Amy has a BFA in Interior Design as well as 19 years teaching experience and a doctorate in education.
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.
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.
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.
Along with this standardization of a written language in the form of hieroglyphics, the ancient Egyptians also refined systematized means of representing figures. For example, they adopted the use of hierarchy of scale, a visual technique that scales the figures in a scene relative to their importance. They also manipulated bodies into what's known as composite poses, where they are seen standing in impossible mixes of frontal and profile positions. These conventions by which they depicted their figures reigned supreme through the eras of Egyptian history because they were a way to clarify each story being told.
Middle Kingdom (ca. 1975-1640 BCE)
The Middle Kingdom is thought to be the high point of Egyptian civilization. Around this time, Egyptian sculptors believed they had achieved perfection in their art. The later part of this period gave us monumental sculptures of pharaohs and gods. The larger the statue, the more important the ruler was. Enormous sculptures of Ramses II were created at the Temple of Karnak. The Egyptians were unable to carve freestanding figures of that size so all large statues were either seated or standing in a rigid position. The Egyptians developed the grid method of enlarging artwork to create these enormous statues, and the grid established the units of measurement used to carve sculpture.
Mural painting began to take the place of wall carvings where lower class people were portrayed more often. Plaster was often applied over the rock wall, and paint was worked into the wet plaster.
New Kingdom (ca. 1520-1075 BCE)
This period produced some of the best known artworks such as the bust of Nefertiti and King Tutankhamun's tomb treasures. Metalworking techniques from Persia and Greece influenced Egyptian art, and gold was incorporated into many royal commissions, either by covering a base with hammered metal or by melting pure gold for jewelry.
The most important painting of this period is in the Book of the Dead. Intended as a funerary guide instructing the deceased on how to get to the afterlife, pharaohs and other wealthy people would have a copy of the book buried with them.
The ancient Egyptian civilization was advanced beyond their time. Its art has been instrumental in letting us know how they lived, worked, and worshiped. Artisans in ancient Egypt were revered for their skills in both sculpture and painting.
Every piece of Egyptian art was created for a purpose like tomb paintings to lead the deceased to the afterlife, sculpture that could house a person's spirit, ba, or jewelry that could ward off evil. Enormous sculptures of pharaohs or gods were created during the Middle kingdom. Even their written language, hieroglyphics, was included in carvings, sculpture, and painting. From early hieroglyphics to the Great Temple of Karnak and King Tutankhamun's tomb, Egyptian art has fascinated the world for centuries.
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