Egyptian Art and Architecture
Egyptian Art and Architecture, the buildings, paintings, sculpture, and allied arts of ancient Egypt, from prehistoric times to its conquest by the Romans in 30 bc. Egypt had the longest unified history of any civilization in the ancient Mediterranean, extending with few interruptions from about 3000 bc to the 4th century ad. The nature of the country, fertilized and united by the Nile, and its semi-isolation from outside cultural influences, produced an artistic style that changed little during this long period. Art in all its forms was devoted principally to the service of the pharaoh, who was considered a god on Earth, to the state, and to religion. From early times a belief in a life after death dictated that the dead be buried with material goods to their ensure well-being for eternity. The regular patterns of naturethe annual flooding of the Nile, the cycle of the seasons, and the progress of the Sun that brought day and nightwere considered gifts from the gods to the people of Egypt. Egyptian thought, morality, and culture were rooted in a deep respect for order and balance. Change and novelty were not considered important in themselves; thus the style and representational conventions in Egyptian art that were established early in the development of that civilization continued virtually unchanged for more than 3,000 years. To the modern eye the Egyptian artistic idiom may seem stiff and static; its underlying intention, however, was not to create an image of things as they appear in reality, but rather to capture the essence of a person, animal, or object for eternity.
II PREDYNASTIC PERIOD
The early prehistoric dwellers on the Nile inhabited the terraces or plateaux left by the river as it cut its bed. Tools and implements left by these early inhabitants of Egypt show their gradual development from seminomadic hunter-gatherers to settled agriculturists. By 4000 bc the civilization of Egypt was in its earliest formative stages; the Predynastic period, which lasted until about 3100 bc, had begun.
Evidence of organized settlements dating from this period has been found, and artefacts produced are mainly associated with burials. Objects were put into the grave with the body for the use of the spirit in the next life; thus a great quantity of such personal goods as pottery, tools, and weapons has been preserved. The pottery is often decorated with painting that reflects the life of the time. Recurring motifs include images of birds and animals common to the land bordering the Nile, and, dating from the latter part of the Predynastic period, elaborate depictions of many-oared Nile boats. Copper was used in limited quantities for beads and simple tools, but most implements were knapped from stone. Palettes made of stone were used for grinding eye paint. Small sculptures and figurines were either carved from ivory and bone or modelled in clay.
III THE OLD KINGDOM
The Old Kingdom of Egypt, ruled by the 3rd to the 6th dynasties, spanned the five centuries between about 2755 bc and 2255 bc. In about 3100 bc the country was united under one rule by strong chieftains from the south. The idea, however, that Egypt was divided into two distinct partsUpper Egypt in the south and Lower Egypt in the northpersisted. The unification of Egypt, or one of the stages leading to it, is commemorated on the carved stone Palette of King Narmer (c. 3100 bc, Egyptian Museum, Cairo), on which the king, wearing the crown of the south, is shown subjugating peoples of the north.
At Abydos and Saqqara tombs for the kings of the early dynasties were built in imitation of palaces or shrines. The large amounts of pottery, stonework, and ivory or bone carving found in these tombs attest to a high level of development in Early Dynastic Egypt. Hieroglyphic script (picture writing), the written form of the Egyptian language, was in the first stages of its evolution.
In the 3rd Dynasty the architect Imhotep built for Zoser (reigned c. 2640-c. 2621 bc) a complex at Saqqara, near the capital, Memphis; it was a burial ground that included a stepped pyramid of stone and a group of shrines and related buildings. The great Step Pyramid in which the remains of the king were laid is the oldest surviving example of monumental architecture; it also illustrates one of the phases in the development of the true pyramid.
The architecture of the Old Kingdom can be described as monumental in the sense that native limestone and granite were used for the construction of large-scale buildings and tombs. Of the temples built during this period little remains.
