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Egyptian Art: quest for eternity!

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Speaking about Egyptian art is not easy at all as well as it is difficult to speak about such magnificent and ancient civilization, so misterious and fascinating, not to mention trying to resume in just one post its history. I think would not be enough not even one hundred articles to make the idea about complexity and majesty of ancient Egypt! Actually no one knows the origin of the Egyptian people and of its civilization extremely advanced compared with the time in which it has developed. Someone propose suggestive hypotheses that the ancient Egyptians were no more than descendants of mythical Atlantis who’s survivors installed themselves in Egypt, marking the start to such magnificent civilization. Yes of course there are no proofs to support such fascinating theory but since no one knows how it was founded egyptian civilization (neither egyptologist)even the unlikely event that atlantean have founded ancient Egypt still hold. However let’s start to talk about facts that we know with certainty : we can diveded Egyptian art into two periods: predynastic art and dynastic art. Needless to say that when we talk about egyptian art  the first thing one thinks are Pyramids and the Great Sphinx but even hieroglyphs and the majestic temples,a handful of people know that egyptian art wasn’t always so  great and magnificent. If we analyze findings of predynastic art that start in 11th millennium b.C untill 3150 b.C. we notice that egyptian art does not depart from european rupestrian art since there is a prevalence of rock engravings about wild animals,hunting scenes,pastoralism and daily life. The great innovation compared to european rupestrian art was the invention of first rudimentary musical instruments like drumstick, tablets and rattles  which probably were used in totemic ritual. In such prehistoric period in Egypt begins to develop a particular feature that later will make famous all egyptian civilization,that is reverence to deceased who later will lead to art of mummification. Already in this period indeed there is a special attention to funeral honors since have been found several necropolis along the banks of the Nile with burial still quite simple but that conteined along with remains of the deceased even grave goods like vases ,weapons,jewerly,ivory and stone figurine. Despite many artistic and architectural finds of predynastic period have not reached our days, anyway we can notice an important influence of mesopotamic civilization to egyptian art of such archaic period. The main findings discovered of predynastic period are vases,tablets and statuettes mainly made in clay,terracotta as well as ivory even though the first vases and statues were made through the use of fertile land of the Nile as well as stone. At the beginning vases are decoreted with simple figures of men and animals at work, while later are diffused the famous “blackmouth vases” or Naquada vases from the site of their discover. These vases stand out for their bright red colour and even for the black upper hem from which take their name. The most important finding of such period is without any doubts Narmer Palette that represents the point of transition between predynastic period and dynastic one due to its artistic and cultural features. In such Palette,preserved today at Egyptian Museum in Cairo, there are some of the oldest hieroglyphcs found so far. Other important palettes discovered in such period are Palette of Hunting, Palette of Ostriches, Palette of Vultures, Palette of Bulls, Palette of Battle and Palette of Lybian Tribute.

Well now we took stock of overall history of predynastic period we pass to consider the most important period od egyptian art namely dynastic period which in turn can be divided into eight historical periods as follows:

palette narmer
Narmer Palette

-Protodynastic Period   (3150-2700 b.C.) that sees the birth of first two pharaonic dynasties;

-Old Kingdom(2700-2160 b.C.) from the III to IV Dynasty;

-First Intermediate Period (2160-2055 b.C.) from the VII to the X Dynasty;

-Middle Kingdom(2055-1790 b.C.) from the XI to the XII Dynasty;

-Second Intermediate Period(1790-1540 b.C) from the XIII to the XVII Dynasty;

New Kingdom (1540-1080 b.C.) from the XVIII to the XX Dynasty;

-Third Intermediate Kingdom(1080-672 b.C.) from the XXI to the XXV Dynasty;

-Late Period(672-343 b.C.) from the XXVI to the XXXI Dynasty; 


Protodynastic Period is very important for the history of ancient Egypt since was born the first capital of united Egypt that is Thinis; in such period the first forms of writing arise as well as the first centers of power that then will promote the first great public works. Unfortunately in such period we do not have much artistic evidence besides particular types of burials called mastabas that then will evolve in the colossal pyramids!

