An Introduction to
Ancient Egyptian Art and Architecture
Compiled by Jimoh Ganiyu Jimga
Egyptian Art and Architecture comprise the buildings, sculpture, painting, and decorative arts of ancient Egypt from about 5000 bce to the conquest of Egypt by Rome in 30 BCE.
This civilization is the beginning of what accumulated in what is today known as an artistic tradition of the western world because there is a succession of artistic tradition that runs from Egypt to Greece.
Ancient Egyptian art objects and architecture were made to serve a particular purpose, usually a religious one which cannot be divorced from the Egyptian worldview. For example, temples were decorated with paintings and filled with statues of gods and kings in the belief that doing this served the gods, showed devotion to the king, and maintained the order of the universe. The Egyptians wore jewelry and amulets (charms) not only as decoration, but because they believed these items protected them against harm. They buried their dead with jewelry and amulets for the same reason: to protect against the perils of the afterlife. All these were inline with their religious beliefs that the death is not an end but a transition to another life. They believe that their Kings are the representatives of the gods on earth and they (the kings) can never die but join the gods in the afterlife. This also informed the belief that the dead or transited Kings can help in the realistic world of the living.
Egyptologists opine that most Egyptians then never saw the art that is now displayed in museums, because only kings and members of the ruling elite were allowed to enter temples, tombs, and palaces. But it is believed that the Egyptians had in mind another audience for their art: the gods and, for the art in tombs, the spirits of people who had died.
Artists in ancient Egypt joined workshops and worked in teams to produce what their patrons—the king and the elite—needed. For this reason, few works can be attributed to individuals. Religious beliefs largely dictated what artists created, especially the paintings and statues that filled Egyptian temples and tombs. Artists endlessly repeated the same themes and subjects, changing them only when beliefs changed. (A rare change came around 1350 bce, for example, when the sun god Aton gained more prominence than ever before.) The style of depicting these themes and subjects, by contrast, changed from one generation of artists and patrons to the next. For example, during the 18th dynasty (1550-1307 bce) there was a shift from painting the human figure in a rather stiff and rigid posture to using curved lines and varied poses. But most of the changes were more subtle.
What made life Possible in Ancient Egypt
The great river Nile-the longest in the world overflows its bank for several months each year, every time the flood receded, they left behind a new layer of rich silt, which made the valley and delta uncommonly fertile for agriculture. This made the valley known as Egypt today an attractive habitat for prehistoric hunters and gatherers. By about 8000 BCE, the valleys inhabitants had become relatively sedentary, living off its abundance of fish, game, and wild plants. It was not until about 5000 BCE that they adopted the agricultural, village way of life associated with Neolithic culture.
Beliefs in the divine and in the afterlife were ingrained in ancient Egyptian civilization from its inception; pharaonic rule was based on the divine right of kings. The Egyptian pantheon was populated by gods who had supernatural powers and were called on for help or protection.
Gods were worshiped in cult temples administered by priests acting on the king's behalf. At the center of the temple was the cult statue in a shrine. Temples were not places of public worship or congregation, and only on select feast days and celebrations was a shrine carrying the statue of the god brought out for public worship.
The Egyptians believed that every human being was composed of physical and spiritual parts or aspects. In addition to the body, each person had a šwt (shadow), a ba (personality or soul), a ka (life-force), and a name. The heart, rather than the brain, was considered the seat of thoughts and emotions. After death, the spiritual aspects were released from the body and could move at will, but they required the physical remains (or a substitute, such as a statue) as a permanent home. The ultimate goal of the deceased was to rejoin his ka and ba and become one of the "blessed dead", living on as an akh, or "effective one". In order for this to happen, the deceased had to be judged worthy in a trial, in which the heart was weighed against a "feather of truth". If deemed worthy, the deceased could continue their existence on earth in spiritual form.
Egyptian Art can be divided into two major Dynasty periods
- Predynasty Period (5000-3000 BCE)
- Dynasty Period (3000-30 BCE)
PREDYNASTIC EGYPT (5000-3000 BCE)
Pottery was one of the earliest art forms undertaken by the ancient Egyptians. This piece from the Predynastic period (5000 bc-3000 BCE) is decorated with ostriches, boats, and geometrical designs.
Art Resource, NY
The Dynastic period began around 3000 BCE when lands along the Nile River were united under one ruler. From about 5000 BCE until 3000 BCE, a time known as the Predynastic period, Egypt was not a unified nation. Different groups ruled over different parts of the land. As time passed, however, these groups were incorporated into larger political units, until a single state was formed around 3000 BCE. At the same time, the culture of the south expanded northward, gradually replacing northern cultures to produce cultural unity.
