Echoes of Eternal Egyptian Art: Masters of Form and Finesse—Part I
The ancient Egyptians were pioneers of various forms of art and architecture. Down the millennia, the world has been left awestruck by the design and purpose of their grandiose monuments, their lavishly decorated tombs; and the landscape filled with paintings and sculptures that are rich in symbolism. This glorious civilization was without doubt in the front-rank of creating enduring and unmatched art. However, the context and content of the extraordinary body of work produced by the Egyptians cannot be categorized merely as art for art’s sake, because their ultimate aim was to bind heaven and earth as one.
Decorated jar depicting ungulates and boats with human figures. The images on this vessel represent important social or religious events. In the areas surrounding the boat are mountains, birds that may represent flamingos, plants, and water. Predynastic, Late Naqada II, ca. 3500–3300 B.C. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. ( Public Domain )
Age-old Elements and Appeal
The ancient Egyptians did not have a single word that corresponded with our abstract use of the word ‘art’. But they understood the import of representations in various media and linked their creations to serve religious and magical purposes. Its symbols and functions reveal the Egyptians’ beliefs about this world and the next. In their social and religious context, works of art played a practical role, whose straightforward physicality is not easy for the modern viewer to realize. For example, the reliefs on temple walls depicting the king making offerings to the gods and smiting Egypt’s enemies not only communicated the idea that the king was fulfilling his duty to maintain order in the universe ( concept of Ma’at ); but such scenes were open to multiple interpretations.
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Wall painting from the tomb of Nebamun - a middle-ranking official, “scribe and grain accountant” during the New Kingdom - at Thebes shows him with his family fowling in the marshes. Note the artistic convention of other participants in a scene being smaller than the prime focus figure. His name was translated as “My Lord is Amun”. British Museum. ( Public Domain )
“By the Early Dynastic period hieroglyphic characters inscribed on the surfaces of stone bowls had assumed a form which was to be little altered over the centuries. Written signs and pictorial images came to be essential complements of one another. On an ivory label of King Den from Abydos (c. 2900 BC) the monarch is shown as a mighty ruler defeating the enemy. This important event in his reign is identified by the inscriptions as ‘Year of the first time of smiting the East’. This great king of Dynasty I, at the outset of Egyptian art, is shown in a pose which becomes the standard for representations of the victorious monarch,” observe William H. Peck and John G. Ross.
Ebony label EA 32650 from Den’s tomb. The upper right register depicts king Den twice: at the left he is sitting in his Heb Sed pavilion, at the right he is running a symbolic race around D-shaped markings. 1st Dynasty. (Photo: CaptMondo) British Museum. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )
The Egyptians also believed that images, through their very existence, were instrumental in making the Cosmic Order that they conceptualized to be a reality. So the statues they placed in their tombs and temples served as physical repositories for the spirit and material representatives of important and venerable persons. Through the Opening of the Mouth ceremony, each statue and mummy was made an actual living being able to receive offerings and prayers. The fundamental difference between an ordinary living being and a statue was that the “work of art” was destined to live eternally.
Detail of an exquisitely crafted New Kingdom death mask of an unknown man. Plastered and painted wood, fabrics and glass paste. Late 18th Dynasty. Musée du Cinquantenaire – Jubelpark, Brussels, Belgium.
Vibrant Illustrations for God and Man
“Egyptian art, though funerary, is rarely funereal; it has neither skeletons nor corpses,” noted Andrè Malraux, the famed novelist and art historian. Today, Egyptologists have an embarass de richesse of artworks spanning the entire course of this wondrous civilization. For over three thousand years, Egyptian art was defined by two-dimensional representations of the rigid kind, such as profile views in tomb paintings. Three-dimensional depictions display “frontality” unlike the sense of motion and fluidity classical Greek statuary convey. The reason was the context in which they were placed or displayed.
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In the Egyptian view, this image of a woman, Lady Sati, has a male face and hands because they are colored red—the “male” color. This use of color magically transformed Sati into a male being which gave her access to transportation to the next life in the Sun god Ra’s boat. This shabti, made by a rare and expensive process using multiple colors of faience, was likely a product of a royal workshop. 18th Dynasty. Saqqara, Egypt. Brooklyn Museum. (Image: Brooklyn Museum )
A variety of colors—in the form of paints, pigments, and precious stones—played a symbolic role in Egyptian art. Statues were made of stone or other durable materials, such as hardwood or metal. Their features and poses were idealized, that is; they were represented according to the general standards Egyptians held for the beauty, dignity, and ethical attitude becoming to gods, kings, and human beings in high places. Hieroglyphs almost always accompanied the various forms of representations, because the texts themselves were small pictures.