The pyramid complex at Giza where the kings of the 4th Dynasty were buried illustrates the ability of Egyptian architects to construct monuments that remain wonders of the world. The Great Pyramid of Khufu originally stood about 146 m (480 ft) high and contained about 2.3 million blocks with an average weight of 2.5 tonnes each. The purpose of pyramids was to preserve and protect the bodies of the kings for eternity. Each pyramid had a valley temple, a landing and staging area, and a pyramid temple or cult chapel where religious rites for the king’s spirit were performed. Around the three major pyramids at Giza a necropolis (city of the dead) grew up, which contained mastabas (Arabic, mastabah, “mud-brick bench”), flat-roofed tombs with sloping slides, so called because of their resemblance to the sloped mud-brick benches in front of Egyptian houses. The mastabas were for the members of the royal family, high officials, courtiers, and functionaries. For the most part these tombs were constructed over shafts that led to a chamber containing the mummy and the offerings, but some tombs were cut into the limestone plateau and not constructed from blocks of stone.
From the tombs at Giza and Saqqara it is clear that the houses they imitate were arranged on streets in well-planned towns and cities. Little is known for certain about the domestic architecture of the Old Kingdom, because houses and even palaces were built of unbaked mud brick and have not survived. The temples and tombs, built of stone and constructed for eternity, provide most of the available information on the customs and living conditions of the ancient Egyptians.
From the early figures of clay, bone, and ivory in the Predynastic period, Egyptian sculpture developed quickly. By the time of Zoser, who reigned 2737-2717 bc, large statues of the rulers were made as resting places for their spirits. Egyptian sculpture is best described by the terms cubic and frontal. The block of stone was first made rectangular; the design of the figure was then drawn on the front and the two sides. The resulting statue was intended to be seen mainly from the front. Since it was meant to be a timeless image intended to convey the essence of the person depicted, there was no need for it to be composed in the round.
The Egyptian artist was not interested in showing movement in the sense that this term is understood today. Standing figures are not posed as if they were walking but rather at rest. From the beginning of the dynastic period human anatomy was understood but given an ideal form. Images of the kings, in particular, were idealized and given great dignity. A seated stone figure (c. 2530 bc, Egyptian Museum) of Khafre, builder of the second-largest pyramid at Giza, embodies all the qualities that make Egyptian royal sculpture memorable. The king sits on a throne decorated with an emblem of the united lands, with his hands on his knees, head erect, and eyes gazing into the distance. A falcon of the god Horus behind his head symbolizes that he is the “living Horus”, one with the gods. All parts of the diorite statue are unified and balanced, creating a potent image of divine kingship.
A number of sculptural forms were developed for the depiction of private individuals. In addition to seated and standing single figures, paired and group statues of the deceased with family members were made. Sculpture was of stone, of wood, and (rarely) of metal; paint was applied to the surface; the eyes were inlaid in other materials, such as rock crystal, to heighten the statue’s lifelike appearance. Only people of importance could have such statues of themselves made; a type of sculpture does exist, however, depicting workmen and women engaged in food preparation and the crafts. These were made to be included in the tomb to serve the spirit in the next life.
Sculpture in relief served two important purposes: on the walls of temples it glorified the king; in the tombs it provided the spirit with the things it would need through eternity. The chambered superstructures of private tombs were usually decorated with scenes of the occupant enjoying and supervising those activities in which he took part in life. The method of representing the human figure in two dimensions, either carved in relief or painted, was again dictated by the desire to preserve the essence of what was shown. As a result, the typical depiction combines the head and lower body as seen from the side, with the eye and upper torso as seen from the front. The most understandable view of each part was used to create a complete image. This rule, or canon, was applied to the king and members of the nobility, but the representation of servants and field workers was not so rigidly enforced. It is clear that some complicated actions had to be conveyed with the representation of other parts of the body, but the face was rarely shown from the front. To complete the lifelike effect, relief carving was usually painted and many details were added only in paint; purely painted decoration, however, is seldom found in artefacts dating from the Old Kingdom.
An understanding of much of Egyptian life and customs can be derived from tomb reliefs. The varieties of food and their preparation, the methods of caring for flocks and herds, the trapping of wild animals, the building of boats, and the processes of the other crafts are all illustrated. Such activities were arranged on the wall in bands or registers that can be read as continuing narratives, not as occurences in a discrete moment in time but as timeless occupations. The sculptors working in relief or in the round acted as teams, with different stages of the work assigned to different members of the group. The artist in ancient Egypt was content to follow established rules and was proud to be part of a highly regarded craft.