The Egyptians began creating art early in the Predynastic period, using materials such as bones, clay, stone, and the ivory teeth of hippopotamuses. They made figurines of animals, birds, and human beings, and decorated the tops of hair combs and pins with carved birds and animals. Stone palettes used for grinding minerals for eye paint took the shape of birds, turtles, and fish.
Pottery also was decorated in the early Predynastic period, typically with geometric or animal designs painted in white on a red background. Later in the period, designs appeared in red on a yellowish background. The designs included flamingos, horned animals, human figures, plants, wavy lines, and boats with oars. Most of this pottery has been found in cemeteries, and it may have been made specifically for use in funerals.
Cups, bowls, and other containers were made from a variety of stones and took advantage of natural patterns in the stone. Working stone was difficult and took some time, so stone containers became prized items. Lapis lazuli, carnelian, garnet, and other stones were made into beads for necklaces and bracelets, as were gold, copper, and silver.
DYNASTIC EGYPT (3000-30 BCE)
The third century BCE Egyptian priest Manetho grouped the long line of pharaohs from Menes to his own time into 30 dynasties, a system still in use today. He chose to begin his official history with the king named "Meni" (or Menes in Greek) who was then believed to have united the two kingdoms of Upper and Lower Egypt (around 3000BCE). The transition to a unified state actually happened more gradually than the ancient Egyptian writers would have us believe, and there is no contemporary record of Menes. Some scholars now believe, however, that the mythical Menes may have actually been the pharaoh Narmer, who is depicted wearing royal regalia on the ceremonial Narmer Palette in a symbolic act of unification.
Palette of King Narmer
The Palette of King Narmer from Hierakonpolis is a slate slab representative of the art of ancient Egypt. The object, which stands 62.5 cm (25 in) high and dates from Egypt’s Predynastic period, depicts the ancient Egyptian king (center) smiting an enemy. The piece symbolized the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt and marked an early example of a trend in Egyptian art to glorify the king. Giraudon/Art Resource, NY
This state was ruled by a king whose main duties were to act as an intermediary between the gods and humanity and to uphold the correct order of the universe by overcoming the forces of chaos. The king governed the country through a small group of educated male officials. Together with their families, they formed an elite group making up about 5 percent of the population. Almost everyone else provided services for the elite or worked the land. It should be noted that all surviving ancient Egyptian art and architecture relates to the king and the elite, and scholars know virtually nothing about art produced for the rest of society.
Egyptologists (people who study ancient Egypt) have grouped Egypt's dynasties into:
- Early Dynastic period (1st to 3rd dynasties),
- Old Kingdom (4th to 8th dynasties),
- Middle Kingdom (11th to 14th dynasties),
- New Kingdom (18th to 20th dynasties),
- Late Period (25th to 30th dynasties).
Dynasties between these groupings represent periods when central government broke down and the state split into smaller units. These divisions were based on the work of an Egyptian priest named Manetho, who wrote in Greek in the 3rd century BCE.
In 332 BCE, Alexander the Great, king of Macedonia, conquered Egypt. In 305 BCE Alexander's general Ptolemy became king of Egypt, and for almost 300 years his descendants, the Ptolemies, ruled Egypt. Although Ptolemy was Macedonian by birth and his descendents remained tied to Greek culture, the Ptolemies also oversaw one of the greatest periods of building and decorating temples in Egypt. The Ptolemies did so to win acceptance for their rule from their Egyptian subjects. The Ptolemaic dynasty ended when Cleopatra, queen of Egypt, committed suicide after the Romans defeated her forces at the Battle of Actium in 31 BCE. The Roman victory marked the end of ancient Egypt as an independent power.
Egyptian Art forms can be classified into
- Tombs and Pyramids
- Temple and Palaces
· Free Standing
- Paintings and Reliefs
- Decorative Arts
Pyramid of Khafre at Giza
The pyramids at Giza in Egypt are among the best-known pieces of architecture in the world. The Pyramid of Khafre was built as the final resting place of the pharaoh Khafre and is about 136 m (446 ft) high.
Giraudon/Bridgeman Art Library, London/New York
The most important buildings in ancient Egypt were temples, tombs, and palaces. Temples housed rituals for the worship of the gods. Tombs served as the burial locations for the king and the elite. The king lived in the palaces, where he performed governmental and religious duties.
