Egyptian Art

Introduction

Summary

Summary of Egyptian Art
architecture Old Kingdom: tombs (mastabas and pyramids)
Middle/New Kingdom: temples
in-the-round sculpture colossal statues (notably the Sphinx), statues, obelisks
painting and relief sculpture wall paintings/reliefs, illuminated manuscripts

General Features

The great age of ancient Egypt lasted ca. 3000-1000 BC (see History of the Ancient Middle East). For the most part, the style of Egyptian art throughout this period (and centuries beyond) changed very little. This staunch conservatism is true of Egyptian architecture, painting, and sculpture.

The aesthetic stasis of ancient Egypt reflects the nation's political stability. Apart from two brief interruptions, a single unified Egyptian state flourished for the period ca. 3000-1000 BC. This was largely due to fortunate geography: the Nile River Valley, surrounded by mountains and desert, made a difficult target for invasion.

The Nile itself was an agent of stability, as it flooded at the same time and to the same extent every year. Egyptian farms and settlements were never devastated by surprise floods. And since Egypt is a desert land, it experiences little variation in weather.H97

Correspondingly, Egyptian religion and art convey a view of reality as fundamentally eternal and unchanging. One widely familiar manifestation of this view is mummification, in which the human body is preserved indefinitely as a vessel for the soul.

The Egyptian style of visual art, like that of many cultures, features generic human figures that all look essentially the same. A stylized ideal of the human figure developed early among the Egyptians, with body parts sized according to standard proportions. The poses of these figures are so rigid that scenes from Egyptian art have little sense of movement. In Egyptian architecture and sculpture, a similar impression of timeless stability is achieved through rugged, heavy material (mostly stone) and sheer mass.H75

Main Article

Architecture

While most Egyptian buildings were composed of sun-baked bricks of Nile clay, the material of choice for monumental buildings was stone. Unlike Mesopotamia, Egypt is rich in stone (especially limestone), thanks to the presence of mountains along each side of the Nile River Valley.

To an extent, Egyptian architecture resembles that of the Mesopotamians, with flat exterior walls (either vertical or slightly sloping) and flat roofs. (The latter feature is suitable for desert regions, given negligible rainfall.) Unlike Mesopotamia, however, the Egyptians used columns extensively. In other words, Egyptian buildings often feature post-and-beam construction (a roof supported by columns) as opposed to arched construction (a roof supported by arches).

Egyptian column capitals developed in a variety of floral designs, notably papyrus and lotus. Indeed, the Egyptians were the first to build stone columns. It was from Egypt that Greece adopted stone columns, as well as floral capitals.H71

Ancient Egyptian Column Capitals

The age of mature ancient Egyptian civilization can be divided into three periods: Old Kingdom, Middle Kingdom, and New Kingdom.

The two great forms of Old Kingdom architecture contained very little interior space, and thus lacked supportive columns. One is the mastaba, the most common tomb design of the Old Kingdom period.H69 A mastaba is essentially a one-story structure with sloped walls and a flat roof, with vertical shaft(s) in the floor leading down to the burial chamber(s).G54

Mastaba
Diagram of a Mastaba

Egyptian tombs were typically erected in groups on the west side of the Nile (where the sun sets), and sometimes even carved into the mountains west of the Nile. A group of tombs is known as a tomb complex or necropolis. The most famous Egyptian necropolis lies on the Giza Plateau, in the outskirts of modern Cairo.G54

In addition to plenty of mastabas, Giza features a more spectacular kind of tomb: the pyramid. The three largest, known as the Pyramids of Giza, were all erected during the Old Kingdom; the tallest of these, known as the Great Pyramid, is the largest stone structure ever built.E10,2 The scale of pyramid-building diminished after the Old Kingdom period.H81

Pyramids of Giza

While tombs were the great architectural type of the Old Kingdom, temples are the foremost Egyptian monuments of the Middle and (especially) New Kingdom periods. Moreover, while building activity of the Old Kingdom was concentrated near the capital city of that period (Memphis, near present-day Cairo), Middle/New Kingdom architecture flourished primarily around Thebes (the capital of Egypt during those two periods). Many Egyptian temples are examples of the mortuary temple, which serves as a place of veneration for a deceased person (typically a former ruler who is considered to be divine), whose tomb may be found within or near the temple.

Unlike mastabas or pyramids, Egyptian temples feature vast internal chambers (supported by massive columns), as well as courtyards. (The Egyptians also built great palaces in the same style as their temples.)

Model of an Egyptian Temple
Ruins of an Egyptian Temple
Ruins of an Egyptian Temple

In-the-round Sculpture

Like no other civilization, the Egyptians embraced sculpture on a colossal scale. The extreme case is the Sphinx (a lion-human hybrid), carved from exposed bedrock. Like most structures at Giza, the Sphinx dates to the Old Kingdom period.G13

A very large statue is known as a colossal statue (or "colossus"). Many colossal statues, both human and animal, were raised around and within Egyptian temples, palaces, and tombs. Pharaoh statues are easily recognized by the traditional costume of the Egyptian monarch: kilt, cloth headdress, and long false beard.G55

Another common form of colossal Egyptian sculpture was the obelisk, a tall, lightly tapered square pillar with a (four-sided) pyramidal cap.

The Sphinx
Statues Lining a Path at a Temple
Royal Statue at a Temple
Scarab Statue and Obelisks at a Temple

Naturally, the Egyptians also produced an abundance of ordinary-sized statues. Some were placed in tombs as substitute homes for the soul, in case the mummified body should disintegrate.H69 (Egyptian burials, like those of many cultures around the world, were often furnished with objects for the deceased to use in the afterlife; examples include pottery, weapons, jewellery, furniture, and even chariots.)

Egyptian Statue
Egyptian Statue
Egyptian Statue

Egyptian statues are quite stylized (see Realism vs. Stylization). The typical posture is forward-facing and roughly symmetrical, with arms held close to the body; anatomy is only approximately realistic.E9 (In many cultures, including ancient Egypt, rigid stylization was often loosened for statues of "ordinary" people, who were depicted in a more relaxed, realistic manner.H77)

Painting and Relief Sculpture

Ancient Egyptian walls, both interior and exterior, were often coated in reliefs and murals. These flat visual works are typically filled with rows of figures (both deities and humans) and hieroglyphs, along with other Egyptian iconography (traditional images), such as papyrus plants and scarab beetles.2 Detailed narratives were often conveyed via rows of scenes (not unlike a modern comic strip), depicting events both everyday (e.g. farmers harvesting grain) and supernatural (activities of the gods).

In Egyptian mural and relief, the human figure is often presented in composite perspective, in which different parts of the body are shown from different views. The head, waist, and feet are often depicted in profile, while the eyes and shoulders are depicted frontally.G54 As in the visual art of many cultures, the relative size of human figures corresponds to their social rank.D22

The interiors of many ancient Egyptian tombs are coated with paintings and reliefs, often portraying the deceased person engaged in activities pursued during life.G56 Some tombs were also furnished with illuminated manuscripts filled with painted compositions in the same style as Egyptian murals. These manuscripts, intended to aid the deceased in their journey to the afterlife, were made with paper composed of strips of the papyrus plant (see video).

Relief Sculpture on a Column
Relief Sculpture on a Wall
Tomb Mural
Page from an Illuminated Manuscript
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