Chapter 3: Art of Ancient Egypt
Egypt's impact on later cultures was immense. You could say that Egypt provided the
building blocks for Greek and Roman culture, and, through them, influenced all of the
Today, Egyptian imagery, concepts, and perspectives are found everywhere; you will
find them in architectural forms, on money, and in our day to day lives. Many
cosmetic surgeons, for example, use the silhouette of Queen Nefertiti (whose name
means “the beautiful one has come”) in their advertisements.
ALL GOLD EVERYTHING
Funerary Mask of
from tomb of
Valley of the
Dynasty c. 1327
BCE. Gold inlaid
with glass and
stones, height 21
¼ “, weight 24
Ancient Egyptian civilization lasted for
more than 3000 years and showed an
incredible amount of continuity. That is
more than 15 times the age of the
United States, and consider how often
our culture shifts; less than 10 years
ago, there was no Facebook, Twitter,
While today we consider the GrecoRoman period to be in the distant
past, it should be noted that Cleopatra
VII's reign (which ended in 30 BCE) is
closer to our own time than it was to
that of the construction of the
pyramids of Giza. It took humans
nearly 4000 years to build something-anything--taller than the Great
Pyramids. Contrast that span to the
modern era; we get excited when a
record lasts longer than a decade.
“Gift of the Nile”
Egypt is a land of duality and cycles,
both in topography and culture. The
geography is almost entirely rugged,
barren desert, except for an
explosion of green that straddles
either side of the Nile as it flows the
length of the country. The river
emerges from far to the south, deep
in Africa, and empties into the
Mediterranean sea in the north after
spreading from a single channel into
a fan-shaped system, known as a
delta, at its northernmost section.
The influence of this river on Egyptian
culture and development cannot be
overstated—without its presence, the
civilization would have been entirely
different, and most likely entirely
elsewhere. The Nile provided not only
a constant source of life-giving water,
but created the fertile lands that fed
the growth of this unique (and
uniquely resilient) culture.
View from the high peak of the Theban hills showing the sharp delineation between
the lush Valley and the barren desert.
Each year, fed by melting snows in the far-off headlands, the river overflowed
its banks in an annual flood that covered the ground with a rich, black silt and
produced incredibly fertile fields. The Egyptians referred to this as Kemet, the
“black lands”, and contrasted this dense, dark soil against the Deshret, the
“red lands” of the sterile desert; the line between these zones was (and in
most cases still is) a literal line. The visual effect is stark, appearing almost
artificial in its precision.
Time - Cyclical and Linear
The annual inundation of the Nile was also a reliable, and
measurable, cycle that helped form their concept of the
passage of time. In fact, the calendar we use today is
derived from one developed by the ancient Egyptians.
They divided the year into 3 seasons: akhet ‘inundation’,
peret ‘growing/emergence’, and shemw ‘harvest.’ Each
season was, in turn, divided into four 30-day months.
Although this annual cycle, paired with the daily solar cycle
that is so evident in the desert, led to a powerful drive to
see the universe in cyclical time, this idea existed
simultaneously with the reality of linear time.
These two concepts—the cyclical and the linear—came to
be associated with two of their primary deities: Osiris, the
eternal lord of the dead, and Ra, the sun god who was
reborn with each dawn.
Consistency & Stability
Egypt’s stability is in stark contrast to the Ancient Near East of the same
period, which endured an overlapping series of cultures and upheavals with
The earliest royal monuments, such as the Narmer Palette carved around
3100 B.C.E., display identical royal costumes and poses as those seen on
later rulers, even Ptolemaic kings on their temples 3000 years later.
Palette of Narmer, c. 3000-2920 B.C.E. (left) and Ramses III smiting at
Medinet Habu (1160 B.C.E.) (right)
• A vast amount of Egyptian imagery, especially royal imagery
that was governed by decorum (a sense of what was
‘appropriate’), remained stupefyingly consistent throughout its
history. This is why, especially to the untrained eye, their art
appears extremely static—and in terms of symbols, gestures,
and the way the body is rendered, it was. It was intentional.
The Egyptians were aware of their consistency, which they
viewed as stability, divine balance, and clear evidence of the
correctness of their culture.
• This consistency was closely related to a fundamental belief
that depictions had an impact beyond the image itself—tomb
scenes of the deceased receiving food, or temple scenes of
the king performing perfect rituals for the gods—were
functionally causing those things to occur in the divine realm.