Tombs and Pyramids
The royal tombs and pyramids of ancient Egypt were elaborate structures with important religious purposes. They were located along the Nile River. For about 2,000 years, until the end of the New Kingdom in 1070 BCE, royal tombs were built on the Nile’s west bank. Because the sun set in the west, Egyptians believed that the western desert was the entrance to the underworld, or duat, where the dead dwelled and through which the sun passed at night.
Each pyramid is just one element in a line of structures that form a burial complex. The complex begins at the east, with a temple on a harbor at the edge of the cultivated land in the Nile Valley. From this valley temple, where the king’s body was first brought by boat, a long, covered causeway runs west into the desert to a pyramid temple. To the west of the temple is the pyramid itself, inside of which the king’s body was placed. Inside the temple, rituals performed for the king included the offering of food and drink to nourish his ka-spirit (life force).
The Egyptian pyramids served as more than a place to put the king’s dead body. They were places of transformation that enabled the king to pass into a new stage of life. The east-west orientation of each pyramid complex paralleled the daytime course of the sun as it rises and sets.
The tombs for the elite members of Egyptian society were less elaborate than royal tombs, but they were nevertheless impressive. The preferred location for elite tombs was the west bank of the Nile, but many were built on the east bank as well.
In the 1st and 2nd dynasties the tombs of the elite at Şaqqārah consisted of an underground structure that contained the burial site and a flat, rectangular mud-brick structure built over it. Today these structures are called mastabas, from the Arabic word for 'bench.' The long sides of the mastabas had a north-south orientation.
Temples and Palaces
The Egyptians believed that the gods occupied a different part of the universe than living human beings did. Temples were built as houses for the gods, where the gods could appear on earth. The focal point of any temple was a sanctuary area that contained a cult statue of the god. This statue, the sanctuary, and the temple were made as beautiful as possible so that the god would want to reside there, and the structures incorporated precious materials such as gold, silver, lapis lazuli, turquoise, and carnelian.
Most important deities had temples throughout Egypt, but some cities had a special association with a particular god. Among the most important gods and their cities were Ra at Heliopolis, Ptah at Memphis, Thoth at Hermopolis, Osiris at Abydos, Hathor at Dandara, Amon at Thebes, and Horus at Edfu.
Abū Simbel Temple
In about 1250 bc Ramses II, pharaoh of Egypt, built two sandstone temples at Abū Simbel in southern Egypt. This picture of the entrance doorway to the site’s main temple shows four seated statues of Ramses II.
Marion Patterson/Photo Researchers, Inc.
The Egyptians believed that gods were fundamentally different from human beings, and that it was dangerous for humans to interact with gods unprotected. In fact, most people never went inside a temple. For those who had been purified through special religious rituals, the temple provided a safe place for contact with the gods. The space within the temple became increasingly sacred as one went further in, and the more sacred inner parts were restricted to the king and priests. The sanctuary was the most sacred space of all. Here the deity entered the temple from the divine realm and took up residence in the cult statue.
Palaces provided a setting for Egyptian kings to carry out the rituals of kingship. Most were built of mud brick and have not survived well. Palaces that Egyptologists have excavated date mainly from the New Kingdom and include the palace of Amenhotep III at Malqata near Thebes, the palaces of Akhenaton at Amarna, and the palace of Merenptah at Memphis.
The nature of the Egyptian king was complex. Although he was a human being who was born, grew up, and died like other human beings, his body housed the royal ka-spirit, which transmitted the divine aspects of kingship from one king to the next. The king was also the earthly manifestation of various deities, such as Ra, the sun god, or Horus, the god of the sky. For this reason, the ritual area of the king’s palace resembled a temple. As in temples, an entranceway led into an open court that was followed by a pillared hall. But beyond the hall, instead of a sanctuary, was the throne room. Against the center of the back wall, a raised platform supported the king's throne. The throne sat within a kiosk that took the place of the shrine in a temple’s sanctuary. The enthroned king was therefore equivalent to the cult statue of a god.
The floors of the palace were decorated with images of pools surrounded by flowering plants through which young calves leapt while birds flew above, depicting the world at sunrise. The enthroned king therefore took on the role of the sun god Ra, at whose appearance each day the world came to life again after the dark night.
This bronze figure with inlaid blue-glass eyes dates from Egypt’s Late Period (712-332 bc). It shows the ancient goddess Bast in the form of a cat.
Erich Lessing/Art Resource, NY
The function of most ancient Egyptian statues was to provide a physical place where a god or spirit could appear. In temples the god took up residence in the cult statue, and the divine royal ka-spirit could reside in statues of the king. Statues of the elite provided a place in the world of the living for the spirits of the dead. Such statues were the focal point of rituals. Offerings were presented to them, incense was burned, and ritual words were recited in their presence. These spirits were not restricted by time and space, but could simultaneously be present in all their statues, wherever the statues were located.
