The Land of the Pharaohs and pyramids of Giza have fascinated generation upon generation. Thanks primarily to art, their legacy has not been lost to the ravages of time. Much of the art which still exists today is funerary, built for tombs of the wealthy.
Although King Tutankhamen, (Tut to most of us) was really only a mediocre pharaoh, historically speaking, he achieved great fame because his tomb was discovered intact. It was filled with priceless art treasures and it’s believed many more such tombs, filled with similar art wait in silence.
One of the greatest aspects of Egyptian art is all the statues, paintings and architectural forms seem to fall into place as if they obeyed one law. Basically, we call such a law, an artistic “style.” It’s very difficult to explain in words what makes a style, but it is easy to see, once you view a few examples. The rules which govern all Egyptian art give every individual work the effect of poise and austere harmony.
Art scholars say the Egyptian style comprised a set of very strict guidelines, which every artist had to learn from his earliest youth.
The distinguishing characteristics of Egyptian art, two-dimensionality, rigid frontality and strong outlines are explained by Egyptian religion and politics. The ancient Egyptians were considered to be extraordinarily religious. The art was symbolic, intended to preserve the images of things and people for the afterlife. It also served to explain the divinity of the pharaoh and the relationship of the gods. For the ancient Egyptians, it was more important to be accurate symbolically, than to be lifelike.
The Egyptian artisan was a master at realistically portraying details. But he would paint or sculpt only the details most essential to recognize the subject. At its simplest, Egyptian art could be described as picture symbols, such as our walking man at a stop light indicting it’s okay to cross the street.
Painters were more like map makers, creating unrealistic but recognizable scenes. Fish and birds for example, were shown as if a biologist had drawn them, trying to capture every identifying trait. This was effective and scientists today can identify the species of most of the animals found in Egyptian drawings.
In the world of politics, Egyptians used symbolic pictures to explain the relationship of the god-king pharaohs to their inferiors. For instance, portraying a pharaoh as twice as tall as his subjects, while not true to life, did accurately represent his social and political status. Each god and pharaoh had an identifying symbol. A beard was a sign of power. Even a statue of Queen Hatsheput, had a beard chiseled on her face. Anyone shown barefoot, belonged to an inferior class.
We’re all familiar with ancient mummies, but the Egyptians believed preservation of the body was not enough. If the likeness was also preserved, then that person could exist forever. This culture an obsession about the afterlife. So, they ordered sculptors to create the king’s head, often in granite, and put it in the tomb. Other sculptures of heads were placed far and wide. One Egyptian word for sculptor actually means: “He-who-keeps-alive.”
Ramses II had numerous statues made of himself (perhaps more than any other Egyptian ruler) and even had his name chiseled over the names of many earlier pharaohs. Apparently, he wanted plenty of reassurance about his place in the afterlife!
The images and models found in Egyptian tombs were connected with the idea of providing the soul with helpers in the other world, a belief that is found in many early cultures. The wall-paintings within the tombs, provide in extraordinary picture of life as it was lived in Egypt thousands of years ago.
Even Egyptian writing, called hieroglyphs, used pictures to symbolize ideas. The symbols were a complete mystery to modern scholars until the discovery of the Rosetta Stone (now in London’s British Museum) allowed them to crack the code. One hieroglyph you see often is the ankh, which symbolizes life in Egyptian art. Statute figures are shown holding an ankh, as through trying to hold onto life.
Egyptian technology, art, science, and architecture, all had a considerable impact on future cultures. They would all become blueprints for other people to follow.