History of Western Paintings – Ancient Egypt

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The civilisation of ancient Egypt was roughly contemporary with the neighbouring cultures in the ancient Near East. While the Mesopotamians were constantly subjected to enemy attacks, however, the fruitful Nile Valley was surrounded by desert and thus not easily reached by invading forces. Furthermore, unlike the politically unstable city-states of the ancient Near East, Egypt remained virtually unchanged for thousands of years under a series of pharaonic dynasties; the term “pharaoh” literally means “palace”, but it used to designate the kings of Egypt. The relatively predictable Nile floods are also in contrast with the unpredictable and violent storms and droughts of Mesopotamia. More secure in this life, Egyptians created works of art and architecture that tend to focus on the afterlife.


Geese. Dynasty 4, c. 1680-2500 B.C. Detail of a tomb painting from the mastaba tomb of Nefermaat at Medum. Height: 10.5″ (27cm). Egyptian Museum, Cairo.

The Egyptians spent much of their life on Earth preparing for death and the afterlife. Elaborate tombs were constructed, stocked with provisions and decorated with statues, reliefs and wall paintings. Of course, such luxurious burials were the privilege of pharaohs (kings), their families and officials only. This painting of geese comes from a mastaba, an Old Kingdom tomb form consisting of a rectangular structure of mud brick or stone surmounting an underground burial chamber. It is from the contents of tombs that we have acquired most of our knowledge of Egyptian civilisation.

An Egyptian pharaoh was worshipped as a god not only during his- or very rarely her – lifetime, but after death as well. The Egyptian vision of the afterlife required that the pharaohs, their families, and their privileged officials and attendants be supplied with all the necessities and comforts of this world in the next. Thus tombs were stocked with food, wine, clothing, jewellery, games, furniture, weapons, musical instruments and so on, to provide for the ka, or the spirit of the dead person, for all eternity. In addition, nearly every square inch of the walls and ceilings of tombs was elaborately decorated with painted reliefs, hieroglyphs (the Egyptian system of writing, which has been deciphered by modern archaeologists), and wall paintings. It is from tombs, their contents and decorative programs, that we have acquired most of our knowledge of ancient Egyptian culture; the Egyptian’s houses, even palaces and other structures, were often made of perishable materials and so have not survived. Life was short for most ancient Egyptians; their emphasis on the afterlife is revealed by their tombs, which were meant to endure, not the structures for this life.


Nebamun Hunting Birds. Dynasty 18, c.14000-1350 B.C. Fragment of wall painting from the tomb of Nebamun, Thebes. Height: approx 32″ x (81cm). British Museum, London

Many Egyptian tomb wall paintings replicate everyday scenes of the inhabitant’s world; pharaohs are shown hunting birds, hippopotami and other animals. Their underlings are depicted carrying out tasks such as ploughing fields and picking fruit that they performed in the service of the pharaoh and other superiors during this life. While these paintings repeated the cyclical pattern of the seasons for all eternity, others are more specifically religious in subject matter, focusing on the other world. Frequently, pharaohs are shown at the own funerary banquets, presenting offerings to gods and goddesses, and on occasion, pharaohs are portrayed in their mummified state, attended by Anubis, the jackal-headed god of the dead.


Annubis, God of the Dead, Leaning over Sennutem’s Mummy. Dynasty 18. Tomb of Sennutem in the cemetery of Deir el-Medina, Luxor-Thebes, Egypt

Many images in tombs deal with death and the afterlife. In this image, Anubis, the jackal-headed god of the dead, attends to Sennutem’s mummy. The Egyptians mummified their dead in the hope of preserving the body for eternity so that the ka, or spirit of a person which lives on after death, was provided with a body to inhabit. Mummification involved the removal of the internal organs, placement of the body and organs in a salt-based preservative for a month, or so and, finally, wrapping the body and organs in layer after layer of linen.

Two-dimensional depictions of royal figures in Egyptian art had long been standardised. Typically, pharaohs, queens and members of their families and courts are shown with heads, hips, legs, and feet in profile, while their torsos and eyes are depicted as if viewed from the front, like Mesopotamian depictions of the human form. This combination allowed for the most composite view of the human body.


Banquet Scene. Dynasty 18, c.1400-1350 B.C. Fragment of a wall painting from the tomb of Nebamun, Thebes. British Museum, London

Non-royal members of Egyptian society, however, are frequently portrayed in more natural poses – as are animals – and often they are shown completely in profile. Royal figures are rarely depicted exerting themselves. Their composite stance does not allow for much movement and thus they stand immobile and perfect for all eternity. In contrast, farmers, slaves – workers in general – are commonly shown in action. They pick grapes, hunt birds and plough fields quite energetically. Royal members of Egyptian society, the pharaohs in particular, thus come across as impervious to the world around them. It is important to recall that pharaohs were divine, and their impassiveness is that of transcendent beings. Regardless of class, women tend to have fairer skin, as befitting indoor people, while men, including kings, are darker-skinned from the outdoor life.

It is not the pharaoh’s individual personalities that re emphasized in painted and sculptural representations, but what might be called their “pharaoh-ness”. Pharaohs simply exist, while their attendants perform. This distinction is maintained, with some exceptions, in many of the works of art created over the course of Egypt’s ancient civilization – almost three thousand years.

