Ancient Egyptian Art - Did they really walk like that?
"Our final conclusion may be that Egypt reveals to us the knowledge of one of the sources - perhaps the source - from which the great river of beauty has flowed continually through the world."
- Jean Capart
One cannot help but be overwhelmed by the mighty pyramids, majestic temples and monumental statuary of the ancient Egyptians. Or be delighted by the skillfully crafted jewelry, reliefs and multicolored mural paintings, all executed in the most refined taste and exquisite elegance.
Ancient Egyptian art is unique in its approach to visual representation. It follows a set of canons or strict rules that cover a span of 3500 years. Ancient Egyptians knew nothing about mathematical perspective, but then again, no one else did. Perspective in art is a Renaissance discovery.
Ancient Egyptian art had to do more than just please the eye of the
beholder. It had to be informative. Few people could actually read or
write, so images had to convey information about a character's importance
and activities. For example, pharaohs and gods were always the largest
figures in the composition. Their postures were also much more formal
and angular to show their social status. Their expression was also emotionless
for the same reason. This approach to representing a character's importance
in society is called hieratism.
The principal canon of ancient Egypt paintings and reliefs is that objects are to be represented or depicted from the angle of view where they are best defined. A face is best represented in profile (think of a silhouette) while the torso looks more defined in frontal view. The eye in a profiled face is depicted in front view. Hands and feet are drawn in profile, with legs extended when the figure is represented as walking.
These artistic conventions were passed from generation
to generation of artists, only to be broken briefly during the Amarna
period, when the pharaoh Akhenaten
asked his artists to relax the rules of posture and represent him and
Nefertiti in a more human and gentler
There are slight but noticeable differences in ancient Egyptian art styles according to period.
Art from the early dynasties are more hieratic, the figures are somewhat stocky and the color scheme is muted. The Egyptian Museum has the best collection of this type of Egyptian art. The other comparable collection is at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.
Art from the New Kingdom is distinguished for its refined style and brighter color scheme. It's a time of wealth, with gold and other expensive materials more liberally employed, especially in small statuary, furniture and, of course, jewelry. Sculpture becomes monumental. Art from this epoch was highly prized as treasures during the 19th century and much have been stolen out of Egypt. The finest collection of New Kingdom art is at the British Museum. From this era is also the so called Amarna style, with more sinous elements in its design.
All tours in Egypt include visits to temples from the Ptolemaic Era, such as the Temple of Isis at Philae, The Temple of Hathor at Dendera and The Temple of Horus at Edfu. These temples are better preserved than the Temples of Karnak and Luxor simply because they are more recent. (2000 years is relatively new in Egypt!). You may notice that the reliefs on these temples are different than the ones in the Temple of Luxor or the Temple of Seti at Abydos, for example. Ptolemaic temples are influenced by Greek art. Figures are more anatomically defined and the relief has more depth.
Be aware of these subtle differences when appreciating ancient Egyptian art at museums, temple walls and tomb paintings. Later on, this knowledge will help you distinguish the good replicas from the notorious offer of badly crafted souvenirs.
Category: Ancient Egypt
Related reading: Egyptian Symbols
VIDEO: Ancient Egyptian Tomb Art