In the Old Kingdom are born and develop all the fundamental concepts of egyptian civilization like divine kingship of Pharaoh which become a God on earth(son of Ra), priestly caste is consolidated, the hieroglyphic writing evolves,as well as divine cosmogony which is extended and diversifies with several divities that then will continue to evolve during egyptian history. In such important period  there is a significant improvement of the mummification technique and a great attention of commemoration of the dead through great architectural works like pyramids,among which the most ancient was the stepped pyramid of pharaoh Zoser designed by the architect Imhotep,located in Sakkara necropolis.

Zoser’s pyramid

If Zoser was inspired by mesopotamian ziggurat to build his stepped pyramid,the same cannot be said for the great pyramids on the Giza plateau among which stands out without doubt the great pyramid of Cheopes that with its 139 metres is the tallest pyramid in the world as well as the most famous.There is considerable difference between first stepped pyramids and those of Giza plateau both in size and in building technique. The staggering perfection of the pyramids of Cheopes,Khafre and Mycerinus led to hypothesize to many people,even to scholars outside the box, that actually those ancient buildings are much older compared to their official dating and that they were not built bt ancient egyptians but by civilizations that come from other planet so called ancient astronaut. These last would have given a significant impetus to the progress of all the egyptian civilization and moreover there’d be crossbreading  between royal family and such ancient astronaut giving life to potential hybrid pharaohs human- aliens. I don’t know if all this story can be real or not but if we staring to the perfection of great pyramid, even some expert egyptologist could doubts about this since they can’t explain in a compelling way the origin of such civilization.

Sphinx and pyramid of Cheopes in the background

In the Old Kingdom develop even the first Sun Temples dedicated to Amon Ra (that is the god of the Sun) that with its light and heat allowed life on the planet. In this period have been discovered a great amount of sculptural works which were often designed to commemorate the deceased. At the beginning egyptian sculptures were always sculpted static and with frontal face then later they evolve with a greater focus to shape of faces and with some attemps to appear less static. During the time were formed real aesthetic canons of proportion which have evolved from initial naturalism and then flows in an idealism with elegant shapes perfectly proportioned. These sculptures are carved with a variety of materials like bones,ivory,hard wood, hard stone,granite and even gold. As regards paint in the Old Kingdom colours were obtained like iron,carbon,ochre,malachite,copper salts whereas from lime and plaster was produced white, essential to lighten tints. At that time painters worked in a team folowed by a master that usually refinished artworks and the most important figures of the paintings.


The end of Old Kingdom mainly is caused by several social upheavals which led to progressive crumbling of central power indeed with the end f XI dynasty rise to power so called nomarchs who were provincial governors. At that time Egypt was divided into 42 provinces each of which was ruled by a nomarch. This marks even the loss of importance of capital Menphis which was replaced by Thebes and Heracleopolis. Art of such intermediate period reflects style of Old Kingdom bur revisided in more free and natural way. Grave goods very famous like statuettes that were called ushabti,which in egyptinan meant”those who respond”,were used to serve the deceased in the afterlife and it was really an important task. Pharaoh Mentuhopet II,ruler of XI dynasty, is considered by historians the founder of the Middle Kingdom by virtue of the fact that he managed to reunify the kingdom while pharaoh Amenemhat I (XII dynasty) moved the capital nearby of th oasis of Faiyum. In the Middle Kingdom there is a decisive evoluzione of funeral temples which become real palaces that prepare deceased to the afterlife and make us understand the iron will of such civilization to reach at all cost eternity! In fact funerary temples are enriched of porticoed courtyards,pillared halls, chapels and kiosks for processions which had to prepare deceased pharaohs to eternal life in the other side. These temples were composed even by wide avenues protected by spinxes and large obelisks. In this period we can notice a inexplicable reduction in size of pyramids while in Thebes was built the famous Karnak Temple. In Middle Kingdom there was a great new since paint partially replaced sculptural arts maybe for greatr ease of use and for greater immediacy. During this period start the trend to paint mummy-containing sarcophagus  with simple and essential decorations but always very elegant. The art of sculpture distinguishes itself according to the different dynasties indeed we can notice notable differences between XI and XII  dynasty.While in the first the shape of statues is massive and muscular and it had to represent the strength of pharaoh,in the second there are statues with faces more serene and calm which symbolized divinity of pharaoh that making the intermediary between divine world and earthly one.


