Art of ancient Egypt

Art of ancient Egypt

Ancient Egyptian art refers to the style of painting, sculpture, crafts and architecture developed by the civilization in the lower Nile Valley from 5000 BC to 300 BC. Ancient Egyptian art as expressed in painting and sculpture was both highly stylized and symbolic. Much of the surviving art comes from tombs and monuments and thus there is an emphasis on life after death and the preservation of knowledge of the past.

In a more narrow sense, Ancient Egyptian art refers to the canonical 2nd and 3rd Dynasty art developed in Egypt from 3000 BC and used until the 3rd century. Most elements of Egyptian art remained remarkably stable over that 3000 year period. There wasn't strong outside influence. The same basic conventions and quality of observation started at a high level and remained near that level over the period.

Character and Style

Homeometric regularity, keen observation and exact representation of actual life and nature, and strict conformity to a set of rules regarding representation of three dimensional forms dominated the character and style of the art of ancient Egypt. The completion and precision of the piece were preferred to cosmetic representation and style. Because of the highly religious nature of ancient Egyptian civilization, many of the works of ancient Egypt depict gods, goddesses, and pharaohs, who were also considered divine. Ancient Egyptian art is characterized by the idea of order. Clear and simple lines combined with simple shapes and flat areas of color helped to create a sense of order and balance in the art of ancient Egypt. Ancient Egyptian artists used vertical and horizontal reference lines in order to maintain the correct proportions in their work. Political and religious, as well as artistic order, was also maintained in Egyptian art. In order to clearly define the social hierarchy of a situation, descriptive perspective was used and figures were drawn to sizes based not on their distance from the painter's point of view but on relative importance. For instance, the pharaoh would be drawn as the largest figure in a painting no matter where he was situated, and a greater god would be drawn larger than a lesser god;


*Old Kingdom(2680 BC–2258 BC)
*Middle Kingdom (2134 BC–1786 BC)
*New Kingdom (1570 BC–1085 BC)
*Amarna Period (1350 BC–1320 BC)
*Late Period


Symbolism also played an important role in establishing a sense of order. Symbolism, ranging from the pharaoh's regalia (symbolizing his power to maintain order) to the individual symbols of Egyptian gods and goddesses, is omnipresent in Egyptian art. Animals were usually also highly symbolic figures in Egyptian art. Colors were more expressive rather than natural: red skin implied vigorous tanned youth, whereas yellow skin was used for women or middle-aged men who worked indoors; blue or gold indicated divinity because of its unnatural appearance and association with precious materials; the use of black for royal figures expressed the fertility of the Nile from which Egypt was born. Stereotypes were employed to indicate the geographical origins of foreigners [Historical Atlas of Ancient Egypt, Bill Manley (1996) pg83]

Art forms

Ancient Egyptian art forms are characterized by regularity and detailed depiction of human beings and nature, and were intended to provide company to the deceased in the “other world”. Artists endeavored to preserve everything of the present time as clearly and permanently as possible. Completion took precedence over style. Some art forms present an extraordinarily vivid representation of the time and the life, as the ancient Egyptian life was lived thousand of years before.

Egyptian art in all forms obeyed one law: the mode of representing man, nature and the environment remained almost the same for thousands of years and the most admired artists were those who replicated most admired styles of the past.


Ancient Egyptian architects used sun-dried and kiln-baked bricks, fine sandstone, limestone and granite. Architects carefully planned all their work. The stones had to fit precisely together. Ramps were used to allow workmen to move up as the height of the construction grew. When the top of the structure was completed, the artists decorated from the top down, removing ramp sand as they went down.

Over a period of time, primitive structures of clay and reeds matured, and there emerged magnificent monumental structures of granites, with very thick walls. The massive sloping exterior walls contained only few small openings. Hieroglyphic and pictorial carvings in brilliant covers were abundantly used to decorate the structures, including many motifs, like the scarab, sacred beetle, the solar disk and the vulture.

The belief in existence of life beyond death resulted in a mammoth and impressive architectural style to house the mummified bodies. Construction of a burial monument commenced as soon a pharaoh was named, and continued until he died. Some constructions are very large and finely decorated, while some are relatively small like King Tutankhamen’s tomb, as he died very young. Another interesting aspect of ancient Egyptian architecture is that no structural support was provided, except the strength and balance of the structure itself, with one exception being the mud brick roofs of common houses that were supported by palm logs.


The word "paper" is derived from "papyrus", a plant which was cultivated in the Nile delta. Papyrus sheets were derived after processing the papyrus plant. Some rolls of papyrus discovered are lengthy, up to 10 meters. The technique for crafting papyrus was lost over time, but was rediscovered by an Egyptologist in the 1940s. Papyrus was used by ancient Egyptians for writing and painting.

