The Role of Art in Ancient Egypt

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Ancient Egyptian Art is an art form that everybody is familiar with. From its iconic pyramids, to its detailed and distinct hieroglyphs, everyone takes notice and can recognize this ancient art from a mile away. Art in Egypt hasn’t really changed over the course of artistic development. There were seven periods of this development which included the predynastic, the old kingdom, the middle kingdom, the new kingdom, the Amarna period, the late period and the Ptolemaic period. That’s because Egyptian Art followed certain guidelines and held characteristics that gave it its own special and distinguished look. The different characteristics of Egyptian art were religion, influences in everyday life, representation and not replication, frontalism, hierarchical proportion, symbolism and relief. Egyptian Art is composed of paintings, architecture, sculptures and crafts. These styles were especially used from 3000BC to about 300AD. It is important to know that ancient Egyptian Art was a bit different from the temples and monuments in the time of the pharaohs we see today.

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As early as the eighth millennium, history shows that the people who resided by a valley in the lower Nile started making engraved drawings on cliff sides. These drawings were depictions of their way of life and were expressed in such a stylized and symbolic way. When it came to cattle herding, hunting, or harvesting it was all drawn out on the nearby cliff sides. They used long lasting materials such as ivory, stone and metals to showcase their life in the wild. Their belief in life after death was an important part of their art because the Egyptians were extremely religious. They practiced mummification because they believed that in order for the spirit to live on the dead person’s body had to be preserved. The mummied person would be buried along with supplies of food and drink, tools and utensils, and valued possessions. The height of the person’s status in life would require much more extensive preparations for the afterlife. Kings and other wealthy persons had elaborate tombs built. Sculptures and wall paintings in the tombs were also created for use in the next life. Different themes were often painted with the intent of making a pleasant afterlife for the deceased. The themes included the journey through the afterworld, where one would come in contact with various deities, which introduced the deceased to the gods of the underworld such as Anubis and Osiris. Other tomb paintings show activities that the deceased were involved in when they were alive and wished to carry on doing for eternity.

The Book of the Dead was buried with the entombed person which was a ritual that started in the New Kingdom and continued later on. It was considered an important map for the introduction to the afterlife. Artwork was painted in temples and palaces on merely a flat surface. Whitewashing would prepare the stone surfaces. However, if the surface was rough, a layer of coarse mud plaster, with a smoother gesso layer would be applied on top. In some cases, finer limestones could take paint directly. Paint pigments were mostly mineral based because the material could withstand strong sunlight without fading. A varnish or resin was usually applied as a protective coating after painting. Due to Egypt’s extremely dry climate, many ancient Egyptian paintings have survived in many tombs and temples. Egyptian art has always been famous for its distinctive figure convention. 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. Egyptian art would depict the size of figures to indicate their relative importance. This technique is referred to as hierarchical proportion. The kings and especially the divine gods were always larger than other figures.

Symbolism played an important role in establishing a sense of order and can be observed throughout Egyptian art. For example, The various tombs and temples portray the pharaoh’s regalia, which represented his power to maintain order. Animals such as certain birds, cats and dogs were also highly symbolic figures and would often represent deities. Several colors also held symbolic meaning. For example, blue symbolized fertility, birth, and the life-giving waters of the Nile. Black was used for royal figures, which similarly expressed the fertility of the Nile from which Egypt was born. Gold indicated divinity due to its unnatural appearance and association with precious materials. It can also be noted that gold was used to represent the flesh of the gods while silver was used to represent the bones. Figures would be depicted with the head shown as seen from the side and parted legs. The torso of the figure could be seen as from the front, and a standard set of proportions making up the figure to go from the ground to the hairline on the forehead. The technique of sunk relief is another technique seen in Egyptian artwork. Sunk relief is used by cutting the relief sculpture itself into a flat surface.

The images are usually mostly linear in nature like hieroglyphs but in a simpler form. The figure itself is in low relief, but in most cases set within a sunken area shaped around the image so that the relief never rises beyond the original flat surface. Sunken relief is also best viewed in sunlight for the outlines and forms to be emphasized by shadows. Standing statues facing forward, gave the distinctive pose with one foot in front of the other which was helpful for the strength and balance of the piece. Though seated statues were particularly common as well, the use of this singular pose was used early on in the history of Egyptian art and well into the Ptolemaic period. Massive statues were built to represent gods, pharaohs and their queens, usually for open areas in or outside temples.

Egyptian pharaohs were always regarded as gods and are frequently shown in paintings and reliefs. Most larger sculptures have survived from Egyptian temples or tombs. Outside the main temple at Abu Simbel, the famous row of four exceptionally large colossal statues each show Rameses II, who is actually noted as the most influential and greatest pharaoh of the New Kingdom. The representation between men and women is another common relief in ancient Egyptian sculpture. Some statues portray males darker than their female counterparts. Women were often represented in an idealistic form, young and pretty, and rarely shown in an older maturity. However, men were shown in either one of two ways, either in an idealistic manner or in more realistic depiction.

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The Role of Art in Ancient Egypt. (2019, Jun 23). Retrieved February 6, 2023 , from

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