Have you ever noticed their face is in profile, but their eyes are staring straight at us?
The Egyptian aesthetic is one of the most recognizable of all ancient civilizations. You can ask anyone to pose like an ancient Egyptian painting, and they’ll immediately fold their arms and twist their heads to one side in a very unnatural position. That’s basically the idea we have of ancient Egyptian art, and in a way, it’s pretty accurate. Many people believe that this art remained the same for thousands of years with very little variations and innovations. But was that their intention or, as it happens with most ancient art, are we simply judging it with modern eyes? Moreover, what’s the reason behind this particular aesthetic, and what did it mean for ancient Egyptians?
According to Christina Riggs, author of Ancient Egyptian Art and Architecture: A Very Short Introduction, we tend to think of art as a creative form of visual expression, but actually, back then, that wasn’t something they really cared about. On the contrary, art was a tool that institutions of power used to convey certain messages to the people, the most important one being that of continuity and their right to stay in power forever. In that way, workshops were created to train artists to create work following the established artistic and visual principles of their time. So, the question is, if throughout the more than three thousand years of civilization there were different dynasties, why did the art remain so similar in aesthetic terms?
We only see one kind of Egyptian art.
As Riggs explains, during the thousands of years that this ancient civilization lasted, until the Roman invasion in 30 BC, Egypt maintained a certain continuity in terms of political structure, language, and cultural institutions. This doesn't mean that art remained exactly the same. This kingdom was actually quite diverse in terms of regions, so the representations did vary from one place to another. What happens (and what leads us to the next point) is that we have a very tiny idea of what art from this time was like. Most of what we admire and see even when visiting archaeological sites is art created for the elite and the royal family. That’s the most fascinating and beautiful art that museums love exhibiting in their Egyptian halls, but there were actually a lot of different forms of art created by artists for the lower classes.
The artworks we love were created for religious purposes.
Now, another important fact to bear in mind is that art wasn’t something to be admired or created for people's delight, not even pharaohs' themselves, who were considered to be living gods. Ancient Egyptian art was actually created for religious purposes, and it was believed that some of these could even have magical and protective powers that people couldn’t reach. In other words, the art we know wasn't even meant to be seen by mortals, except for the artists who created it and the priests who happened to see it at the religious rituals. This form of art is generally known as tomb art, and as the name indicates, it was exhibited in tombs for the gods to see. This, of course, doesn’t mean that Egypt was an artless country apart from these works. Art could be enjoyed in temples, the colossal monuments honoring their pharaohs, obelisks, and furniture, but it wasn’t as striking as the ones we’re used to contemplating.
Almost everyone was buried with beautiful artifacts.
Let’s go to some of the main elements of this aesthetic. An important point to remember is that all Egyptians, no matter their social status (except for slaves), were buried with ornamental figures and other artistic pieces. However, contrary to popular belief, not everybody was mummified. In fact, only some royals’ bodies underwent this process of divinization, but still, almost everybody was buried with these ornaments (varying in quality and quantity, of course). What for? As I mentioned before, art was thought to have magical powers, and these objects represented a bridge or point of contact between the land of the living and the land of the dead. This art was extremely symbolical, so people would select which deities they wanted to invoke to accompany or guide them on their journey into the afterlife.
The more things you had in your tomb, the more you'd have in the afterlife.
Now, let’s talk about symbolism. For instance, statues (in the case of the elite class who could actually afford getting big sculptures of themselves) were placed in the tomb facing directly towards the ritual held for them, but at the same time, they represented that gate between earth and the underworld. Of course, these weren’t the only forms of art found in tombs, and if you’ve seen photos of all the riches found in King Tut’s tomb, you can see that they had a spiritual purpose. For instance, in the many paintings that adorn the walls, you can see many scenes that go from the deeds of the deceased to even representations of animals. It was believed that the more symbols you put in your burial chambers, the more things you’d have in the afterlife.
Eyes and shoulders from the front, and everything else in profile.
As for the style, remember what we talked about regarding their way of painting the human body? Well, this wasn’t a case of poor drawing skills; it actually had a very important purpose for them. The idea of depicting the departed in paintings was so the gods would recognize them and grant them their grace in the afterlife. In that way, these paintings focused and highlighted the features of the individual that made them more recognizable. As a result, human depictions in tomb art sometimes show one person with two faces: one frontal and one in profile, but that was in more specific cases. In general, in line with this idea of portraying as much of the human body as possible, rather than just one perspective of it, they would draw eyes and shoulders from the front, while the face, waist, and limbs were in profile.
Color, order, and size matter.
Many people mistakenly believe that the walls filled with images only feature hieroglyphs. However, these were paintings of scenes accompanied by hieroglyphs so that the overall work was easier for the gods to read. These scenes were divided in registers, which resulted in the famous parallel layout we know. Each spot was thoroughly considered in terms of the hierarchy of the individuals depicted. And talking about hierarchy, one of the other characteristics of ancient Egyptian art was the use of scales to convey status. In that way, you can see scenes of pharaohs being literally too big in comparison with other human beings. That applies as well to colors: there were particular colors that conveyed status as well as more deep meanings or even gender. In most of these paintings, men are often painted in a dark and reddish color in contrast to women, who were commonly painted in lighter colors.
As you might have seen so far, ancient Egyptian art was less about realism than a symbolic visual system to convey very clear messages. This is something that can be very hard for some people to understand because we continue following that nineteenth-century colonialist (and contradictory) perspective of ancient Egypt being, on the one hand, simple and outdated, but on the other hand, a land we love and admire without really trying to see the reasons behind it.
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