Eyptian art : the basics

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This is a long, painful, artwork-heavy post about Egyptian art. Nonetheless there is an Egyptian-themed recipe in the next post! Skip if you don't give a damn about Pharaohs.

[Please note that chronology, especially when it comes to archaeology, is ever-changing as new dating evidence is discovered and scientific techniques evolve but I don't think a few hundred year gap/error will bother you.
Also, yes I'm using Roman numbers because that's what we use in French and Egyptian Dynasties are therefore visually impressed that way in my mind (and because I like it).]


Egyptian art is a remarkable art, I love it. You see, Egyptian art's prime purpose is not aesthetical. The first thing you need to bear in mind if you want to immerse yourself in this art is : MAGICAL. It's a magical necessity, it's heavily influenced by their religion. Art is a way to guarantee to the deceased an environment vital to his survival in the after life. It allows the divinity to recreate the world and ensures that Pharaoh is the protector of the Maat (cosmic balance and harmony in a nutshell). Basically, anything you represent will become real in the afterlife so surely you're going to come up with a lot of stuff you wish to have with you for eternity (because eternity is a damn long time). The majority of the population could not afford this so most Egyptian we know of is a limited vision though I don't like the term 'limited' : you will see that archaelogists have found evidence of pauper art that is worth mentioning as it gives a lighter and funnier side to Egyptian life, a side we rarely see through mainstream art (and shows that the art is not always religious).

I hope you'll like this post. I intend to write more, next one probably on deities and Egyptian mythology because I think it's fascinating.

Pharaoh offering Maat, silver and gold, New Empire, Louvre : the offering of the Maat is a typical royal act and sums up the fundamental function of the Egyptian Monarchy (source)

Every one knows Egyptian art. Firstly because it is very popular (particularly amongst children) and well represented in museums and secondly because it is easy recognisable. Maybe you do no have numbers in mind but Egyptian art spans over 4 000 years yet it looks the same mostly. That's due to the fact that it's been very consistent indeed. I'm going to explain you why.

Egyptian art obeys rigorous conventions that have mostly remained unchanged throughout the Ancient Egypt period (roughly three millennia!) to maintain the Maat (conventions that make you go 'what the hell') : aspective, canon, materials, association with writing and colours. 
All these conventions/rules are here to re-create (I'm being redundant but it is essential!) and they have remained the same because the Egyptians deemed they worked (so why change something that works!).

  • Canon of proportions : this was used for the bodies/objects to be aesthetically pleasing and conventionalised across the country. It doesn't necessarily means the proportions are right : in fact, it rendered subjects very unfaithfully to reality. This canon was achieved through a square grid system made of royal cubits (52,4 cm). They used 2 squares/units for the head, 10 units from the shoulders to the knees, the navel must be placed on the 11th unit... This 18-unit grid is the classical one. It changed on a few occasions : 20 units during the Amarna period and the Late Period added one more unit


  • Aspective: used in painting and low relief. Aspective consists in combining several images of a same object to recreate its entire reality (EVERYTHING must be represented). It follows these rules:
- Body representation : face, shoulders and abdomen in profile, hands and feet in profile                         seen from the side of the thumb or big toe, eye, torso from the front view. But there                             are a few exceptions :

As you can see, the two women in the middle are depicted with their face facing us.
British Museum, Nebamum Tomb

This women was depicted from behind
TT100, Rekhmire tomb


- Descriptive perspective (for lack of a better word, we call it perspective rabattue in French, folded perspective) : a combination of views : one frontal view  + 1 or more lateral views. The easier way to understand this perspective is to look at examples.

This is a symbolic representation of a royal residence : the facade is depicted frontally and the walls are seen from overhead
Stele of the Serpent King, Musée du Louvre

Here all the trees are represented laid out (unfolded)
TT100 Rekhmire Tomb
The necklaces on the trays are depicted vertically (and not horizontally) so that we can see them well and thus effectively created in the afterlife
TT96 Sennefer Tomb

The other basket is vertically projected. Normally we shouldn't see it as it is on the other side of the animal.
Gebelein, Tomb of Iti




       - Visual hierarchy (scale) : the larger a figure is (on a same register), the more important it is. This is called heroic scale. The importance was alaso conveyed by registers : if the image was composed of registers, then the figure higher (but not necessarily bigger) on the image is the most important. Registers were used most of the time, when they are not (which is unsual), this is done to represent chaos (isefet).

    1. The pharaoh is depicted in heroic scale and the subjected ennemies are much smaller
      7th pylon of Karnak,

      On the left, the figures are not depicted aligned on a register. This is to emphasize the chaos in the scene (and oppose Maat and Isefet)
      Toutankhamon chest
            - Posture : walking for men, female and male deities, standing with the left foot forward for women, sitting for scribs...

            - Symmetry : used a lot in architecture, to resonate order and be conform with the Maat
    Use of perfect symmetry
    Medamund Lintel, Musée du Louvre

    • Time : the passing of time was often represented by splitting up and juxtaposing scenes or reducing it to stereotyped elements such as a white wig.

