Ancient Egyptian Art

The history of ancient Egypt, one of the most enduring civilizations of the ancient world,  is a history of continuity in the face of external challenges, and this story finds expression in the rich tradition of Egyptian art.

The story of Egyptian art begins approximately 3,000 years ago with the Palette of Narmer, a stone tablet completely covered with carvings. Using artistic conventions that would survive nearly three thousand years, the ceremonial palette tells the story of the unification of Lower Egypt, around the Nile Delta, with Upper Egypt, to the south.

palette of narmer

At this time the ancient Egyptian writing system of hieroglyphics had only recently been developed, and it is interesting to note the extent to which this development has influenced the art.  Not only does the palette contain explicit hieroglyphic labels that allow us to read these images with unprecedented accuracy, but the art itself is contained within strictly drawn panels or registers, marked as horizontal lines on which the central figures stand.

On the first side, King Narmer is wearing the distinctive crown of Upper Egypt.  We know from surviving paintings of the period that this crown is white; modern viewers cannot help but notice its striking similarity to a bowling pin.  In addition to his crown, Narmer’s larger size signifies his importance over the other figures in the scene.  He is shown with his left hand gripping the hair of a fallen enemy, with a mace in his upraised right hand, poised to execute his foe.  The small rectangle visible over the victim’s left shoulder may represent a city or citadel.  More defeated enemies grovel or writhe in the constrained space of the bottom register.

We know this is a ceremonial execution rather than a battle scene because King Narmer is barefoot.  A servant standing behind him (on the viewer’s left) holds the King’s sandals.  The convention of removing one’s shoes to stand on holy ground will be familiar to inheritors of the Judeo-Christian tradition from the story of Moses.

The story is symbolically repeated in the upper right corner of the palette.  Horus, the falcon god identified with the Pharaohs of Egypt, is perched on a clump of papyrus plants.  A Lower Egyptian head appears to grow out of the same mud as the plants, and the falcon holds it by a tether.  The identification is complete and the message unmistakable:  the god, as Narmer, has triumphed over his foes.

On the palette’s reverse, the top register shows King Narmer again, this time wearing the serpent crown of Lower Egypt.  Henceforth, the pharaohs of Egypt would wear a combined crown incorporating both these elements.  The King is still barefoot, with his sandal bearer behind him.  They follow in a triumphal procession from left to right to view the decapitated bodies of the enemy, laid out on the ground before them, as if seen from above.

This time, the symbolic retelling of the story appears in the bottom register.  A bull representing King Narmer tramples a Lower Egyptian and knocks down his citadel with its horns.  Both images of King Narmer include a bull’s tail hanging from his waist, a convention which continued to be included in the ceremonial dress of pharaohs from this time forward.

The functional recess that gives the palette its purpose is surrounded in the central register by the entwined, serpent-like necks of two lionesses.  These in turn are tied to ropes held by two small figures.  Appearing to float in the air, the figures in this register do not follow the strict conventions of the rest of the art, rendering their meaning less certain.  Likewise, the beasts may represent fertility in the union of male and female symbols, or may be purely decorative.

Intended to record historical acts or to communicate between this world and the next, the purpose of ancient Egyptian art was clarity, not illusion.  For this reason, important figures are represented in their most easily recognizable aspects:  arms, legs and heads are in strict profile, while the torso and eye appear in frontal view.   This combination renders any depiction of natural movement virtually impossible, but that is irrelevant to its purpose; the King or Pharaoh and his intimates are not required to do, but only to be.  Moreover, their immobility confers an unmistakable dignity, especially when considered in contrast to the sprawling forms of the defeated enemy.

Maintaining this sense of regal dignity requires strict adherence to convention.  The apparent continuity in style of Egyptian art over thousands of years testifies to the stability of the pharaohs’ rule, and, in the face of changing dynasties and foreign invasion, the stability of the Egyptian religion.