Secon iIntermediate Period is characterized for coexistence of two dinasties, the XIII and the XIV which led to general weakening of central power. This allows invasion of Hyksos,a group of people who were probably semitic which founded their capital,namely Avaris, and give way to the XV and the XVI dynasty assimiliting totaly the egyptian culture. In this period we don’t know particular and innovative forms of art from the Hyksos who absorbed all egyptian forms of culture including art. However a great merit of Hyksos was the introduction of the war chariot and horses which will be very impportant during several battle fought by egyptians.

New Kingdom was founded by pharaoh Ahmose who started the XVIII dynasty. We can divide such period additionally into three big sub periods historical and artistic:  

-Thutmosid,XVIII dynasty

-Amarna,XVIII dynasty

-Ramesside,XIX and XX dynasty 

In New Kingdom there is a continous spread of temples built acoording to the base structure of  egyptian temple. Usually it is preceded by a driveay adorned with sphinxes and by a massive external pylon which brings to colonnaded court where access to worshippers is allowed; then there were hypostyle hall and vestibule which was allowed  only to the priests who celebrated their rites. Usually the interiors of these temples were embellished by hieroglyphs and paintings. Notable and innovative are sun temples dedicated to God Aton built by so called heretic pharaoh Amenhopet IV that then changed its name to Akenhaton. After such unusual period of so-called “heresy of the amarna period”willed by the most misterious pharaoh of all Egypt,namely Akenhaton; his successor Tutankhamon,who was his son, reinstated temples to the architectural styles pre heretic. We cannot fail to mention the most grandiose and monumental temple of this period, the famoud temple of Abu Simbel,commissioned by the great pharaoh Ramses II,composed of colossal statues that had to both intimidate Nubians neighbors and celebrate the victory of battle of Kadesh. All the statuary in this period can be defined monumental despite some differences due to various dynasties that have occured during the time. During the XVIII dynasty,for istance, statues go back to idealized powerful canons of Middle Kingdom to then become more natural and spontaneous during Amarna period that dared to represent even physical flaws so as to make statues less rigid and hieratic. Statues in Ramesside period lose strictness and majesty,although remaining monumental, indeed their overall appareance become sweeter and reassuring because of the typical smiling expression that is found in the extensive artistic repertoire of great pharaoh Ramses II. 

Abu Simbel temple

In painting and relief there are great stylistic and creative innovations indeed  new techniques are tried out as well as new topics and definitely new aesthetic canons;in this period is reached a perfect mastery of drawing and colour down to the last detail as never before. It is greatly perfected art of painting sarcophagus of which the most famous and sumptuous example is certainly the sarcophagus of solid gold 22 karat of pharaoh Tutankhamon.

pharaoh tutankhamon
Sarcophagus of Tutankhamon,110 kg of solid gold


The last gasp of egyptinan empire start from Third Intermediate Period until to Late Period ,but at this point power of pharaohs is less and less influential so much that kingdom is divided with Nubia that proclaim itself its independence and founds its own dynasty which is based in Napata. In 730 b.C. a dynasty of rulers coming from Nubia managed to unify and dominate Egypt until the Assyrian conquest in 672 b.C. In Late Period several dinasties sometimes local other times foreign,alternated one another in ruling.The empire subdued first from Persians and later by Alexander the Great in 343 b.C.  After the Macedonian conquest begins the Ptolemaic period founded by Ptolemy I one of  the most trusted generals of Alexander the Great ,which will end in 31 b.C. with the defeat Marc Antony and Cleopatra in Anzio. Late Period does not express outstanding artistic innovations both in architecture and statuary also because archaeological remains are rather scarce about it. We can mention mammisi that were little buildings in which was celebrated the patron-deity ,while in painting develops a kind of portraiture very realistic and truthful which did not scorn portray the signs of the ageing of subject portrayed. 

I may conclude by summarizing that all art of ancient Egypt is an extreme attempt, sometime desperate, to reach and grab with all the forces eternity and glory by trying to defeat death and inexorable passage of time. When i think about magnificent of pyramids,temples, and to a strenuous resistence of mummies which rest for ever in the Valley of the Kings and Queens, i believe that in some way they made it through,they really managed to catch that eternity which they longed for.    

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