Beginning in the late 4th Dynasty statues of servants and peasants were placed in tombs of the elite to serve them in the afterlife. These servants and peasants appear in a wide variety of poses, performing tasks such as grinding grain, baking bread, and brewing beer. What was important in these sculptures was not the person depicted but the action, which was meant to benefit the tomb owner in the afterlife.
3. Paintings and Decorative Arts
The ancient Egyptians decorated the walls of temples and tombs with painted scenes to ensure that the deceased spent eternity in a comfortable and familiar environment. The painting might be flat or in relief, meaning that figures and background occupy different levels of the wall surface. In raised relief, the background was cut away so that the figures stood out. In sunk relief, the figures were cut back to a slightly lower level than the background. Originally, sunk relief was designed to decorate exterior walls, because it is more visible in bright sunlight.
The decoration of Egyptian buildings reflected their function. In temples, scenes depicted the interaction of the king and gods. On the outside walls the king was usually shown triumphantly battling foreign enemies. This action symbolized his role as upholder of order over chaos. Such scenes also served to protect and separate the pure, sacred space inside the temple from the impure, secular world outside. The decoration of the open court, which was open to some visitors, might show processions of sacred boats that held the statues of the temple gods when they were brought out at festivals.
The sacred interior of the temple was decorated with scenes depicting the king and gods together, drawn on the same scale. Each scene shows either the king performing a ritual act before the god—offering food, drink, or adoration—or the god acknowledging the king by embracing him, suckling him, or handing him an ankh, the sign of life in Egyptian hieroglyphs. Other human beings rarely appear in these scenes.
In the Old and Middle Kingdoms, scenes decorating the tomb chapels of the elite showed activities related to the tomb owner's estates and his government office. They also depicted the funeral procession and the performance of the burial rites, and the deceased before a table of offerings, often with rows of people bringing more offerings. Images of gods or the king were not included. In the New Kingdom’s 18th Dynasty, painted tombs at Thebes displayed similar subject matter, but they were by then allowed to show the deceased person worshiping funerary gods or being received in audience by the enthroned king.
The function of the tomb chapel was to provide a space where the living and the dead could interact. Intended to provide a familiar environment for the returning dead, much of the decoration portrayed images of daily life. Together with texts recording the tomb owner’s titles and achievements, the painted images also established the status of the dead person in the eyes of subsequent generations who visited the chapels. In the 19th Dynasty, these daily-life scenes disappeared and were replaced by scenes that showed the passage of the deceased from this world to the next and the deceased adoring and being welcomed by different gods in the afterlife.
Other important painted items in ancient Egypt were wooden coffins and funerary scrolls made of papyrus. In the Old and Middle Kingdoms, coffins were rectangular in shape. On the outside they were decorated with lines and columns of text that gave the titles and name of the owner and asked for offerings on his or her behalf. On the east side, a pair of painted eyes enabled the deceased to look out into the world of the living. During the first half of the Middle Kingdom, coffins were also richly decorated on the inside, with a false door painted behind the exterior eyes, painted piles of offerings for the deceased, and texts designed to protect the occupant and help him or her into the afterlife.
The ankh, a cross with a circular loop at the top, appears frequently in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs and art. For the Egyptians, the ankh sign represented life.
By the 18th Dynasty, most coffins had the shape of a mummified human body. The painted decoration of coffins changed over the next 1,500 years, though certain motifs remained popular. These included images of the sky goddess, Nut, who gave birth to the sun every day; of Hathor, who as the goddess of the west stood on the boundary between this world and the next; and of the goddesses Isis and Nephthys, who resurrected the murdered god Osiris. The painted images reflected the function of the coffin, which was not simply to contain a dead body but to help the deceased make a successful transition into the afterlife.
Funerary papyri, put inside many coffins, had a similar purpose. The most famous of them is the so-called Book of the Dead, which contains texts designed to protect the owner during the passage into the next world. A painted scene accompanied each chapter, showing, for instance, the funeral procession, the burial rites performed before the tomb, the deceased adoring a variety of deities, and the deceased as an inhabitant of the next world.