• Greek historian Herodotus thought the Egyptians were the
most religious people he ever encountered. In their world the
movements of the heavenly bodies, the workings of gods, and
the humblest of human activities were all believed to be part
of a balanced and harmonious grand design. Death was to be
feared only by those living their lives that disrupted the
harmony, upright citizens could be confident about their spirits
living on eternally.
Early Development: The Predynastic Period
The civilization of Egypt obviously did not spring fully formed from the Nile mud;
although the massive pyramids at Giza may appear to the uninitiated to have
appeared out of nowhere, they were founded on thousands of years of cultural and
technological development and experimentation. ‘Dynastic’ Egypt—sometimes
referred to as ‘Pharaonic’ (after ‘pharaoh’, the Greek title of the Egyptian kings
derived from the Egyptian title per aA, ‘Great House’) which was the time when the
country was largely unified under a single ruler, begins around 3100 B.C.E.
The period before this, lasting from about 5000 B.C.E. until unification, is referred to
as Predynastic by modern scholars. Prior to this were thriving Paleolithic and
Neolithic groups, stretching back hundreds of thousands of years, descended from
northward migrating homo erectus who settled along the Nile Valley. During the
Predynastic period, ceramics, figurines, mace heads, and other artifacts such as
slate palettes used for grinding pigments, begin to appear, as does imagery that will
become iconic during the Pharaonic era—we can see the first hints of what is to
Dynasties A dynasty is a series of rulers belonging to the same family. Groups of
dynasties make up periods.
Dynastic divisions modern scholars use were not used by the ancients themselves.
These divisions were created in the first Western-style history of Egypt, written by an
Egyptian priest named Manetho in the 3rd century BCE. Each of the 33 dynasties
included a series of rulers usually related by kinship or the location of their seat of
power. Egyptian history is also divided into larger chunks, known as ‘kingdoms’ and
‘periods’, to distinguish times of strength and unity from those of change, foreign rule,
Early Dynastic Egypt c. 2950-2575 BCE
Since about 5000 BCE Egypt was divided into Two Lands, or major
kingdoms, Upper in the South (upstream on the Nile) and Lower in the
North (downstream). Around 3000 BCE a powerful ruler united upper
and lower and this is the early Dynastic period. This is where we see
the development of the lasting ideas of kingship and cosmic order. What
we know about Egypt are from the art and artifacts found in tombs and
temples, so everything is rooted in religious practice and the lives of the
The Pharaoh—Not Just a King
Kings in Egypt were complex intermediaries that straddled the terrestrial and
divine realms. They were, obviously, living humans, but upon accession to
the throne, they also embodied the eternal office of kingship itself.
The ka, or spirit, of kingship was often depicted as a separate entity
standing behind the human ruler. This divine aspect of the office of kingship
was what gave authority to the human ruler.
The living king was associated with the god Horus, the powerful, virile
falcon-headed god who was believed to bestow the throne to the first human
Horus is regularly shown guarding and guiding the living ruler; as in this
image of a falcon (Horus) wrapped behind the head of Ramses III in the
tomb of Khaemwaset
Horus’s immensely important father, Osiris, was the lord of the underworld.
One of the original divine rulers of Egypt, this deity embodied the promise of
regeneration. Cruelly murdered by his brother Seth, the god of the chaotic
desert, Osiris was revived through the potent magic of his wife Isis. Through
her knowledge and skill, Isis was able to sire the miraculous Horus, who
avenged his father and threw his criminal uncle off the throne to take his
rightful place. Osiris became ruler of the realm of the dead, the eternal
source of regeneration in the Afterlife. Deceased kings were identified with
this god, creating a cycle where the dead king fused with the divine king of
the dead and his successor ‘defeated’ death to take his place on the throne
Horus in the tomb of Khaemwaset
Osiris (in the Valley of the Queens)
Egyptian artists followed strict conventions for 3 millenia of history (with
subtle and significant variations). A system of mathematical formulas
were developed to determine design and proportions. Relief sculptures
were made on registers, with scenes laid out in inked lines on a square
grid to guide in the proportion of the human figures. Figures are
designed 18 squares tall, measuring from the soles of the feet to the
hairline; the tops of their knees are 6 squares up. Shoulders are aligned
with the top of square 16 and are 6 squares wide. This is the canon of
proportions representing an ideal system in pictorial relief established
in the Middle Kingdom.
