The history of Ancient Egypt is an amazing story, not least because it is one of the world’s greatest civilizations. And like any good civilization, Egyptian art tells us a great deal about the people who made it. Investigate the “art historical” approach to Egyptian history, and find out what art historians can tell us about the broader story of ancient Egypt.
Many art historians specialize in the art of ancient Egypt, working as museum curators. Carefully examining a fragment of a statue, they can look at it, and from the way the mouth curls downwards or the shape of the eye and arch of the eyebrow, say, “Ah, look at the way the corner has a drill mark. That didn’t start until the late period, it’s probably from 750 B.C. or later.” They may even be able to identify the pharaoh portrayed in effigy. Through careful analysis of Egyptian art, we can reconstruct the history of Ancient Egypt.
The Beauty of Egyptian Art
Art was a central feature of Egyptian culture. Viewing pieces in a museum with a large collection of Egyptian sculpture and paintings, you may notice that pieces carved in 2500 B.C., 1500 B.C., and 500 B.C. changed relatively little. Looking at each piece, you can identify distinct markers of the style of Egyptian Art over 3,000 years. That’s a curious factor, one that can’t be done with other forms of art in different historical periods or cultures.
Consider what happened in Western art in the last 500 years: the Middle Ages to the Renaissance works of the Madonna and Child, all the way to Picasso and modernist variations. But Egyptian art never changed, at least not the broad picture. Let’s explore why, and why the role art historians play is important.
This is a transcript from the video series The History of Ancient Egypt. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.
Egyptian art wasn’t supposed to change, focusing on adherence to a particular form; their art didn’t focus on creativity or innovation. A statue was carved to last for eternity, using the same techniques for carving that were developed over hundreds of years. When a sculptor went to make a statue of the god, he would take out a statue from the temple and copy it, following a certain canon of proportion.
When a tomb painting was commissioned, the first step was to have someone come in and place a grid on the wall like graph paper. Following this, the artist, a specialist who was going to draw the scene would come in, and make sure that the proportions were right by using the grid. For example, if the measurements were three squares for the head, and the shoulders had to be seven squares, then the distance from the shoulder to the knee had to be eight squares. The proportions were always the same. Artists would follow the formula, like an Egyptian form of paint by numbers. This system was created and followed because Egyptians’ culture at that time believed there was a certain order to the world and their art reflected this belief. There was a way that art was supposed to be, and it was supposed to stay that way.
Learn more about the mythology, religion, and philosophy of ancient Egypt
Where Knowledge of Ancient Egypt Comes From
Compared to other ancient cultures like the Mayans, Assyrians, or Babylonians, we know an incredible amount about the Egyptians, based on their religious burial practices and their belief in life after death. The Egyptians were resurrectionists, believing that the physical body would rise and live again in the next world. Now if you believe that, it makes sense that they viewed the afterlife as a continuation of this world, and would do the same things in the next world as were done in this one. They placed all their energies into what would come in the next world, eternity.
The Egyptians built tombs out of stone to last forever, painting scenes on the tomb walls demonstrating to their gods how they wanted to be treated in the next world. Fishing, especially in the marshes, was a popular activity in Egypt, a core part of their way of life. The deceased person might have images painted on the walls of his tomb depicting himself in his boat fishing. If he liked playing games, such as the popular game senet, similar to chess, he would have himself painted on the wall moving the pieces. These tomb wall scenes are a window into ancient Egyptian daily life that art historians use to piece together an understanding of their culture. Men harvesting crops, women weaving, and other aspects of the time are portrayed in their paintings.
Tombs were important in other ways too. Egyptians believed you could take all your possessions with you into the afterlife, filling tombs with everything they wanted to have with them in the next world. The discovery of an intact tomb is important because it has everything personal to the dead person, giving hints into their personal lives. To the Egyptians, it was a little like going on a trip to a country you’ve never been to: You’re not sure what the weather is like or what the rules are, so everything you own must go with you. A complete Egyptian tomb will even contain furniture, such as tables, chairs, and even beds. Women would be buried with their cosmetics; if the deceased enjoyed games, their favorite sets would be included in the burial. Pharaohs sometimes were buried with their chariot. Egyptian tombs are a wonderful source of daily life for the ancient Egyptians.
One of the great sources of our knowledge of their culture is the writing they left behind. The Egyptians had writing very early, leaving written material in the form of inscriptions and papyri. Temple walls were like bulletin boards to the ancient Egyptians. If you wanted to tell the world something, you carved it on a temple wall, at least if you were the pharaoh.
“Book of the Dead” and Pharaoh Culture
What the pharaohs carved on the temple walls would be surprising in our culture: battle scenes. In today’s culture, displaying a war scene sounds bizarre. But the Egyptians weren’t into peace; as a dominant force in the ancient world, they desired to maintain their power and might. They wanted a constant state of war with victory after victory. When a pharaoh came back from a successful battle, he would go to the outside of the temple wall and carve the story of his victory. The ancient Egyptians were a nation of accountants who listed everything: the number of captives, the number of people slain; they even recorded the names of the pharaoh’s horses. We even know the names of Ramses the Great’s horses. Temple walls provide a wonderful account of Egyptian history.
If the pharaoh wanted to appease the gods, he would list all the offerings he had given to the temple that year. Temple walls hold lists of the hundreds of different things that the pharaoh gave to the temple—6,000 jars of wine for the priests, 800,000 loaves of bread, 5,000 bolts of cloth, 16 vessels of sacred oils, so many rings of gold. Due to the climate in Egypt, paintings and carvings on the temple walls have survived to this day. At the Karnak Temple, some of the walls look just as they did when they were built.
Religious texts serve as an additional source of information on their culture that not only explains the finite details of the religion but gives insight into what their people feared most.
It was the duty of Egyptian priests’ to write down their religion; one of the key documents historians have is the “Book of the Dead,” a guidebook on how to enter into the next life. Written on long rolls of papyrus, it contains illustrations and paintings of the gods. The text gives instructions on proper behavior to enter the afterlife as well as providing collections of magical spells. Reading the spells reveals common fears found in their culture. For example, one incantation is a spell to power your legs. The idea behind the for those who had been mummified and dead for a while, the dead person would need assistance get up and walk again. Another example is a spell for breath to the mouth. There is even a spell to protect against decapitation. Spells were written for all occasions. As different as they seem to us today, ancient Egyptians were just like us. Texts and spells were not only written on papyri; they were carved onto their coffins. Coffin texts were magical spells for the next world on coffins.
Learn more about when Pharaohs stop building pyramids
Ancient Egyptian literature continues to illuminate our understanding of their culture, encompassing short stories, fiction, and love poetry. Love poems of the 18th dynasty are even a genre of study.
Many sources still exist that allow us to learn the history of Egypt, and to gain a fuller picture, we, like the art historians, have to use all of them.
Common Questions About Ancient Egyptian Art
Artists in ancient Egypt used techniques and materials that we still use today. Paintings utilized many materials including papyrus and stone, while they made sculptures in stone and wood. They were adept at ceramics and faience. They also imported metals for tools and jewelry.
The Egyptians made much art to provide a way to revere or manifest a deity or deceased ancestor. The statuary in particular was very religious and was created to be a conduit for the divine or deceased to access this world. Quite a lot of art was also made to assist the pharaohs in the afterlife.
Ancient Egyptian art was characterized largely by a traditionalist fashion, focusing on adherence to form and order at the expense of creativity or expressionistic style. The style in which they rendered human form was essentially formalized and used widely. It is referred to as frontalism and was basically a rule in the creation of human forms.
Ancient Egypt produced art as far back as the 31st century B.C.E. and through to the 4th century C.E.