4. Decorative Arts
Jewelry and amulets for protection were worn by the living and the dead in ancient Egypt. Both men and women wore necklaces, collars, bracelets, armlets (bands around the upper arm), and rings. Women also wore anklets (bands around the ankle), hip girdles (belts), and, from the end of the Middle Kingdom, earrings. Although young boys also wore earrings, adult men are rarely shown with them. The most popular materials for jewelry were gold, representing the flesh of the gods and the color of the sun; deep blue lapis lazuli, the color of the night sky; turquoise, the color of new plants; and red carnelian, associated with the sun and the color of blood. Egyptian faience, an inexpensive non-clay ceramic material with a glaze made from quartz, was also popular, even with the wealthy, because its shiny surface was associated with the brilliance of the sun.
Amulets were often made in the shape of what the Egyptians considered lucky hieroglyphs. These included the looped cross, or ankh, which was an emblem for life; the papyrus stem and flower, which stood for new growth and regeneration; and the djed pillar, which was associated with the backbone of Osiris, for stability. One of the most famous amulets is the wedjat eye. This was the eye of the god Horus, which was wounded and made whole again, and it protected the wearer from misfortune and bad influences. Other amulets were in the form of gods. For example, the goddess Isis protected pregnant women, women in childbirth, and young children.
General Characteristics of Egyptian Art
Ancient Egyptian statues were not intended to serve as realistic portraits. Instead, a statue represented an ideal image of the king or a member of the elite and did not include physical peculiarities, disabilities, or signs of aging. While kings were generally shown with youthful, physically fit bodies, elite male officials had two images that represented different stages of their careers. In one, the official appears youthful and physically fit. In the second, he is mature, with rolls of fat on his chest and sagging muscles representing the successful, sedentary official who eats well. Because elite women could not be government officials, they are represented by a single, youthful image that stresses the outline of their bodies and their child-bearing potential.
Statues of deities, the king, and the elite appear only in standing, seated, and kneeling poses. They also exhibit a characteristic called frontality, which means that they face straight ahead without twisting or turning the head or body. This posture relates to the ritual function of statues. Because the statue faces forward, it could witness people performing the rituals in front of it.
- Composite Rendition
Artists in ancient Egypt were not concerned with representing the world realistically, and they did not attempt to incorporate the illusion of depth in their art. They represented objects by their most characteristic view, sometimes combining different views within a single picture. For example, a chair might be drawn in profile (viewed from the side), and an animal skin in full view (viewed straight on). The human figure was a composite, with a face in profile that showed the full view of an eye and eyebrow, and full-view shoulders and chest facing the viewer. The waist, buttocks, and limbs were shown in profile.
- Hierarchical Representation
The different sizes of figures indicated their relative importance, with more important people shown larger.
- Colours used were mainly primary colours
Egyptian artists mainly used primary colours: Red, Yellow, Blue and the Neutral colour Black and White for most of their compositions. The reason for this may be due to the fact that the paintings on the temple walls or tombs were made to be very attractive to the gods and the dead.
Materials used for the Artistic Productions
The majority of surviving statues are made of stone, most commonly limestone, but also calcite, sandstone, quartzite, granite, granodiorite, diorite, basalt, and other materials. Wood was widely used, but since it decomposes easily, fewer wooden statues have survived. Cult statues of gods employed precious metals, and some statues of the king and the elite were made of copper in the Old Kingdom and bronze from the Middle Kingdom on. Because metal was valuable and can be melted down and reused, however, only a small proportion of metal statues have survived to the present.
Functions of ancient Egyptian art
Ancient Egyptian Arts and Architecture played central role in:
- Mediating between the world of the living and the spirit world.
- Perpetuating life after death ( art for eternity)
- Expressing community Ideals
- Defining Power and Leadership
- Objects of worship (religious Purpose)
- Documenting the events of royal lives
- Protecting and Healing (Book of the Dead)
.Legacy of Egyptian Art
The Egyptians created their art and architecture to affirm a distinctive social, political, and religious system. After the Roman conquest of Egypt, Alexandria became an important center of Christianity, and what Christians regarded as pagan art ceased to be produced. Existing monuments were viewed negatively and their images defaced. The Arab conquest of Egypt in ad 640 brought a new language (Arabic) as well as new cultural and religious traditions. This event removed the Egyptians even further from their ancient past.
During the 19th century, scholars collected and studied inscriptions and texts on monuments throughout Egypt. Contemporary artists and architects incorporated Egyptian motifs in paintings, decorative arts, and monumental architecture. During the 20th century, scholars from Europe and the United States together with their Egyptian colleagues worked to excavate, record, and conserve the monuments of ancient Egypt under the supervision of the Egyptian Antiquities Service, later called the Supreme Council for Antiquities.
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