C Decorative Arts
In pottery-making the rich decoration of the Predynastic period was replaced by beautifully made undecorated wares, often with burnished surfaces, in a wide variety of useful shapes. Pottery in antiquity served all the purposes for which glass, china, metal, and plastic are used today; consequently it ranged from vessels for eating and drinking to large storage containers and brewer’s vats. Jewellery was made of gold and semi-precious stones in forms incorporating animal and plant designs. Throughout the history of Egypt the decorative arts were highly dependent on such motifs. Few actual examples of furniture have been preserved, but the number of illustrations in tombs give much information about the design of chairs, beds, stools, and tables. Generally they were of simple design, incorporating plant forms and with legs terminating animal feet.
By the end of the 6th Dynasty central rule in Egypt had weakened; local rulers chose to have themselves buried in their own provinces rather than near the burial places of the king they served. From this dynasty comes the oldest surviving metal statue, an image in copper (c. 2300 bc, Egyptian Museum) of Pepi I (reigned c. 2395-2360 bc). The First Intermediate period (7th to 10th dynasties) was a time of anarchy and unrest. A feeble attempt was made to carry on the artistic traditions of the Old Kingdom, but not until the strong rulers of Thebes, in the south, reunited the country did artistic activity resume its former vigour.
IV MIDDLE KINGDOM
Mentuhotep II, the 11th-dynasty pharaoh who reigned 2061-2010 bc, was the first ruler of the united Middle Kingdom (2134-1784 bc), created a new style in mortuary monuments, probably inspired by the pyramid complexes of the Old Kingdom. On the west bank at Thebes he constructed a valley temple connected by a long causeway to a platformed temple nestled in the rocky hillside. The walls were decorated with reliefs of the king in the company of the gods.
The architecture of the Middle Kingdom is not well represented by preserved examples. A small building associated with Senusret I (reigned 1962-1928 bc) of the 12th Dynasty, however, has been recovered from one of the later pylons of the temple at Karnak for which its blocks were reused as filling material. This small chapel, actually a station for the procession of a sacred boat, may be taken as a typical example of the style of the time. Essentially cubic in design and constructed on a strict post-and-lintel system, this small building has a purity of line and controlled proportions that give it a timeless character. The piers are decorated in fine raised relief with images of the king and the gods.
The sculpture of the Middle Kingdom is often described as a new attempt at realism. The early work of this period directly imitates Old Kingdom examples in an attempt to restore old traditions, but the sculpture of the 12th Dynasty exhibits a fresh interest in reality. Portraits of rulers such as Amenemhet III and Senusret III are clearly different from those of Old Kingdom rulers.
In the 12th Dynasty images of the king are not idealized to the point of being god-like. The care and concern of high office are clearly mirrored in the face. The bone structure is indicated beneath taut surfaces, producing a type of serious realism not previously encountered in Egyptian art. Statues of private individuals at all times tended to imitate the royal style; thus it follows that portraits of the nobility in the 12th Dynasty should show this same realism.
The practice among the nobility, of burial in tombs built in their own centres of influence, rather than at the royal capital, continued. Although many of these tombs were decorated in relief carving like the Asw;#257;n tombs in the south, those at Beni Hassan and El Bersha in Middle Egypt were often decorated only with painting. Extant examples show the work of provincial artisans who attempted to adhere to the standards of royal workshops. Some new types and depictions appear, but the old standards served as a guide to the subjects and arrangements. Painting also decorated the rectangular wooden coffins typical of this period.
D Decorative Arts
The Middle Kingdom was also a time when superb works in the decorative arts were producedin particular, jewellery made of precious metals inlaid with coloured stone. Glazed terracotta rose to a new importance for the manufacture of amulets and small figures. Perhaps best known are the blue-glazed hippopotamuses decorated with painted water plants.
