Ancient Egyptians kept their culture, identity, and personal characteristics over time. The secure geographical location and the river Nile contributed to that. As they learned the ancient arts of agriculture, Ancient Egyptians settled by the Nile banks. Further, the structure of Ancient Egyptian society was rigidly graded in a pyramidal order with the pharaoh (king) on top followed by priests. Every individual had a specific place in the social pyramid. Recurring of the Nile annual flood and the regular period of receding Nile water put forward the concept of another life after death. Besides, the daily journey of the sun with alternating day and night had an influence on the Ancient Egyptian beliefs of death and life after death. Another factor that preserved the consistency of ancient Egyptian art is inventing writing. They looked at scribes (who know reading and writing) so high in the social pyramid. Second is the women’s position, although they come secondary to men, yet, legally there were equal to men (Watts, and Watts, Pp.7, 8).
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The social and religious beliefs of ancient Egyptian influenced their art. Ignatov (Pp. 1-6) looked at the general characteristics of ancient Egyptian as a reflection of their life. Ignatov suggested that since the Egyptian word for art is Hmt, which means skill and dominance in the profession, and implies a religious meaning as artists were priests of God Petah. Egyptian spiritual beliefs affected the artists’ work. It is true most of the Egyptian monuments are, in reality, a materialization of various acts of Egyptian theology. Further, the Egyptians called the words of their writings of god. Ivanov (Pp.1-6) inferred two main general characteristics of ancient Egyptian art, first considering humans as the universe’s most important entity (anthropocentrism). This is supported by: 1- Egyptian art centered on man and various human activities. 2-, despite that, the Egyptian artist never focused neither on personal expressions nor on a specific moment but always considered the whole entity. Figures were two- dimensional and were assimilations of the front and side points of view. The second general feature was symbolism in form, size, positioning, actions, gestures, and color. Examples are Men were almost always portrayed in dark red shades of color, as red symbolized power and vivacity. At the same time, women were illustrated in pale yellow or white colors, referring to cleanliness and purity. Pharaoh’s insignia (crook and flail) and posture symbolized his divinity and power to keep order. As inferred by Ignatov, Egyptian images have to be analyzed from the perspective of form and function (Ignatov, Pp. 1-6).
Ancient Egyptian religion was complex; besides being polytheistic, the concepts of death and the afterlife were even more complicated. The fact that many Egyptian artwork and mummies were discovered in ancient tombs lead many Egyptologists to recognize a funerary art identity of Ancient Egypt (Wente, Pp. 17-25). Gods served one purpose as Bes for sexual life and conception. Alternatively, Gods may serve various forms of one concept as Kephri the God of the rising sun, Atun, the God of the setting sun, and Amon Re the Sun God. In art, Gods were represented as humans with animal heads that reflect the strengths and qualities associated with that animal. The Egyptian perception of the afterlife was not one of interruption of a cycle but rather a continuation of their life on earth with no pain or suffering. This way, they portrayed the dead person on the tomb walls in the picture they like to continue within their second life (Kennan and Alcain, Pp. 1-5). The tomb wall picture also portrayed what life the deceased lived and hopes for in the afterlife. Ancient Egyptian also believed that ka (force of life or soul) and ba (the bridge between life on earth and the afterlife) come again and identify the dead person to reunite to continue the second life. Failure of ka and ba to recognize the deceased would simply mean a second-time death. This is the reason beyond mummification, the face drawings and face masks on coffins (Kennan and Alcain, Pp. 1-5). An Egyptian tomb was of two parts a sealed or even hidden burial chamber where the mummy, coffin, and needs for the afterlife (food, drinks, and cloths) are. A neighboring place for living visitors was included in the tomb. Funerary literature included phrases appropriate to a multitude of pleasant activities of the dead as how merciful Osiris, God of judgment in the world of the dead. A perfect example of mortuary literature is the book of the dead (Wente, Pp. 17-25). The objective of Egyptian funerary art can be summarized in one phrase that is the pursuit of immortality (Kennan and Alcain, Pp. 1-5).
Egyptian Hieroglyph was an expression of symbolism and art. Together they made up a complex language that was arranged in a philosophical and artistic way. The language had syntax and sentence composition, but unlike English, the sentence arrangement was verb+subject+object. Such a sentence like the farmers saw the birds would read saw the farmers the birds. The alphabet was figures of birds, animals, parts of man, or common utensils. A word would be composed of figures expressing the letter as pronounced, then a sign to clarify the meaning at the end of the word. An example is writing the word man is to write the symbol for the letter m, then that of a, and that of n. In the end, a picture of a man is drawn to clarify the previous three letters. The Hieroglyph was read left to, right, right to the left, or from up downwards, but never from downwards above. Looking at the side the faces look at is the key to know the direction of reading and the sequence of sentences (Peter Der Manuelian, Pp. 8-10).
