Egyptian Art and Architecture, the buildings, sculpture, painting, and decorative
arts of ancient
Today, we look at Egyptian art primarily in museums or in books. For the Egyptians, however, the objects now regarded as art were made to serve a particular purpose, usually a religious one. 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.
Most Egyptians 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 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
PREDYNASTIC EGYPT (5000-3000 BC)
Scholars divide Egyptian history into dynasties. The Dynastic period began around 3000 BC when lands along the
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.
III DYNASTIC EGYPT (3000-30 BC)
The Dynastic period of Egyptian history began about 3000 BC with the formation of an Egyptian state that extended roughly 800 km (500 mi) from the Mediterranean Sea in the north to what is called the First Cataract-the first major section of rapids on the Nile River at Aswân in the south. 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. 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
In 332 BC
Alexander the Great, king of
The most important buildings in ancient
Tombs and Pyramids
The royal tombs and pyramids of ancient
The kings of the 1st Dynasty (2920 BC-2770 BC) were buried in the cemetery of their ancestors at
Within the tomb enclosure of the last king of the 2nd Dynasty, Khasekhemwy, archaeologists have excavated a square brick mound. This mound was probably the forerunner of the first pyramid, which is known as the Step Pyramid at saqqârah.
The Step Pyramid was built by King Djoser, who ruled from 2630 BC to 2611 BC, during the 3rd Dynasty (2649 BC-2575 BC). In its final form it consisted of six huge, square tiers of decreasing size, placed one on top of the other to a height of nearly 60 m (200 ft). Its diminishing tiers resemble steps. The Step Pyramid stood in the middle of a rectangular enclosure. Also within the enclosure were various other buildings, some of which could be entered, while others had no doors. These buildings functioned only for the spirit forms of the dead king and the gods, who were believed to be able to pass through the thick rock walls.
Unlike the earlier mud-brick tombs, the
entire complex at saqqârah was built of stone; however, similarities show
that the complex evolved from the earlier tombs and funerary enclosures at
King Snefru built the first true pyramid with smooth sides at the beginning of the 4th Dynasty (2575 BC-2467 BC), and Egyptian kings continued to use pyramids for burial through the 12th Dynasty. The best-known pyramids were built on the
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 burial chamber represented the duat through which the sun traveled from west to east at night before rising in the eastern sky at dawn. While the king's body lay in its coffin, his ka-spirit was nourished by rituals that priests performed in the pyramid temple, and his ba-spirit (personality, or individual identity) joined the sun, triumphantly leaving the duat at sunrise to travel across the sky. At night it sank with the sun back into the duat to rejoin the king's body and ka-spirit, and here it was renewed before leaving the tomb again in the morning. In this way the dead king achieved eternal existence.
After the Middle Kingdom ended in 1640 BC, the Egyptians stopped building
royal pyramids, and in the New Kingdom (1550 BC-1070
BC), kings were buried in tombs
at Thebes in the Valley of the Kings, where the burial site of King Tutankhamun
was found in 1922. The
By the end of the
of the Elite
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
In the 1st and 2nd dynasties the tombs of the elite at saqqârah 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.
In the 2nd Dynasty, tomb builders started creating a niche on the eastern side of the tomb. In it was placed a stone slab carved with an image of the deceased tomb owner seated before a variety of offerings. The slab marked the place for making offerings. During the next two dynasties, the niche was gradually cut deeper into the solid mastaba, so that the offering place lay within it. Decorated limestone slabs lined the walls of the niche.
In the 4th Dynasty, stone mastabas began to replace those of mud brick. In the 5th Dynasty (2465 BC-2323 BC) and 6th Dynasty (2323 BC-2152 BC), the large mastabas of the highest officials had a series of decorated rooms for the performance of funerary rituals. These rituals focused on a false door on the west wall of the offering chamber-a door that was intended to connect the worlds of the dead and the living. Although solid and impassable to the living, the door permitted the dead to pass through and receive offerings. This tomb chapel remained open to priests and family members after the tomb's owner was buried, but the actual body was placed in a burial chamber at the bottom of a shaft cut deep into the ground below the chapel. After the burial, the shaft was filled in and made inaccessible.
Although freestanding tomb chapels were common in the
The best-known elite cemetery of the New
Kingdom lies on the west bank of the Nile at
Elite burials of the
The Egyptians believed that the gods occupied a different part of the universe than living human beings did.
Most important deities had temples
Old and Middle Kingdom temples were typically built of perishable mud brick, and despite the fact that many of them were lined with decorated stone slabs, few have survived. Most surviving temples date from the 18th Dynasty or later, when major temples were built of stone, and stone structures had replaced older ones of brick. Decorated stone elements from earlier temples were sometimes reused in the foundations or walls of later temples, but most of the earlier buildings themselves have disappeared.