In an ancient world dominated by the forces of nature, Egypt’s geography contributed importantly to its staying power.  The Nile was the source of life, and its annual floods were triggered by snowmelt on the mountains around Kilimanjaro to the south.  Positioned close to the equator, these melts occurred with predictable regularity.  In stark contrast to other early agricultural civilizations dependent on rainfall for their sustenance, the Egyptians lived in a world whose order was easy to comprehend and predict.  This orderliness was expressed in great cultural stability.

2,700 years after King Narmer’s victories, Egypt came under the rule of the Ptolemaic kings.  Not indigenous Egyptians, they were descendants of Ptolemy I, a senior general of  Alexander the Great who ruled over his divided empire after Alexander’s death in 305 B.C.  Cleopatra VII was the last of these Ptolemaic rulers.

Following the death of Alexander the Great, Greek culture spread throughout the regions he had conquered.  Now called Hellenistic to distinguish it from the Hellenic culture of classical Greece, these cultural ideals came to dominate the Mediterranean region, including Egypt.

A magnificent black granite statue of a Ptolemaic Queen from the Franklin Institute, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, manifests the fusion of Hellenistic and traditional Egyptian influences.

Emerging from the earlier Egyptian tradition of more static figures, this body has a startlingly sculptural quality.  Hellenistic sculptors knew something about how to create a beautiful female form.  This, after all, is the Mediterranean culture that brought us the Nike of Samothrace and Venus de Milo.

Considered against the implied movement of these lively ladies, though, our Ptolomeic Queen radiates a quiet dignity.  Found at the excavation site of Canopus, the statue represents a real queen, probably Arsinoe II (316 B.C.- 270 B.C.).

In spite of the naturalism with which she is carved, this statue also suggests the traditionally Egyptian “cubic” view of the human form.  A three dimensional adaptation of the stylistic conventions of Egyptian painting and relief, sculptors considered their figures from the front, side and top, and worked inward until those visions converged in the stone.  Consistent with the strict requirements of two-dimensional Egyptian art, this approach necessitated the development of idealized forms of standardized proportions.  It also produced the sense of majestic immobility associated with ancient Egyptian sculpture.

Like all Egyptian rulers, this Ptolemaic Queen is represented as divine, and like Narmer, the cues to her divinity appear in clothing more symbolic than practical.  In the Egyptian climate, clothes aren’t necessary for warmth, but they were nonetheless important.  In the stylized language of ancient Egyptian art, clothes confer status:  royalty has them, slaves do not.  This queen’s identity as a manifestation of the goddess Isis is confirmed by the knot that joins the ends of her shawl. Complete, this statue of the Ptolemaic Queen must have been just slightly larger than life size, but the message of her grandeur echoes down through the ages.

Usually regarded as the oldest structures in the world, the 138 Egyptian pyramids were built for the Pharaohs to serve as their grand tombs. The body, with accompanying servants, was buried far below the entrance on the ground level along with everything the Pharaoh would need in his afterlife. Although the pyramids were largely solid rock, the walls of the tomb areas were highly decorated with colorful scenes depicting and honoring the pharaoh and his life. In many ways, the Egyptians prepared for their afterlives throughout their life on earth and the most honored of them were buried with great riches including gold to give to the gods of the underworld. The pyramids in Giza, near Cairo, are the most famous; the Pyramid of Khufu is the largest and the only example of the seven wonders of the Ancient World that still exists.

Pyramides de Ghyzéh, Vue Générale

Also located in Giza, the Great Sphinx is an immense statue made of limestone with the body of a lion and the head of a man. Scholars have debated over who ordered it to be built, its purpose and its age for many centuries. We do know that it may be the oldest monumental sculpture to be found and that it was built during the Old Kingdom period. Some scholars surmise that the Sphinx represents a pharaoh’s strength and was used for some type of ancient solar religious service.


Written by: Cindy Wright
This article includes factual information from Janson’s History of Art published by Harry N. Abrams, Inc., The Illustrated History of Art published by Bounty Books, and The Franklin Institute’s online materials related to the exhibition Cleopatra:  The Search for the Last Queen of Egypt;  Smart About Art Continuity and Change in Ancient Egyptian Art By Emily Rice For The Bulletin.



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