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Ancient Arts in Egypt

Ancient Arts in Egypt

Art flourished and played a vital role in shaping the ancient Egyptian culture, though art for 'arts sake' as its known today did not exist in ancient Egypt. The ancient Egyptian conceived art as a mean of translating his religious experience into a visual form. Thus all forms of art - sculpture in the round, relief and painting - mainly possessed a ritual purpose whose aim was to reflect the Egyptian conception of his world and afterlife, which was conceived as a timeless idealized world. From this philosophy originated the character and basic features of art which expressed the religious ideas in the most comprehensible way.


The most distinctive character is the adoption of the two dimensional representation, since art was conceived as a set of symbols that convey information for the viewer to read. The figures were conceived as diagrams of what they represent. The artist showed objects in what were believed to be their real forms without any distortion of perspective. Thus use of foreshortening and the adoption of a single unified view point for the whole picture, which we come to know in western art, were both irrelevant to the purpose of Egyptian artist. Therefore the first rule for the artist to follow was to represent objects by showing its most characteristic aspects, two dimensionally on a flat surface without depth. In this sense Egyptian art is conceptual rather than perceptual, for it depicts a concept rather than an image.

For example, the human figure was represented by a composite diagram of what was regarded as the typical aspect of each part of the body, with the whole being recognizable and expressive. The head was shown in profile with a full view eye, eyebrow, and a half mouth. The shoulders were shown full width from the front, while the forward side of the body from armpit to waist including the nipple (or in a woman the breast) was shown in profile, as were the waist, elbows, legs, and feet. As for the hands they were usually represented in full view either opened or clenched. This description is of the standing figure at rest, however there are many variations in pose and detail.

By examining the scenes on the walls of the tombs and temples, we see that it can be divided into two basic types: The formal scenes which posses a ritual purpose, depict the world of the gods and the dead, and the major figures in them are those of the deities, the king or the tomb owner. In the temples the major theme shows the rituals carried by the king before the gods and the acts performed by the gods towards the king. In the tombs the subject matter centers around the owner receiving offerings from his family as well as overseeing activities related to his position or office .

The figures were all shown in an idealized perfect form. The men were youthful and handsome. The women were slim and beautiful, and only the accompanying inscriptions distinguish between a man's wife and his mother. Oldness, illness, and deformity were deliberately excluded. The poses of these figures are limited to standing, sitting, and kneeling, while the violent movements were generally avoided even when the king was shown smiting his enemies, or the tomb owner engaged in an activity like hunting or spearing fish. In such scenes a perfectly balanced body is in the midst of the action giving an impression of controlled power. In addition to these formal scenes there are other types of scenes showing daily life activities in which subordinate figures are usually depicted. Figures in these scenes were far from being perfect sometimes even showing deformity. While the possible poses of the formal figures were limited, the poses in which minor figures might be shown were extremely wide, they could be shown engaged in activities like dancing, fighting, farming .......etc. .

In both scenes the scale was used to organize the entire compositions. The larger the figure, the more important it is. Usually the king and god were both shown equal in size and facing each other.

However, with the introduction of the new religion by Akhenaten, we see changes that resulted in a distinctive style of art which was developed to express his religious ideas and decorate his new capital, el Amarna.

The difference between the traditional art style and Amarna art is not a fundamental difference in the principles of representation that were inherited a long time ago. However the difference lies in the subject matter as well as the proportions of the human figure.

Traditional scenes in the temples centered around rituals carried by the king towards the gods, while in the Amarna Period these scenes were all combined in one unvarying scene type, where the king adores beneath the sun disk, while the rays of Aten embrace him and offer him the sign of life. As for the scenes in the tombs a new scene type was developed which replaced the traditional representation of the tomb owner seated before a table of offerings or standing before a deity. The new scenes show the royal family in various domestic situations breaking away from the previous type of formal scenes of the king.

One of the most obvious ways in which Amarna art departs from the traditional is in the proportions of the human figure. The king was shown with bizarre features, a long bony face with narrow and slanting eyes, fleshy mouth, long neck, protruding belly, heavy buttocks and thighs, short legs and spindly arms. It is a controversial matter whether this way of representation reflects Akhenaten's real physical appearance or rather an image of Akhenaten that arises as an expression of his religious ideas. Traces of Amarna Art continued in spite of the return to orthodoxy under Tutankhamon and his two successors, Ay and Horemheb. However, the reign of Horemheb shows the start of the working out of the Amarna legacy, where a certain formalism and a return to the traditional type of representations are evident.

Within these basic rules the Egyptians produced their artistic materials. Despite some changes and developments that occurred, the character of the art remained the same through out all the phases of the Egyptian history.

Last Updated on Sunday 16th January 2011

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