The Narmer Palette
A stele significant for representing the unification of Egypt and it’s
establishment of being a powerful nation-state. It’s got all the
representational conventions for Egyptian art:
Use of symbols: horus (falcon head), papyrus, crown
Multiple perspectives in composite poses: head in profile, fully frontal torso,
hips, legs and feet in profile
The artistic convention for representing the human figure as a conceptualized
composite of multiple viewpoints is followed for several millennia in Egypt
when depicting royalty and other dignitaries. People of lesser rank are
represented in ways that are more life-like.
Vessels for the “ka”
The Egyptians needed a body (mummy for the dead) or a statue/sculpted
likeness of the human in order for the ka to live on and move safely into the
afterlife. For the king, his ka had a fabulous home because the well-being of
his ka ensured the well-being of Egypt. The bodies were preserved and
placed in burial chambers with all sorts of lavish comforts.
The mastaba was the building that held the serdab, a small sealed room
housing the ka statue of the deceased and chapel designed to receive
mourning relatives and offerings. Mastabas were grouped together in a
necropolis, or “city of the dead” at the edge of the desert on the west bank of
the Nile. Two of the most extensive necropolises are at Saqqara and Giza,
just outside modern day Cairo.
The earliest known monumental architecture in Egypt is at Saqqara,
commissioned by King Djoser and designed by Imhotep, Djoser’s prime
minister. Imhotep is the world’s first recognized architect, creating the
Step pyramid and Djoser’s funerary complex.
The Step Pyramid, Funerary Complex of Djoser, Saqqara, c. 2630-22575 BCE
At first Djoser’s tomb was planned as a single story mastaba. Then
Imhotep decided to enlarge the concept and form six mastaba-like
elements on top of one another like steps. It looks like a ziggurat, but
it’s different. The steps are for Djoser to step up to the Sun god Ra, and
it’s also for protection of his tomb. The adjacent funerary temple is for
the priests to perform rites and prepare the body and also for
continuing worship of the dead king.
Now we are going to look at Egyptian art divided up into different
dynastic periods: the Old Kingdom, Middle Kingdom and New
Kingdom. After the New Kingdom Egypt was ruled by a series of
different dynasties who took the art in slightly different directions while
still maintaining the traditions, which is called the Intermediate period.
After the Intermediate period Egypt was taken over by outside forces
so this changed the conventions that lasted 3,000 years.
The Old Kingdom c. 2575-2150 BCE
Relatively stable politically, despite lots of military defense needed at the
borders. The ruling families and upper level government officials were
growing their wealth significantly, this is reflected in the construction of
pyramids at Giza.
The pyramids at Giza are four sloping triangle faces on a square base, first
erected in the Fourth Dynasty (2575-2450 BCE). The angled sides are
thought to represent the slanting rays of the sun. The most famous are the
three pyramids at Giza built successively by three Fourth Dynasty rulers:
Khufu, Khafre, and Menkaure. The oldest and largest is of Khufu, about
481 feet high. Khafre’s is smaller and Menkaure’s is the smallest. The site
was carefully planned to follow the the sun’s east-west path.
The Great Sphinx: 65 feet tall, limestone sculpture, combines his head
with body of a crouching lion, merging human intelligence with animal
Old Kingdom, c.
Sculpture from Khafre’s Valley Temple
Carved out of one
stone, joined together
Menkaure and Queen Khamerernebty II
Statues of less prominent people are
rendered in a more relaxed, life-like,
naturalistic fashion. Notice the round
head, facial expression, flabby body,
irregular contours on his face. Its
more lively, rather than statuesque.
Seated scribe, found near tomb of Kai,
Saqqara, Fifth Dynasty, c. 2450-2325 BCE
Painted limestone with inlaid eyes of rock
crystal, calcite, and magnesite mounted in
copper, height 21”
The interior walls of the tombs were
decorated with paintings and relief to
provide the ka with the most pleasant
living quarters for eternity. This is where
we get a lot of our information about
Egyptian culture and life. Hippos had
significance, hunting them in the relief
walls symbolized the triumph of good
The river here is seen from above while
the crocodile, fish and hippos are
viewed in profile. Ti is rendered in
heirarchic scale, stylized and smooth
musculature. The papyrus stalks show
the Egyptians privileging the line as a
foundation of visual art.
Composite view when the face, feet and
arms are in profile but the torso is depicted
in the frontal view. Sometimes the eyes are
a frontal view although the face is in profile.
