued to have great impact in the affairs of Egypt through her unwavering support of her son. Her portrait appears both aggressive and beautiful, directly engaged in whatever lies in the path of her vision, in contrast to the otherworldly and elegant detachment of the bust of Nefertiti.


It is thought that the Biblical Moses may have been a priest in Ahkenaten’s court, for when Ahkenaten was assassinated, all of his supporters were put into exile, and many images of the king were destroyed. Many parallels exist in Egyptian religion with Judeo-Christian traditions; for example, a prayer in the Egyptian “Book of the Dead” is very close to the Christian “Lord’s Prayer” in content and style.


Inner Coffin of the Sarcophagus of Tutankhamun, 1336-1327. One of Ahkenaten’s successor’s, who tried the placate and reinstate the priesthood of Amun, leaves us an example of the lavish raiment of a pharaoh; wrapped for eternity in the trappings of royalty, the protective wings of Horus, as well as hundreds of pounds of gold and precious and semi-precious stones. It was found in a neglected corner of the Valley of the Kings.


Judgment before Osiris, from the Book of the Dead (book of Spells), 1285. This papyrus from one of the books of sacred incantations to be used in the preparation of the deceased for the afterlife represents the essential Egyptian conception of the journey of the soul after earthly life. Led by the hand by the guide of the dead Annubis, he observes his heart on a scale balanced against a feather, the symbol of the goddess Ma’at, divine truth. The “devourer of souls” Ammit waits to consume the unworthy, but here is thwarted as the deceased is finally presented side by side with the god of wisdom Thoth (who records the whole affair) and Horus (who holds the Ankh, symbol of life) with before Osiris wrapped in mummification linens; here we witness the process of the gaining of immortality by a worthy soul.


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