    • Colours and materials : the use of colour is symbolic (but can be natural, that means colours can be represented as they are seen). Skin colours were conventionally dark red brown for men and light yellow brown for women. Hair (wigs) were black for both. There are a lot of exceptions to these rules : you can find ginger hair represented for instance, or grey hair.... White represents linen, purity and sacred things (religious objects, sacred animals...). Black was both the symbol of death, night, the afterlife but also resurrection as the black silt from the Nile that the Egyptian people rely for their agriculture. Yellow represented the imperishable and eternal and was therefore strongly linked to deities (mostly through the use of gold for gods's flesh, as well as sarcophagi because pharaohs became gods when they died). Red  was an ambiguous colour : it was the colour of chaos (the desert was red, as opposed to the black silt), hostility and anger but also bore the symbolism of life (blood) depending on the context. Blue was symbolic of water and sky, the yearly flood : blue was synonym of creation and birth. It was the colour of Amun, self-created deity. It was also used for the hair og gods. Green was named wadj which means to flourish, it was the colour of vegetation and growth. Osiris, god of the afterlife, was depicted with green skin (remember : afterlife = good). Malachite meant joy and the land of the dead was named the field of malachite. The materials were not only used for their value (of course gold was highly valuable) but the symbolic behind them as well as their colour. Gold is used for the godly flesh and corresponded with the survival of the deceased. Silver was linked to youth and was used for gods's bones. Lapis lazuli was used for gods's hair....

    • Association with hieroglyphics : the texts on any art support are there to complement the image. Hieroglyphs are icons with a linguistic and figurative value. They are written either in lines or columns. Usually the scenes are graphic and hieroglyphs act as decor.

    For instance, look at this stele :

    Princess Nefertiabet in front of her funeral dinner, Ancient Empire, Khufu reign, Giza, painted limestone (source)
    It represents the eternal dinner of the deceased in the after-life : everything that the princess will need has been represented on it. It was made to ensure the princess a pleasant eternal life. Hieroglyphs are used above her head to tell us (and make us say, therefore react her life) her name. She is seated at her funeral table, head in profile, torso in front view... Her skin is yellow, her hair black. On the table, there are cake and bread slices, a foreleg of ox on top (so we can see it), a small recipient with its content represented on top of it. All this is needed food for the afterlife. Half of the stele is adorned with text. The hieroglyphics are here to represent everything else she will need : cosmetics, drinks, fabrics. As you can see, the words are an essential part of the image. Notice the use of register, the main one being the one of the princess.













    Lexicon (in progress) :


    Acephalous: without a head

    Akhet (kh pronounced "r") :  the horizon, hieroplyph depicting a solar disc bewteen two mountains.

    Akhetaten ( = Amarna) : 'he Horizon of Atet' : city built by Akhenaten (Amenhotep IV)

    Apieion : sanctuary of the sacred bull Apis

    Apis : animal incarnation and herald of Ptah, bull deity

    Atet : aspect of the god Ra

    ba : represented as a human-headed bird, is the spiritual and mobile part of the human soul

    Criosphinx : a ram-headed sphink

    Cynocephalous : having the head of a dog

    Deshret : red crown of Lower Egypt,


    Frontispiece : the chief face of a building

    Geb : god of the Earth, consort of Nut (the Sky), man with black or green skin lying on the ground under Nut ; animal : goose

    Hedjet : white crown of Upper Egypt


    Heka and nekhakha (kh pronounced "r") : the crook and fail (kingship and fertility), Pharonic regalia

    Hieracosphinx : a hawk-headed sphinx

    Hypostyle : hall with a roof supported by columns

    ka : vital essence of the soul, sort of the double of the deceased, it was fed by offerings. The deceased's statue was its receptacle.

    khepresh (kh pronounced "r") :  blue war crown, sometimes adorned with golden discs

    Khepri (kh pronounced "r") : solar deity depicted as a man with a bettle head

    Nine bows : symbol of the 9 symbolical enemies of Egypt placed under Paharoh to represent his stranglehold over them, represented in 3x3 groups

    Nut : goddess of the Sky, depicted as a star-covered naked woman arched over the Earth, consort of Geb

    Periscelis (periscelidis) : an anklet

    Peristyle : columned porch or open colonnade in a biuilding surrouding an internal court

    Pschent (pronounced skent) : the Double Crown of Ancient Egypt combining the Deshret and the Hedjet, represents the power of Paraoh over all Egypt


    Ra-Horakhty (kh pronounced "r") : 'Ra who is Horus of the Two Horizons', manifestation of Ra from his sunrise rebirth (Khepri) to his vesper disappearance (Atum), man with the head of a falcon and with a sun-disc on his head

    Thoth : lunar God from Hermopolis, represented by an ibis or a baboon, "lord of time", inventor of writing and language, scribe of the Gods and God of the scribes, animals : ibis, baboon

    Was sceptre : royal sceptre symbolising power











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