Ancient Egyptian Art

Ancient Egyptian art is approximately five thousand years old. It emerged in ancient Egypt from the civilization of the Nile Valley. Their art was expressed in paintings and sculptures. They were highly symbolic and intended to keep the culture alive and prospering. Ancient Egyptian art will typically refer to the two and three-dimensional art that developed from 3000 BC and was used up until almost the 3rd century. It is notable that many artifacts from the era have survived the test of time and it is due to the excellent craftsmanship and materials of the age as well as the extremely dry climate of the area.

A lot of what we know about the Ancient Egyptians comes from their art. From their many pieces of art, sculpture, pottery, and architecture we can learn about what they looked like, the jobs they worked and even the clothes they wore. Over the span of those years, their art changed very little, despite moving through six different eras of rule. Art is an essential aspect of any civilization and once the basic needs of food and shelter have been accounted for, it tends to blossom as a way of expressing community beliefs, religious ideologies and cultural nuances. Much of their artwork emphasized their devotion to their religion. For example, they would fill the tombs of the Pharaohs with paintings and sculptures that would help guide them into the afterlife. Temples particularly were a popular place for art as a sign of worship and reverence to their gods. The first forms of Egyptian art represented animals, human beings and supernatural figures inscribed on rock walls. These early images were fairly crude in relation to later developments but they still reflected the most important value of Egyptian culture and consciousness. This was the concept of balance. Because many of the surviving forms of sculpture and art come in the form of tombs and monuments, we are particularly aware of their focus on life after death as well as the preservation of knowledge.

Egyptian society functioned mainly on the concept of harmony and balance which was known as ma’at. This came into being at the dawn of creation and was the matter that, in their eyes, sustained the universe. All Egyptian art reflects this ideal because it mirrors the world of the gods. The same way these gods provided gifts to humanity, the artwork too was imagined and created to provide a use. Egyptian art was always first and foremost a functional piece. No matter the aesthetic quality of it, its purpose was to serve as a home for a spirit or a god. For example, an amulet would have been designed to be attractive and beautiful but was not the driving force of its creation. It was beautiful because it needed to be worthy of housing a spirit or giving protection to a tomb. All tomb paintings, temple tableaus and even home and palace gardens were created so their aesthetic forms suited their function. In many cases, this function was a reminder of the eternal nature of life and the value of personal and communal stability and balance.

Because of the highly religious nature of Ancient Egyptian civilization, many of the great works of art depict gods, goddesses, and Pharaohs, who were also considered to be divine beings. As mentioned, Ancient Egyptian art is characterized by the idea of order. Clear and simple lines combined with simple shapes and flat areas of colour helped to create a sense of order and balance in their art. They used vertical and horizontal reference lines in order to maintain the correct proportions in their work. Political, religious as well as artistic order was emphasized. In order to clearly define the social hierarchy of a situation, the artist would draw or paint the figures in sizes that were based on their importance and not necessarily from a logical perspective point. For example, the Pharaoh would be drawn as the largest figure in a painting no matter where he was standing and his servants, animals and even nature was represented as being smaller.

The Egyptians are famous particularly for their giant works of sculpture. Some examples of this include the Great Sphinx of Giza and the statues of Ramses II at the Abu Simbel Temples. The statues are over 60 feet tall and the Great Sphinx of Gaza is over 240 feet long. Their smaller and more ornate sculptures were made from a variety of rich materials, from alabaster to ivory, wood gilded with gold, limestone and sometimes even solid gold. They would use crushed precious stones to colour and tint the works and would work primarily in blue, black, red, green and gold.

The Ancient Egyptian culture, in general, was actually highly advanced and their art forms reflected that. They were capable of creating statues and monuments on a scale never seen before and they recorded everything on paper made with river reeds, called papyrus. They invented and used a system of writing we know as hieroglyphics and used this as a form of documentation. It is only because of their near fanatical need for knowledge that we know as much about them as we do and the advancements that they made to art and technology lived on for longer than their actual civilization did, which was by no means a small period of time.