The Middle Kingdom c. 1975-1640 BCE
Here we have a king who is
expressing awareness of hardship
and human fragility. Look at the
wrinkle in his brows and his cheeks
are sagging. Egypt just came out of
a period of political turmoil and
warfare after the Old Kingdom, a
time called by historians the First
Intermediate period. Middle
Kingdom rulers came and regained
control of the empire, expanding its
borders and fostering growth in arts
and writing. Are we looking at the
face of a wise man, lonely and
saddened by his responsibilities, or
is it a reassuring pose, that in spite
of troubled times Egypt will prevail?
Head of Senusret III, Twelfth
Dynasty, c. 1836-1818 BCE.
Yellow quartzite, height 17 ¾“
Unfinished Stele of Sculptor Userwer, Twelfth Dynasty, c. 1850 BCE.
Limestone, red and black ink, 20 ½“ x 19”
Let’s compare two paintings from the Middle Kindgom and the New
Kingdom. What are the subtle differences?
Stele of Amenemhat, from Assasif,
Late Eleventh Dynasty, c. 2000
BCE. Painted limestone
Queen Nefertiti Making an Offering to Isis,
Wall painting in the tomb of NEfertari,
Valley of the Queens, Nineteenth Dynasty,
Hatshepsut female ruler of Egypt
(reigned in her own right c. 1473–58
BCE) who attained unprecedented
power for a woman, adopting the full
titles and regalia of a pharaoh.
Funerary temple of Hatshepsut (with the Middle Kingdom mortuary temple of
Mentuhotep II at left), Deir el-Bahri, Egypt, Dynasty XVIII, ca. 1473–1458 BCE.
Amarna style: revolutionary style of
Egyptian art created by Amenhotep IV
(Akhenaton). His innovations were
centered upon a new religion based on
the worship of Aton, or the sun‘s disk.
The artistic elements that Akhenaton
introduced in the decoration of the Aton
temples and on other monuments of his
reign, both at Karnak and at his new
capital of Akhetaton (Tell el-Amarna),
are referred to collectively as the
It represents the human body:
Faces with a hanging jaw, pronounced
facial folds, and narrow, slitted eyes,
while the body itself consisted of a thin,
reduced neck, sloped shoulders, a
heavy paunch, large hips and thighs,
and rather spindly legs. The princesses
are usually shown with greatly
Colossal Figure of
Akhenaton (also spelled Akhnaton, or Ikhnaton , also called Amenhotep IV), king of
Egypt (1353–36 BCE) of the 18th dynasty, who established a new monotheistic cult of
Aton (hence his assumed name, Akhenaton, meaning ―One Useful to Aton‖). He
transformed the political, spiritual, and cultural life. He founded new religion of
honoring one supreme god (Aton, sun god). Akhenaton, means ―One who is effective
on behalf of Aton. He brought about the new Amarna style and he also moved the
capital of Egypt from Thebes further north and called it Akhetaten “Horizon the Aten.”
Aten/Aton = sun god
Akhenaten and His Family, from
Tell el-Amarna, Egypt,
Eighteenth Dynasty, c. 1353–1335
BCE. Limestone, approx. 12 ¼“
Thutmose, Nefertiti, from Tell el-Amarna,
Egypt, Eighteenth Dynasty, c. 1353–1335
BCE. Painted limestone, height 20”
Tutankhamun king of Egypt (reigned 1333–23 BCE), known for his intact tomb
discovered in 1922. During his reign, powerful advisers restored the traditional
Egyptian religion and art that was neglected by his predecessor Akhenaton, who
had led the Amarna revolution.
Ramses II third king of the 19th dynasty of Egypt, whose reign (1279–13 BCE) was
the second longest in Egyptian history. he is known for his extensive building
programs and for the many colossal statues of him found all over Egypt. He and
Tutankhamun represented a return to tradition that was briefly broken by Akhenaten.
His temples at Abu Simbel were not funerary monuments. Ramses’ and Nefertari’s
tombs are in the Valley of Kings and Queens in Upper Egypt.
Ramses II (Left)
(Right), at Abu
Queen Nefertari Making an offering to Isis, Wall
painting, Nineteenth Dynasty, 1290–1224 BCE, In
the tomb of Nefertari, Valley of the Queens, near
The walls of Nefertari’s
tomb are covered in
paintings in the fresco
secco style. She is offering
goddess Isis jars of
perfumed ointment. The
outline drawing and use of
pure colors within the lines
reflect traditional practices,
but what is new is the slight
modeling of the body forms
by small changes of hue to
enhance the 3-dimensional
appearance. The skin color
of the women is much
darker, women are
traditionally portrayed as
light and men are darker.
There is shading for the
eyes and lips.