Art in ancient Egypt

Ancient Egyptian art has survived for over 5000 years and continues to fascinate people from all over the world. An ancient premise has become a modern reality: art is a path to eternal remembrance.

Ancient Egyptian painted coffin

 © Australian Museum

In ancient Egypt, art was magical. Whether in the form of painting, sculpture, carving or script, art had the power to maintain universal order and grant immortal life by appealing to various gods to act on behalf of people – both in life and in death.

Art was everywhere. From 4500 BCE Egypt’s symbolic art was an essential part of public buildings such as temples and palaces. Widely understood symbols formed the basis of this art as it was believed these offered protection from evil influences in this life and the next. It is no surprise then that art was also a crucial inclusion in the elaborate tombs that housed the mummified remains of people.

Tomb art

Tomb art was considered the point of contact between the land of the living and the land of the dead. If certain formulas for the creation of art were followed and the right gods supplicated, all Egyptians from the wealthy to the poor could look forward to completing their earthly life, successfully navigating the dangerous underworld and traversing to the blessed, eternal afterlife.

Egyptian tombs were like secret art galleries that were never meant to be viewed. Instead, these amazing examples of artistic craftsmanship spoke only to an elite group of visitors – the gods.

Artistic style

When representing human figures in a piece of tomb art, it was important to show as much of the body to the gods as possible. That is why both frontal and profile views of a body were integrated into one figure. It wasn’t meant to be naturalistic; it was intended to serve as a sign that stood for ‘human’. This method helped the gods recognise the person and also made the figure a recipient for ritual activity.

Kings were portrayed larger than life to symbolise the ruler’s god-like powers and therefore importance in the afterlife. Similarly, tomb owners, as the most important subject of the design in their tomb, were depicted on a grand scale. In contrast, wives and children, servants and animals were drawn smaller, indicating their lesser importance.

Colour

Colour was seen as a kind of universal language that was used to communicate significant meaning to the Egyptian gods. Certain colours were imbued with specific powers or attributes that were linked to various gods. As a result, great power could be contained within an object if it was made or painted in meaningful colours. For example, green and blue were the colours of plants, water and sky and symbolised fertility and prosperity. Gold was the colour of the sun and of the gods’ skin and was linked to immortality.

Hieroglyphs

The most direct way that a tomb owner could communicate with the gods was through the elaborate Egyptian hieroglyph system. These pictograms performed a very specific function – to ensure certain gods were supplicated and rituals performed for all eternity. Hieroglyphs were written in both columns and rows, and could be read from either the left or the right, depending on the design of the text. 


Deborah White , Editor
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