Ovadiah (Pp. 1-12) identified art as a phenomenon that reproduces a mirror image of the historical, social, and religious beliefs of its age. In the same way, the informative nature of art portrays images from the past; art can be instructive about the ancient history of its time. Ovadiah (Pp.1-12) explained few examples from Egyptian art. First, the pyramids were considered the diadem of architecture and art in the age of pharaohs. Pyramids tell us enormous information about the political, economic, and scientific environment of that age and the power, supremacy, and control of the pharaohs. Ancient Egyptian rulers and military leaders used to include writers and artists in their campaigns. A perfect example of the effect they produced in the military campaign of Ramses II in Qadesh. He ordered writers and artists to write and draw signs of his outstanding victory on the Hitti alliance on the wall of the Karnack complex and Ramesseum temples, although it is historically questionable. From this view, art can be considered propagandistic to the ruler. Art in these two examples can be looked upon as a symbol of tyrannous totalitarian rule. In this particular case, art creates a paradoxical impression; from one side, it is an example of artistic excellence; on the other hand, it produces criticism on the social and political status of the Pharaoh’s reign. Therefore ancient Egyptian art should be interpreted in these examples based on historical criteria known from the literature (Ovadiah, Pp. 1-12).
A major feature of form in Egyptian art is balance; as the major figure in a drawing was always larger than what the posture is, it usually gives the most particular style. The wife was always a step behind, but the man’s hand was on her shoulder, holding her hand or sharing her in caring for the children. Auxiliary figures like servants or entertainers were smaller, with hand signs to show what they are doing. Balanced figures were drawn in clear outlines, with flat areas of color used to display order and clarity. For sculptures and statues, the geometric aspects were the cube, horizontal and vertical axis. The size scale of drawings and sculptures pointed to the relative importance. Egyptian art showed careful nature observation features. In drawings including humans and animals as in hunting or fieldwork, the artist focused on the posture, musculature, and bone structure of man to point to power and control. Animal, on the other hand, were figured smaller and in their natural environment interacting with another animal in a realistic way (Watts, and Watts, Pp.17-45). Thus, form characteristics in Egyptian art are clearness, steadiness, and weighing scales (Watts, and Watts, Pp.17-45).
Arthur Krispin (Pp. 1-13), an independent Egyptian art scholar, developed a vision of how to interpret Egyptian art that he called the Egyptian Artistic Canon. The vision is base on three key constituents, the contour line, the illustrative (pictorial) depiction of the human figure, and ratio-related representation (proportionality). The contour line is the outer borderline that defines the shape of a figure; the ancient Egyptian artist did not pay much attention to inner details depending on focusing on the contour line. This is why facial expressions were not attended to in Egyptian art. About the illustrative pictorial depiction, the head was usually drawn in profile as well as feet and legs. Shoulders were drawn in full span, which needs a front appearance; this is the reason why the trunk was often in a transitional position (neither in front nor in profile). Both ankles were seen with the legs slightly spread taking a rest pose, this resulted in the static motionless appearance often noticed. About ratio-related representation, the standing human figure in ancient Egyptian drawings and sculpture can often be divided into a fixed number of separate units. The head takes two nearly units; the body from neck to waist occupies 12 units. The legs take 9 units, the forearms four and a half units, and the upper arms three units. Other parts, lime the hands, toes, and ears, take sizes apt with the rest of the body (Krispin, Pp. 1-13). On interpreting a piece of Egyptian art, one should consider symbolism. In battle scenes, the pharaoh is always seen holding the head of the enemy with his left hand and a stick in his right, preparing to hit the enemy, an indication of power, control, and supremacy. The pharaoh may be seen in another drawing hunting a lion, so the pharaoh, who is the symbol of power and control, is fighting a lion as the symbol of power among desert animals (Krispin, Pp. 1-13).
Ancient works of art are added sources of information. Ancient Egyptian civilization continued for nearly 6000 years. The artistic precision, observance, and the excellent condition of monuments left have given archaeologists and historians the chance to study the economic, social, and technology of ancient history. One of the fields where Egyptian art gave today’s scientists the chance to study is agricultural history. Based on the drawings studied, Ancient Egypt was the origin of much of today’s agricultural technology (Janik, Pp. 69-88).
Ignatov, S. “Word and Image in Ancient Egypt.” Index of 96/1. 2008. New Bulgarian University Scholar Electronic Repository. Web.
Janik, J. “Art as a Source of Information on Horticultural Technology”. Proc. XXVII International Horticultural Congress on Global: Diversity and Harmony. 2006: 69-88 Seoul.
Kennan, T., and Alcaine, K. “The Quest for Immortality.” New Orleans Museum of Art. 2003. New Orleans Museum of Art Teacher’s Manual. 2008. Web.
Krispin, A. “An Overview of Egyptian Art.” Anistoriton Journal 9 (2005): 1-13. Anistoriton. Web.
Peter Der Manuelian. “Digging Up Egypt’s Past.” Department of Education. 1997. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. 2008. Web.
Ovadiah, A. “Art and Rulers.” Index of arts/projects/PUB/assaphart/assaph8/articles. 2004. Tel Aviv University. 2008. Web.
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Watts, E. A., and Watts, E. W. Art of Ancient Egypt A Resource for Educators. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1998.
Wente, E., F. “Funerary Beliefs of the Ancient Egyptians-An Interpretation of the Burials and the Texts.” Expedition vol 24 (2) 1982. p. 17-25.