Today, Egyptian sculpture is seen as a work of art. Through great archeological efforts, the pieces have been excavated and are now preserved in museums and other collections throughout the world. However, at the time, they were not done for artistic value or expression. Sculptors were trained in their craft and all projects had to have approval from the Chief Sculptor before the piece was made. This was due to the fact that the majority of the sculptures were made for the pharaoh and other high court officials.
Ptah of Memphis, the creator god or master artisan, inspired their creation. He is depicted as a human who is wrapped like a mummy and wearing a tight-fitting cap. He has a beard and is commonly shown carrying a sphere. He is alleged to have arisen from the earth and therefore, contains within himself all that man needs to create; clay, stone, metals, and minerals.
Stone was the primary material used in ancient Egyptian sculpture. Some of the soft stone varieties are limestone, sandstone, gypsum, and steatite. Soft stone was shaped using copper chisels, bow drills, saws, blades, and points. In later years, these instruments were made of bronze.
Hardstone was also used for sculpture, but it proved to be a more difficult substance to work with. The major types of hard stones used were granite, basalt, diorite, quartzite, greywacke, and alabaster. The stones would be placed within mud-brick walls and a fire would be lit around them. Then, the stones would be doused with water, causing them to splinter. Flint or stone pebbles would be used the breakaway the cracked surface. In later years, iron punches were used in place of the flint and pebbles.
Another popular material for sculptures was wood; however, wood was generally just used for statuary pieces. The wood was worked with a chisel and an adze. An adze is a carpenter’s tool that has an arching blade and is used for chipping away at the wood. The native timbers, principally acacia and sycamore-fig, were found to be fibrous and knotty. Consequently, some of the wood for sculptures had to be imported, such as the coniferous woods from Lebanon, and the ebony of tropical Africa.
Sculptures made of wood and soft stone were commonly covered with gesso after their completion. Gesso is a white paste substance that forms a smooth, almost polished, finish. After the gesso was applied, the piece would be painted. The pigments were composed of the natural earth. Ochre was often used as a pigment, producing the three main colors of yellow, red, and brown. Blue could be derived from grinding a copper-based frit into a fine powder. Sculptures made of hard stone generally had only portions painted, as opposed to the entire piece. Most often the lips, eyes, and details of the dress such as jewels, belts, or headgear, were emphasized with color.
Sculptures were created in either a statuary or relief form. When most people think of sculpture, they imagine the three-dimensional statuary form. Statues were formed by slowly carving away from a mass of material, such as stone or wood. Statues are generally focused on a single person, or perhaps a couple. By using the relief form, groups of people, as well as their environment, can be more accurately portrayed.
In the relief from, a picture or image was slowly carved into a mass of material. Therefore, the mass of material remains whole with sculpture engraved within it. The Egyptians produced two forms of relief sculpture. In the raised relief form the background was carved away, lowering it from the picture. The opposite is true for the sunk relief. In this case, the image is chiseled into the stone, lowering it from the background.
Relief sculptures were produced using the frontal style. This describes the way in which the subject of the sculpture is positioned. The subject’s face is seen in profile; however, the eye is carved in full. The upper body portion is seen from the front view. The legs are turned to the same angle as the face, and one foot is placed in front of the other.
The main subjects of Egyptian sculpture were Gods and Goddesses, pharaohs, court officials, and men during his daily activities. The sculptures also portrayed the events of the current life. For example, a relief sculpture may illustrate the magic ceremony performed to ensure a bountiful hunt. Pharaohs were sculpted in a larger than life form, scribes and high court officials were life-size, and slaves were always shown working.
As we examine the pieces today, we get an image in our minds. It is a vivid image of a time when pharaohs reigned. Gods and Goddesses controlled the earth, sky, and waters. We can visualize the history of the land and culture. Royalty and Gods alike were honored through the great pyramids, paints, and sculptures. It is through this extensive art that we know so much about this culture.