(Clockwise) Double statue of Nimaasted, priest in the pyramid complexes (5th Dynasty, Saqqara); the Menkaure triad represents the king with goddess Hathor and a patron deity (4th Dynasty, Giza); dyad of Ra-Hotep and Nofret (4th Dynasty, Meidum). (Bottom) This perfectly modeled statue depicts Khafre, the builder of the second largest pyramid, protected by Horus (4th Dynasty, Giza). Egyptian Museum, Cairo.
Prof Geoffrey Martin provides his insights: “… although largely funerary and religious, partly from accident of survival, the art of ancient Egypt is far from being funereal. On the contrary, it is so often a joyous evocation of life and its continuation into Eternity.” Aesthetic beauty, superior workmanship, and choice materials enhanced the potency of art right at the dawn of this civilization, as Dr. Gay Robins informs, “Many of the fundamentals of Egyptian art were established at the very beginning of Egyptian history and changed little thereafter.”
The 134 gigantic columns in the Great Hypostyle Hall at Karnak Temple complex stand testament to a glorious bygone age when it was a pilgrimage spot for over two millennia. A clump of 12 open papyrus capitals here may have been intended to symbolize the primordial ‘mound of creation’. This was the abode of the state god, Amun-Ra. Modern-day Luxor.
But the ancients did not endeavor to create pretty paintings and statues to fill their palaces, tombs and temples. A deeper, more profound meaning was the end goal. “The ancient Egyptians did not recognize the concept of ‘art for art’s sake’; every single piece of their art was commissioned for a definite purpose and each image or statue had a deliberate and well-defined function. Aesthetic considerations were never the sole or even the primary concern of either the artist or his patron. This strictly utilitarian view led the Egyptians to regard all their painters and sculptors as craftsmen rather than artists, and to confine their work to certain highly specific contexts, usually either the temple or the tomb,” informs Dr Joyce Tyldesley. And so, batches of workers chiseled away on various parts of a colossal statue, for example; or a set of tomb paintings. It was rarely the work of a sole individual.
Maya was one of the elite, the third most powerful man in Egypt after the King and the Vizier; and as the Treasurer and Overseer of the Place of Eternity (Royal Necropolis), he served successive pharaohs: Tutankhamun, Aye and Horemheb. No cost was spared in fashioning a sumptuous resting place for Maya and his wife Merit. The couple adores Osiris and Nephthys in this stunning gold painted relief in their Memphite tomb.
Temporal and Cosmic Realms Meet
“On tomb walls that suggest a progression of locales from the Nile through the desert to the foothills, the notion to be conveyed is not 'the landscape' in modern terms, with the river in the foreground, plain in the middle and hills in the distance, but rather it is the idea of ‘the land’, comprised of these elements, that is meant. The observer's viewpoint is not taken into consideration. The known elements are arranged in a way that conveys not the visual momentary impression but a description of reality at no fixed time. Certainly temporal events are depicted, particularly in the New Kingdom, but the individual representations which go to make up a description of a historical event, such as Hatshepsut's expedition to Punt, are still images which describe no time. Space is also suggested only when it is necessary for the expression of an essential quality of the image,” explain William H. Peck and John G. Ross.
We can understand the progression of decoration in an ancient Egyptian tomb by analyzing the images present in KV57, the tomb of King Horemheb, the last pharaoh of the 18th Dynasty. Work in this sepulcher stopped abruptly when he died. Valley of the Kings.
In KV57, the unfinished tomb of King Horemheb, one can see the progression of decoration once the wall was plastered over. The sketches here are laid out in a plan form – first the junior artisan/ scribe copied the required details in red ink, then the master made corrections in black; before the sculptor finally removed the background. In the last stage, the images and texts were carved in relief before being painted.
[ Read Part II ]
[Special thanks to Dr. Chris Naunton , Heidi Kontkanen , John Bosch, and Hossam Abbas for granting permission to use their photographs. The public archives of the Metropolitan Museum of Art can be accessed here.]
Top Image: “Litany of Ra” scene in the tomb of King Merenptah (KV8), Valley of the Kings, Luxor; design by Anand Balaji (Photo credit: Hossam Abbas); Deriv.
By Anand Balaji
Independent researcher and playwright Anand Balaji is an Ancient Origins guest writer and author of SEEKING SMENKHKARE : Was Nefertiti the Ephemeral One of Amarna? Explore amazing similarities between ancient Egypt and India .
Updated on November 9, 2021.
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