Ancient Egypt was a HUGE society with a rich culture and a highly developed religion. Egypt is one of the most famous ancient cultures because of its unique funerary practices and its incredible architectural feats. Now some of you are reading this because you're interested in Ancient Egyptian art and others of you are (like me) take an art history course and reading this to help study. I will be tailoring this journal for those taking an art history course but no one wants to be bogged down with bland information so I'll try to keep this interesting (not that it's hard because it's ANCIENT EGYPT!)
Note that dates aren't terribly important just make sure you are in the right century
What you really need to know
The entire period of Ancient Egypt lasted from 3500 BCE to 1070 BCE and was broken into four periods: the Predynastic and early dynastic periods (which we are counting as one for this article), the Old Kingdom (2575-2134), the Middle Kingdom (2040-1640), and the New Kingdom (1550-1070). Also Egypt was broken into two regions: Lower (Northern) Egypt and Upper (southern) Egypt. Confusing, I know, but necessary.
Symbolism was very important to the Ancient Egyptians: the Nile represented the passage from this life to the afterlife, papyrus represented Lower Egypt, the lotus flower represented Upper Egypt.
Tradition was a large part of Egyptian culture and they stuck to their guns, or in this case, their canons. A canon is a pattern in art that is seen throughout a period of time. Egyptian culture generally had one canon that developed over the centuries. There was a brief period when another canon was implemented but we'll get into that later.
Egyptian CanonsThe Egyptian canon is very simple: Stiff and rigid posture, and idealized proportions and features are prominent regardless of the medium. In paintings and relief carvings humans were always portrayed with a frontal torso; profile head, legs, and arms; and a frontal eye. This canon is demonstrated in the Palette of King Narmer. As you may also notice, animals are always portrayed in full profile which carried over from the neolithic era (horned animals will have frontal horns though.)
In in-the-round statuary the canon is slightly different: it is rarely completely separated from the rock it is carved from, it has stiff rigid standing posture, idealized proportions and features, the left foot is slightly forward but hips and shoulders remain straight and even, arms are attached to the body and hands are fisted.
This period was unique in not only the sudden change of canon, but also the relocation of the capital and a drastic change in religion. The Amarna period was brief beginning at the pharaoh Akhenaton's reign and ending shortly after his rule did. Akhenaton moved the capital city to Akhetaton from Thebes. He changed the chief god of Egyptian mythology from Amen, the sun god, to Aton, the sun disk. Yes both represent the sun but there is a difference! Aton represented the sun DISK not the sun itself. Aton was always portrayed as a sun disk with life giving rays (left image).
The biggest change was in the canon though. A statue of Akhenaton below (right) is clearly different from the one above. While still highly stylized and unlikely that the statue is an actual likeness of Akhenaton, the canon of old was relaxed and features were no longer perfectly proportional. This showed that the pharaoh was below the gods unlike the old canon which symbolized the pharaoh as being on the level of gods. This portrait is curvilinear. It has wide hips and a protruding belly, fatty thighs, weak arms, and a long face. Overall it looks very feminine compared to earlier portraiture. The curvy feminine bodies and protruding bellies are distinct characteristics of the Amarna period that can be seen in the relief on the left as well. Note that the relief is very rare in that it shows intimate familial interaction that had never been depicted before.
After the Amarna Period ended the exaggeration of the body declined. Figures were more relaxed, less stiff, and serene expressions were used. While the majority of the older canon was reestablished, influence from the Amarna Period remained.
Development of the PyramidThe pyramid was not always a great big triangular prism, nor did it remain to be. It began as a mastaba in the Pre-dynastic period. The mastaba: a rectangular stone or brick structure with sloping sides above an underground burial chamber. These developed from single burial chambers to complex burial chambers for families as well. They had false doors through which the ka (life spirit) could join the world of the living for feasts and offerings. Some mastabas also had serdabs, rooms that housed a statue of the deceased. The insides had funerary paintings on the walls.
During the Middle Kingdom, taste turned away from pyramids and to rock-cut temples. These temples were cut into live rock and they had decorative columns on the inside that had no functional purpose. Yes these temples don't sound very glamorous, but they could be. The Temple of Hatshepsut (left) is a great example. This temple is giant and during its time had a luxurious garden growing on the terraces. Now barren it is still incredible. Another remarkable temple is the Temple of Ramses II (right). Ramses II's temple is in a different style but still extremely telling of the pharaoh's authority.
The rock-cut temple trend continued into the New Kingdom but changed slightly to include Hypostle halls for lighting, and they gradually began combining with Pylon temples until the last Ancient Egyptian style temple built during Alexander the Great's reign was a pylon temple.
Thank you for reading.
Written by WandererAtHeart for the Art History Project
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