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Atum and Osiris. Dynasty 19, c. 1279-1212 B.C. Wall painting from the tomb of Nefertari (wife of Ramesses II). Valley of the Queens, near Deir el-Bahri, Egypt.

The tomb of Nefertari, wife of pharaoh Ramesses II, was discovered in 1904. It was found plundered and with much of the painted surface of the walls flaked off. These paintings, however, have been quite successfully restored. Atum (right), creator of the world, is depicted holding the ankh, the symbol of everlasting life, in his right hand. Osiris (left), ruler of the dead, holds the symbols of kingship, the crook and the flail. According to Egyptian religious belief, Osiris was violently murdered by his brother, thus accounting for his mummy-like appearance.

The discovery of the tomb of King Tutankhamen in 1922 by Howard Carter, a British archaeologist, resulted in some of the most important contributions to our understanding of the ancient Egyptians’ civilisation in general and their burial practices in particular. This is especially true since the tomb was found almost intact, unlike the many tombs that have suffered significant damage from plundering over the centuries. The tomb of the Boy King (ruled 1335-1327 B.C.) is a treasure trove of Egyptian art and artefacts. The back of Tutankhamen’s throne is an exquisite depiction in gold, faience, glass paste, semi-precious stones and silver of Tut and Queen Ankhesenamen, his sister-wife.


Tutankhamen with His Queen Ankhesenamen. Dynasty 18, c. 1355-1342 B.C.

Detail of the back of the throne of King Tutankhamen, from the tomb of Tutankhamen, Valley of the Kings. Carved wood covered with gold and inlaid with faience, glass paste, semi-precious stones and silver. Height of throne 41″ (104cm). Egyptian Museum, Cairo

Among the many luxurious items found in the tomb of King Tutankhamen is a magnificent throne, the back of which is shown here. The relaxed informality of this tender moment between King Tut and Queen Ankhesenamen is somewhat unusual in Egyptian art, but typical of this particular period in Dynasty 18. Under Tut’s predecessor, King Akhenaten, a less rigid depiction of royalty, characterised by fluid, playful lines and elegant, feminine figures, resulted in images of royal figures which were not as static, formal and idealised as were typical depictions of royalty in Egyptian art.

The two figures are depicted in a style first associated more with the reign of King Akhenaton, also known as Amenhotep IV, Tut’s predecessor, who ruled from 1352 to 1335 B.C. During Akhenaton’s reign, representations of the human form, while still displaying an emphasis on line, became more relaxed and informal, less rigid and static. The conventional broad shoulders, narrow hips, and toned musculature that we think of in depictions of pharaohs have disappeared. The curvy, fluid, playful lines and the somewhat elongated, elegant and feminine shapes of Tut and his queen are markedly different from typical Egyptian painted and sculptural representations of royalty, where the human figure is more squarely geometric, compact and stiff, giving the impression of idealised, rational, dignified and eternally existing personages – the gods they were. In contrast, the sinuous naturalism of Tut and Ankhesenamen allows them the freedom of potential movement. As a result, they seem more of our world.

Generally speaking, though, Egyptian artists had little interest in modelling or in the depiction of depth. Royal and non-royal figures alike appear very two-dimensional, made up of flat areas of colour and the frequent inclusion of hieroglyphs in the same space as the figures calls attention to the flatness of the image as a whole.


Sowing and Ploughing in the Fields. Dynasty 19, 13th century B. C. Tomb of Sennedjem, Thebes

Many tomb wall paintings show hunting and farming scenes meant to reflect the cycle of the seasons that will repeat for eternity. In this image, sowing and ploughing are depicted. Egyptian painters seem to have had little interest in rendering three-dimensional human forms existing in space. Painted figures are not modelled, made up instead of flat areas of colour contained by line. Background settings are often excluded and the frequent presence of hieroglyphic texts calls attention to the flatness of space. The desire for clarity seems more important to the Egyptian painter than the illusionistic rendering of space and form.

Egyptian painting is also found in the Books of the Dead. The books of ancient Egypt were actually scrolls made from papyrus, the Greek term for the plant that grows plentifully along the Nile and from which the word “paper” derives. Books of the Dead were places inside the wrappings of a mummified body on it’s coffin. Consisting of combinations of spells, prayers and other magical writings tailored to the deceased, they were intended to guide the dead person through the trails of judgement in the afterlife. Most Books of the Dead contain judgement scenes. In some, Osiris, god of the underworld, presides over a ceremony in which the dead person’s heart is weighed against an ostrich feather in order to determine whether he or she will merit eternal life.


Judgement in the Other World, from the Book of the Dead. 350 B.C. Papyrus. Staatliche Museen, Ehyptisches Museum, Berlin, Germany.

Egyptian Books of the Dead were actually included in the wrapping of the mummified body. These books, which were meant to aid the trials of judgement in the afterlife, were actually scrolls of papyrus. The judgement scene illustrated here is typically found in Books of the Dead. The heart of the deceased is weighed against a feather representing truth to determine the deceased’s fate. Ammit, the lion-like monster on the pedestal at the left, awaits the decision; if it is negative, he will devour the heart. The god Thoth, to the left of the scales, records the event. The deceased herself is depicted presenting her offerings before the god Osiris (god of the dead). Behind Osiris stand the goddesses Isis (wife of Osiris) and Nephtys (sister of Isis and Osiris).

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