Because the space within a temple was
sacred, a wall enclosed the temple area and separated it from the outside
world. Most temples were rectangular, with the entrance on the side nearest the
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.
The architecture of the temple was designed to replicate the universe at the moment of creation. The Egyptians believed that before creation there existed only the dark, marshy primeval waters of chaos. Out of these waters a mound arose on which the creator god came into being and created the ordered universe. The dark hypostyle hall with its many pillars represented the primeval waters, and the pillars topped by papyrus or lotus capitals represented marsh plants. The polished stone floor represented the water itself. Moving back into the temple, the floor levels rose, because the sanctuary symbolized the mound of creation. The temple's god, manifested in the cult statue, thus represented the creator god.
Every morning before dawn priests entered the temple. As the sun rose, the officiating priest opened the shrine doors in the sanctuary to reveal the deity. Each sunrise repeated the creation, so that every day in every temple the deity of the temple reenacted the moment when the newly created world emerged from the dark, primeval waters and was illuminated by the light of the newly born sun. The rituals that the priests performed for the god included the presentation of offerings, the burning of incense, and the recitation of ceremonial words and hymns.
A4 Palaces 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
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.
In Egyptian thought, foreign lands and their inhabitants represented the forces of chaos. Images of bound foreigners were painted on the steps leading up to the throne platform and on the platform itself. As the king ascended the platform, he walked on these images and then sat on them. The foreigners lay under his feet in subjection, symbolizing the triumph of the king over the forces of chaos.
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.
B1 The Purpose of Sculptures Most statues of gods and kings were housed in temples. In addition to the cult statue, larger images of gods, or of gods and the king together, were placed within temple areas. In the Late and Ptolemaic periods, elite people presented offerings at temples of small bronze images of gods and of the animals sacred to those gods. They also put brightly painted wooden statues of funerary gods in tombs to help the deceased pass safely into the afterlife.
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.
Style and Materials
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. Although artists might incorporate some personal features in images of the king and the wealthy elite, people who were less wealthy simply bought ready-made statues. The subject's name was then inscribed on the statue.
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.
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
C Painting and Relief
The ancient Egyptians decorated the walls of temples and tombs with painted scenes. 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.
Although the relief decoration on many Egyptian monuments has by now lost all color, it was originally brightly painted. Before painting, artists sketched out scenes in red on the plaster surface of the wall. Then a master draftsman corrected the scene in black. Often the artists used squared grids that helped them obtain correct proportions as they laid out the entire scene. Artists painted onto dry plaster using ground mineral pigments combined with plant gum or glue made from animals. They applied the paint in broad strokes using thick brushes, one color at a time, with no shading or effects of light. The artists then outlined figures and other objects and added interior details with a thin brush.
Artists in ancient
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
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
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.
D Decorative Arts
Jewelry and amulets for protection were worn by the living and the dead in ancient
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.
E The Amarna Period (1353 BC-1335 BC)
One period stands out from all others in Egyptian art because it represents a major change in style and subject matter. The Amarna period, as it is known, lasted fewer than 20 years at the end of the 18th Dynasty and reflected a religious change made by King Amenhotep IV, better known as Akhenaton. Akhenaton worshiped only one god, Aton, who appeared as a sun disk . During Akhenaton's rule, depictions of the sun disk above the king replaced traditional temple decoration showing the king interacting with different gods in human form. From the sun disk, rays ending in human hands reach down to touch Akhenaton and his queen, Nefertiti, and the offerings that they present to Aton. In tomb chapels as well, the king and queen, not the tomb owner, form the focal point of the decoration.
Most noticeable in Amarna art are the changed proportions of figures, particularly those of the king. Because Aton as the creator god was believed to embody both the male and female principles of the universe, Akhenaton, who was the representative of Aton on earth, was portrayed with characteristics the Egyptians regarded as feminine, such as narrow shoulders, a high waist, and pronounced belly, buttocks, and thighs. Other figures have similar proportions but are less exaggerated. A number of scholars have suggested that the king's image reflects his actual appearance, but given the lack of realism in Egyptian art generally, this portrayal is more likely to relate to his religious beliefs. After the death of Akhenaton, the style and subject matter of Egyptian art returned to traditional forms during the reign of his son-in-law, Tutankhamun.
IV 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
Although curiosity about ancient
European interest in
During the 19th century, scholars
collected and studied inscriptions and texts on monuments throughout
In addition to excavation and collection, scholars and the Egyptian government have taken increasing care to save Egyptian artifacts from destruction caused by development. Perhaps the biggest effort occurred in the 1960s, when the Aswân High Dam was built, causing a large area to be flooded by newly created
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