Egyptians and Art
Imagine if you could only know somebody by their artwork. Think about it: you walk into somebody's home, and the sort of artwork they own is all you'll ever know about them. We don't need to go into what you were doing sneaking around somebody's home, but I'm willing to bet you could actually tell a lot about them. See all those paintings of cats? I bet they like cats. There are some very large paintings, which means these people are probably pretty rich. There are sculptures of the Eiffel Tower, the Coliseum, and the Parthenon, so they may enjoy traveling.
For a long time, art is really all that researchers had to understand the culture of ancient Egypt, one of the oldest civilizations in the world that thrived from the fourth millennium to fourth century BCE. The ancient Egyptians were prolific artists, leaving behind painted reliefs on the walls of palaces and tombs, monumental statues, painted papyrus, jewelry, decorated coffins, and massive works of architecture. And although we'll never be able to meet the ancient Egyptians, there's still much we can tell about their lives, politics, and culture through their art.
History of Egyptian Art
Art has existed in Egypt for about as long as it has anywhere else in the world, with prehistoric carvings and artifacts dating back thousands and thousands of years. Egyptian civilization first began to really develop under the Early Dynastic period of roughly 3000-2680 BCE, when the first kings rose to power. But ancient Egyptian civilization really begins with the advent of the Old Kingdom, which lasted from 2680-2259 BCE. This is where Egyptian art really first appeared as the Pharaoh Djoser expanded Egypt into a major civilization.
The Old Kingdom is a time when many of what we think of as traditional Egyptian styles appeared. The pharaohs began building large tombs for themselves in the shapes of pyramids in the Old Kingdom, starting with the smaller step pyramids of Djoser and leading to the Great Pyramids of Giza. Old Kingdom artists carved reliefs into temples, palaces, and tombs using a mixture of hieroglyphs and images, recording scenes of history, mythology, and even poetry.
Following the Old Kingdom was the Middle Kingdom, which lasted from 2258-1786 BCE. In this period, architects refined the designs of temples and pyramids, but overall, most art remained roughly the same. Artistic styles of carving and painting also remained consistent into the New Kingdom of 1550-1070 BCE. However, in this era, the pharaohs stopped building massive pyramids, possibly because they had become too expensive, and started building massive tombs hidden underground.
They compensated by making the temples even larger, adding massive stone entryways. Throughout the three different kingdoms, Egyptian art remained pretty consistent, but after that, Egypt was invaded and conquered by other nations, first Persia and then the Macedonian Greeks. Each of these introduced new cultural influences, leading to a decline in traditional artistic styles.
Politics and Culture in Art
So, what can we tell about the Egyptians from their art? For one, Egyptian artistic styles, particularly in sculpture and painting, remained highly consistent for over a millennium. This much consistency indicates a level of cultural and political stability that was strong enough to withstand occasional moments of upheaval.
The ability to build monumental structures also indicates that the pharaoh was wealthy and powerful enough to mobilize a huge workforce. The few changes in art often occurred as a direct result of a political shift, such as when a pharaoh suddenly declared a different god as the focus of the Egyptian religion. This happened for a time at the end of the New Kingdom, in a moment called the Amarna Period, during which the pharaoh Akhenaten began to worship the sun disk god Aten. In a rare deviation of traditional styles, male figures in this period are depicted as having large stomachs and hips, possibly to show a connection to the non-masculine god Aten.
Culturally, we can tell a lot about the Egyptians because their art was extremely focused on one particular aspect of life. Or should we say, afterlife. Egyptian architecture and art were both fundamentally connected to the Egyptian belief that the spirit could survive immortally, as long as it had a place to rest. Thus, bodies were mummified and placed in large, protected tombs. The insides of these tombs were covered in art and filled with luxury objects. Both of these reflected the belief that the spirit could enjoy its existence, much as a living person did.
However, to become an immortal spirit, it first had to pass the tests of the gods. Therefore, tomb art often featured two distinct elements. First would be religious scenes, perhaps instructing the spirit about the trials to be faced before entering the afterlife. Next were often scenes of recreation, to help the spirit relax and enjoy afterlife. If the person had enjoyed hunting, the tomb may have images of hunting. Afterlife was to be enjoyed, and the tomb was also filled with grave items, from furniture to weapons to magical amulets to protect the mummy, which could assist the spirit in its eternal existence. So, when the Egyptians made art to soothe the spirit, they were being pretty literal.
There is a lot we can tell about ancient Egypt from its artwork. Changes in art reflect different cultural movements and have helped us divide Egyptian history in to distinct time periods. Most prominent are the Old Kingdom of 2680-2259 BCE; the Middle Kingdom, 2258-1786 BCE; and the New Kingdom, 1550-1070 BCE - cultural high points for ancient Egypt.
There were some major changes, such as the rise of pyramids in the Old Kingdom and abandonment of this architectural style in the New Kingdom, but overall, Egyptian art maintained a high degree of consistency over thousands of years, indicating political and social dedication. Thus, major changes could indicate a serious political or cultural shift.
Art and architecture both were deeply connected to beliefs about the afterlife and were designed to both help the spirit navigate the path to the afterlife and enjoy its immortal existence. Ancient Egypt was culturally, politically, and religiously complex, but it turns out that we can understand much of their lives simply through their art.
Ensure that you can reach these goals once you've studied this video lesson:
- Summarize the development of Egyptian art through the three Egyptian Kingdoms
- Discuss political, cultural and religious information that can be deduced about the Egyptians through their art
To unlock this lesson you must be a Study.com Member.
Create your account
Prompts About Ancient Egyptian Art and Architecture:
Make a timeline that depicts the history of ancient Egyptian art and architecture. Begin your timeline with the Early Dynastic period and end it with the New Kingdom period.
Example: Egyptian art began to flourish during the period of the Old Kingdom.
Make a list of at least six forms of Egyptian artwork. You can refer to the lesson, but try to recall as many as you can from memory.
Essay Prompt 1:
Write an essay of at least three to four paragraphs that explains what scholars can learn about ancient Egyptian politics and the powers of the pharaohs by examining Egyptian art and architecture.
Example: The massive scale of the monuments indicates that pharaohs were able to amass a very large workforce.
Essay Prompt 2:
In approximately one to two pages, write an essay that describes the role of religion in ancient Egyptian art and architecture.
Example: The afterlife was extremely important in ancient Egyptian culture, so tombs had to be properly prepared and artistically decorated in order for the person buried to become immortal.
Essay Prompt 3:
Write an essay of at least one paragraph that describes the significance of consistency in ancient Egyptian art.
Example: The fact that Egyptian art remained so consistent over the course of a millennium demonstrates political stability.
Register to view this lesson
Unlock Your Education
See for yourself why 30 million people use Study.com
Become a Study.com member and start learning now.Become a Member
Already a member? Log InBack