Papyrus texts illustrate all dimensions of ancient Egyptian life and include literary, religious, historical and administrative documents. The pictorial script used in these texts ultimately provided the model for two most common alphabets in the world, the Roman and the Arabic.


Ancient Egyptians used steatite (some varieties were called soapstone) and carved small pieces of vases, amulets, images of deities, of animals and several other objects. Ancient Egyptian artists also discovered the art of covering pottery with enamel. Covering by enamel was also applied to some stone works.

Different types of pottery items were deposited in tombs of the dead. Some such pottery items represented interior parts of the body, like the heart and the lungs, the liver and smaller intestines, which were removed before embalming. A large number of smaller objects in enamel pottery were also deposited with the dead. It was customary to craft on the walls of the tombs cones of pottery, about six to ten inches tall, on which were engraved or impressed legends relating to the dead occupants of the tombs. These cones usually contained the names of the deceased, their titles, offices which they held, and some expressions appropriate to funeral purposes.


The ancient art of Egyptian sculpture evolved to represent the ancient Egyptian gods, Pharaohs,and the kings and queens, in physical form. Massive statues were built to represent gods and famous kings and queens. These statues were supposed to give eternal life to the kings and queens, and to enable the subjects to see them in physical forms.

Very strict conventions were followed while crafting statues: male statues were darker than the female ones; in seated statues, hands were required to be placed on knees and specific rules governed appearance of every Egyptian god. For example, the sky god (Horus) was essentially to be represented with a falcon’s head, the god of funeral rites (Anubis) was to be always shown with a jackal’s head. Artistic works were ranked according to exact compliance with all the conventions, and the conventions were followed so strictly that over three thousand years, very little changed in the appearance of statues. These conventions were intended to convey a timelessness and non aging representation of the figure's ka, or life for an eternal afterlife.


The hieroglyphic script consisted of a variety of pictures and symbols. Some symbols had independent meanings, whereas some symbols were used in combination. In addition, some hieroglyphs were used phonetically, in a similar fashion tae to the Greek and Roman alphabets. Some symbols also conveyed multiple meanings; for example, legs could mean to walk, to run, to go and to come. The script was written in three directions: from top to bottom, from left to right, and from right to left. This style of writing continued to be used by the ancient Egyptians for nearly 3500 years, from 3300 BC until the third century AD.

Many art works of the period contain hieroglyphs and hieroglyphs themselves constitute an attractive feature of ancient Egyptian art. Knowledge of hieroglyphic script was lost after it was superseded by other scripts. In the 19th century the Frenchman Champollion finally succeeded in deciphering the mysterious script, opening up a wealth of knowledge to archaeologists and Egyptologists.


Ancient Egyptian literature, most often written on papyrus, also contains elements of ancient Egyptian art, as the texts and connected pictures were recorded on papyrus or on wall paintings and so on. They date from the Old Kingdom to the Greco-Roman period.

The subject matter of such literature-related art forms include hymns to the gods, mythological and magical texts, mortuary texts. Other subject matters were biographical and historical texts, scientific premises, including mathematical and medical texts, wisdom texts dealing with instructive literature, fables and stories.


Ancient Egyptian paintings survived due to the extremely dry climate. The ancient Egyptians created paintings to make the afterlife of the deceased a pleasant place. Accordingly, beautiful paintings were created. The themes included journey through the afterworld or their protective deities introducing the deceased to the gods of the underworld. Some examples of such paintings are paintings of Osiris and warriors. Some tomb paintings show activities that the deceased were involved in when they were alive and wished to carry on doing for eternity.

In the New Kingdom and later, the Book of the Dead was buried with the entombed person. It was considered important for an introduction to the afterlife. However, no one found the book and it is still lost in a tomb of the Nile.

Egyptian paintings are painted in such a way to show a profile view and a side view of the animal or person. For example, the painting to the right shows the head from a profile view and the body from a frontal view.


During the Eighteenth dynasty of Egypt the Pharaoh Akhenaten took the throne. He worshiped a monotheistic religion based on the worship of Aten, a sun god. Artistic changes followed political upheaval, although some stylistic changes are apparent before his reign. A new style of art was introduced that was more naturalistic than the stylized frieze favored in Egyptian art for the previous 1700 years. After Akhenaten's death, however, Egyptian artists reverted to their old styles, although there are many traces of this period's style in late art

See also

*Ancient Egypt
*Reserve head


External links

* [ History of Ancient Egyptian Art]
* [ Ancient Egyptian Art - Aldokkan]
* [ The Art of ancient Egypt]
* [ Senusret Collection] : A well-annotated introduction to the arts of Egypt
* [ Ancient Egyptian Art at the Cincinnati Art Museum]
* [ Ancient Egyptian art discovered in Qurta]

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