V NEW KINGDOM
The 13th Dynasty was a time of weak rulers, who numbered 50 or 60 in 150 years. The Second Intermediate period (14th-17th dynasties) was again a time of divided rule in Egypt. The Hyksos, foreign invaders from western Asia, entered Egypt and set themselves up as rulers in their own right. This had a lasting impact on Egypt, because the Hyksos brought to Egypt new technology and, at the same time, gave the Egyptians a broader view of their place in the Mediterranean world. Once again, however, Thebes instigated the reunification of Egypt, the foreigners were expelled, and a single kingship was established. The New Kingdom (1570-1070 bc), beginning with the 18th Dynasty, came to be a period of great power, wealth, and influence exemplified by extensive foreign trade and conquest.
The kings of the 18th to the 20th dynasties were great builders of religious architecture. With the capital re-established at Thebes, special attention was paid to the local god Amon, who became the most important deity in Egypt. Additions to the temple complex at Karnak, the cult centre of Amon, were made by virtually every ruler in the New Kingdom, resulting in one of the most impressive religious structures in history. Gigantic pylon gateways, colonnaded courts, and many-columned halls decorated with obelisks and statues created an impressive display directly attributable to the power of the king and the state.
On the west bank, near the necropolis of Thebes, temples for the funerary cult of the kings were built. During the New Kingdom the bodies of rulers were buried in rock-cut tombs in the arid Valley of the Kings, with the mortuary temples at some distance outside the valley. Of these, one of the first and most unusual was the mortuary temple (c. 1478 bc) of Hatshepsut at Dayr el-Bahri, built by the royal architect Senemut (died c. 1482 bc). Situated against the Nile cliffs next to the 11th-Dynasty temple of Mentuhotep II, and probably inspired by it, the temple is a vast terraced structure with numerous shrines to the gods and reliefs depicting Hatshepsut’s accomplishments. Other kings did not follow her precedent; they built their temples at the edge of the cultivated land, away from the cliffside.
The rock-cut tombs were dug deep into the cliffsides of the Valley of the Kings in an effortnot always successfulto conceal the resting places of the royal mummies. The long descending passageways, stairs, and chambers were decorated in relief and painted with scenes from religious texts intended to protect and aid the spirit in the next life.
In the 19th Dynasty, Ramses II, one of the greatest builders of the New Kingdom, created the gigantic rock-cut temple of Abu Simbel in Nubia, to the south. It was hewn into the mountainside and fronted by four colossal figures of the king. Between 1964 and 1968, to save it from immersion beneath the waters of the new Aswān Dam, the facade and halls of the entire temple were cut out of the mountain and moved to a higher location.
As in all periods, domestic and palace architecture was of perishable mud brick. Enough remains have been preserved, however, to convey an idea of well-planned multiroomed palaces with painted floors, walls, and ceilings. Houses for the upper classes were arranged like small estates, with residential and service buildings in an enclosed compound. Examples of the modest workers’ dwellings can even be found, clustered together in villages very much like those of modern Egypt.
In the New Kingdom the art of sculpture reached a new height. The severe stylization of the Old Kingdom and the bitter realism of the Middle Kingdom were replaced with a courtly style combining a sense of nobility with a careful attention to delicate detail. Begun in the reigns of Hatshepsut and Thutmose III, this style reached a maturity in the time of Amenhotep III that was never again equalled in Egypt. Portraits of rulers were imbued with grace and sensitivity, as were depictions of the courtiers.
The art of the time of Akhenaton, son of Amenhotep III, reflects the religious revolution this king set into motion. Akhenaton worshipped Aten, the sun god, and he believed art should have a new direction. Early in his reign a realism bordering on caricature was employed, but this developed into a style with a subtle beauty and a deep sense of feeling, qualities embodied in the painted limestone head (c. 1365 bc, Staatliche Museen, Berlin) of Nefertiti, Akhenaton’s queen.
While relief carving was used during the New Kingdom principally for the decoration of religious structures, the art of painting came to dominate the decoration of private tombs. The necropolis at Thebes is a rich source of information on the slowly changing artistic tradition, as well as of vivid illustrations of life at the time.
