Ancient Egyptian Sculptures & Paintings: Innovation & Examples

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Jackson

Amy has a BFA in Interior Design as well as 19 years teaching experience and a doctorate in education.

Advanced beyond its time, ancient Egypt is known for its sculptures, paintings, written language, construction methods, and other innovations. This lesson will look at the art of the ancient Egyptians and their innovations in sculpture and painting. Updated: 01/13/2021

A Culture Like No Other

The Egyptian civilization dates from 3100 BC and inspired Roman, Greek, and other cultures. Situated along the Nile River, the Egyptian civilization thrived until 332 BCE when Alexander the Great conquered Egypt.

Egyptian art needed to be beautiful while at the same time functional, as many pieces of art were intended to accompany the deceased into the afterlife. Intricate tomb paintings illustrated the deceased's life, so the spirit could remember it, or scenes from the afterlife so the spirit would know how to get there. Statues were created to hold the spirit of a person after death. Amulets and charms were made to ward off evil and protect the wearer from harm.

The art from this culture is the story of the upper class and royalty. Most common people could not afford to have their life immortalized. Even so, Egyptian art gives us a glimpse into the history of the entire culture.

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  • 0:04 A Culture Like No Other
  • 1:08 Sculpture
  • 1:46 Painting
  • 2:23 The Three Kingdoms…
  • 4:50 Lesson Summary
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Sculpture

Most of the sculpture of ancient Egypt was worshipful or funerary. Temples were the resting places of gods whose statues stayed in the temple. Low relief sculpture used on walls depicted the customs of the culture such as sports, household chores, hunting, fishing, and farming. Sculptors used natural materials such acacia and sycamore wood, limestone, sandstone, granite, alabaster, basalt, diorite, and porphyry. Artisans also worked with ebony, ivory, silver, and gold as well as precious stones. The Egyptians also became skilled at bronze and copper sculpting using the lost wax process.

Painting

Paintings were used to make the afterlife a pleasant place for the deceased. Paintings of the deceased doing their favorite activity would allow them to continue those activities in the afterlife. Other paintings depict the journey through the underworld. Painting was done either directly on a surface or as an accent in a low-relief sculpture. Colors were made from minerals and plants native to the area or, in some cases, imported from other cultures. The most common colors were red, blue, green, black, and white, each one having a symbolic reference.

Red (or 'dshr'), a shade often associated with blood, was a color symbolic of vitality and was also connected to the life force of the goddess Isis. Meanwhile, while ('hdj') symbolized purity and its power. When such colors were paired - for example, in the merged crown of Upper and Lower Egypt - they combined to imply the incredible might and vivacity of its people. Blue (irtyu) carried ancient Egyptians into the celestial realm, as it was intended to connote the rich blue sky and was often accented with stylized golden stars to simulate the heavens. Finally green ('wadj') and black ('kem') were tied to tied to the Underworld and were the colors of chief dieties like Osiris, but they were not macabre in message: both colors were often seen as symbolizing regeneration, with green suggesting health akin to a freshly blooming papyrus plant.

The Three Kingdoms (ca. 2575-1075 BCE)

Old Kingdom (ca. 2575-2150 BCE)

Regulated by the tastes of the elite of the Egyptian capital, the art style is fairly uniform during the Old Kingdom. The Great Sphinx and the Pyramids of Giza, some of the most recognized sculptures in the world, were created during this period. The pharaohs of Egypt used organized labor to create these huge projects and simple machines, such as ramps and levers, were developed to help workers. Portrait statues were created as funerary objects to hold the deceased's ba, or spirit, should their mummified body be destroyed. Low-relief, finely carved, and brightly painted wall sculpture was common.

Painting and writing showed significant advancements during the Old Kingdom. The Egyptians were one of the first cultures to have a written language: hieroglyphics. Hieroglyphics used pictures to represent words and are found in carvings and paintings, often in tombs and temples. Color was added as the Egyptians found out how to make ink and various colors of paint. Papyrus, the first paper, was developed by the Egyptians for both writing and painting around this same time.

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