The Pharaohs as Patrons of the Arts

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  • 0:02 Patrons of Art
  • 0:53 Pharaohs and Architecture
  • 2:20 Pharaohs and Art
  • 4:18 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In this lesson, you will discover how the pharaohs of ancient Egypt used their power and wealth to become great patrons of the arts. Then, test your understanding with a brief quiz.

Patrons of Art

How many giant paintings do you have of yourself? How about statues? Most of us don't have a lot of artistic images of ourselves. And before you say it, no, selfies on your phone do not count. The reason that we don't have monumental sculptures in our homes is because commissioning art is expensive. In fact, throughout most of history, art and architecture could only really be commissioned by kings and other nobles, because they were the only ones who could afford to pay artists.

In ancient Egypt, most art was commissioned by religious and political leaders. The greatest of these was the pharaoh, the king of Egypt, who ruled with absolute power and was also expected to become a god after death. Pharaohs controlled the wealth of Egypt and used it to finance some of the greatest masterpieces of art and architecture of their civilization.

Pharaohs and Architecture

One of the ways that pharaohs acted as patrons of art was through architecture. These kings very often displayed their wealth and power through immense building projects to construct palaces and temples across Egypt. Using relatively simple building tools, but ingenious and innovative approaches to architecture, the ancient Egyptians were one of the first civilizations to master monumental architecture, meaning buildings of immense size and scale. The palaces and temples of the pharaohs contained massive columns, some up to 80 feet tall, that supported ceiling stones that could weigh up to 70 tons.

Since the pharaohs were expected to become gods after death, they were pretty obsessed with matters of the afterlife. This was a major motivation for many of the building projects they commissioned. In the Egyptian religion, the spirit would survive after death, but it needed a place to reside, which is why bodies were mummified. If the body was disrupted, the spirit could fade or be lost. As long as the body was preserved, pharaohs could continue to watch over their kingdoms for all time, so they built massive tombs to protect their mummies and filled them with all of the luxuries that they used in life. The most famous of these tombs are the Pyramids of Giza, the great pyramids first begun by the pharaoh Khufu around 2560 BC. Building such monumental structures required the ability to mobilize and provide for a massive work force, something only someone with the power of a pharaoh could do.

Pharaohs and Art

What good is a massive temple, palace, or tomb if it isn't decorated? The pharaohs certainly didn't spend the wealth of their kingdom on architecture for it not to be extraordinary. These structures were covered in many forms of art, notably reliefs, or images carved so the figures stand out from the background, which were generally painted. The reliefs, a combination of images and hieroglyphs, told stories from the life of the pharaohs, from military conquest to moments of political and religious prestige. Thus, art was fundamentally tied to power, and the pharaohs used sculpture and painting to immortalize their power and legacy.

This is especially evident in the massive temples they built near their tombs. Although pharaohs built temples to many gods, the temple next to their tomb was meant to be the place where the king was worshiped as a god after his death. Therefore, they put extra attention into the art of these temples and commonly had colossal statues of themselves built to indicate their power as a god. Often, these were carved from a single massive piece of stone before being carefully moved into place.

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