The medium of painting made possible a wider range of expression than sculpture, allowing the artist to create colourful tableaux of life on the Nile. Officials are shown inspecting the exotic tribute brought to Egypt from all parts of the known world. The crafts of the royal workshops are depicted in meticulous detail, illustrating the production of all manner of objects, from massive sculptures to delicate jewellery. Funerary rites, from the procession to the tomb to the final prayers for the spirits, are illustrated. One of the standard elements in Theban tomb painting, known as early as the Old Kingdom, is a representation of the deceased hunting and fishing in the papyrus marshes, pastimes he would have wanted to enjoy throughout eternity.
D Decorative Arts
In their high level of accomplishment, the decorative arts of the New Kingdom are equal to the sculpture and painting of that period. Ordinary objects for the use of the court and the nobility were exquisitely designed and made with great technical skill. Nowhere is this better shown than in the funerary items from the tomb (discovered in 1922) of Tutankhamen, in which rich materialsalabaster, ebony, gold, ivory, and semi-precious stoneswere combined in objects of consummate artistry. Even the pottery of the New Kingdom exhibits this rich love of decoration, their surfaces brilliantly painted, mainly with floral motifs. From the evidence of tomb paintings and the decorative arts, the Egyptians of this time took particular delight in a richly colourful life.
VI LATE PERIOD
The strong kings of the 18th and 19th dynasties and the first part of the 20th Dynasty were succeeded by weak rulers who allowed the country to fall from their grasp. Ramses III, the last powerful ruler of the 20th Dynasty, built an immense mortuary temple (1198-1167 bc) on the west bank of the Nile at Medinet Habu, near Thebes, which remains one of the best preserved today. A palace adjoined the temple; it is clear that the king visited and used it during his lifetime. Battle scenes from the campaigns that Ramses III organized in the defence of Egypt from foreign invasion are vividly recorded in reliefs on the temple walls.
The 21st to 24th dynasties are considered the Third Intermediate period, a span of more than 350 years, with rulers at Sais, Tanis, and Bubastis in the Nile delta. The rulers of the 25th Dynasty who reunited Egypt were foreigners from Cush in the Sudan; they worshipped Egyptian gods, however, and espoused Egyptian customs in the belief that it was their duty to restore Egypt to glory. These Cushite kings refurbished temples and built new structures dedicated to the gods. They incorporated in their names those of famous kings of the past, and their art imitated scenes and motifs from earlier monuments. The practice of pyramid burial was revived in their homeland of Cush. During their reign the Assyrians invaded Egypt and eventually put an end to Cushite domination.
The Assyrians were not able to hold the country; the appointed vassals of the Assyrians created a new native dynasty at Sais and ruled for nearly 140 years. The Saites continued the tradition of restoration begun by the Cushites, and the arts flourished. Sculpture and bronze casting became major industries; contacts were made with the Greeks, some of whom served in the Egyptian army as mercenaries. A Jewish colony was even established as far south as Aswān, testifying to contact by the Saite kings with the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. The art of the 26th Dynasty used many ancient forms, often literally copying motifs from earlier monuments. An interest in perceptive portraiture begun in the 25th Dynasty was continued, sometimes with splendid results.
The 26th Dynasty ended with the invasion by the Persian Empire and, except for brief periods, Egypt was never again completely free from foreign domination. The conquest of the country by Alexander the Great in 332 bc and by the Romans in 30 bc brought Egypt into the Classical world, but the ancient artistic traditions persisted. Alexander and his successors were depicted on the walls of temples as Egyptian kings in an Egyptian style of relief carving. Temples were built in the Ptolemaic period (the dynasty founded by Alexander) and in the Roman period that echoed traditional Egyptian styles in architecture.
Egyptian art also exerted a powerful influence on the cultures of the invaders. Early Greek artists acknowledged a debt to Egypt in the development of their own styles. The Romans so loved Egyptian art that they carried off to their homeland countless examples and even had imitations of Egyptian sculpture carved by Roman artists. The influence of Egyptian art and the fascination with Egyptian antiquity have persisted to the present day.