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Main characteristics of Egyptian Art

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Art was very important to the Egyptian culture. Ancient Egypt lasted from about 3000 B.C. to about 1000 B.C. Art symbolized Egyptian beliefs and every day life. Today in western culture, we generally consider art a form of self-expression. However, for the Egyptians it was almost religious. The Egyptians took art very seriously and strictly followed very specific rules, though over time as Egypt grew, so grew the standards and styles of the arts. Egyptians believed that imperfect art (art that did not adhere to the strict rules) upset the gods.

Egyptian art emphasized three basic elements, engraving, sculpture, and painting. Engravings lined the inside of tombs and are the most common and well-known form of Ancient Egyptian art. The engravings depicted the pharaoh’s life, the gods, and legends about them. Paintings, another common art form, usually depicted legends about the gods with hieroglyphic captions explaining them. The last common form of Egyptian art was sculpture. Sculptures usually honored pharaohs and gods. However, archaeologists have also discovered sculptures of animals. Many of these animal sculptures were cats, which Egyptians believed were sacred.

The Egyptians strictly upheld the style of frontalism, adhering carefully to stylistic rules. First, the subject’s head is always drawn in profile with the full eye shown. The upper body, however, is depicted from the front and the legs face in the same direction as the head with one foot in front of the other. The person in the picture sits or stands stiff and rigid in a formal posture, but the face is calm and usually slightly tilted toward the sky. In addition, nothing can obstruct the pharaoh’s face or body. Less important figures were drawn less formally in positions that are more natural. For example, slaves were drawn more relaxed and realistic, while a pharaoh was drawn stiff and rigid making him look more powerful and regal. Animals were drawn most realistically and very detailed because they were least important. Cats were the exception. Because they were sacred, cats were depicted similar to a pharaoh, stiff and rigid with their head slightly tilted.

Only one dynasty did not strictly adhere to frontalism. The pharaoh, Akhenaton (the father of the famous King Tut or Tutankhamen), had his artists portray him much more relaxed and natural. He did this because he believed that people should only worship one god, Aten. Aten was the sun god and the Egyptians believed he had a very relaxed and laid back personality. In one stone carving, Akhenaton was shown with his stomach hanging over his clothes. No other pharaoh would ever have allowed himself to be shown that way. It was considered undignified. After the death of Tutankhamen, the Egyptians immediately returned to using frontalism.

As the cultural life of the people spread outwards from the royal palaces, and towns began to develop, there were more and more examples of art, especially funerary art, which followed strict stylistic conventions despite their strong element of realism. Human figures, for example, were drawn to scales which reflected their social status rather than a realistic depiction of relative proportions, and whilst the eyes and bodies would have a frontal aspect, heads and legs would not.

There was a lack of realism, also, in the subjects depicted, since there was little representation of injury or disease except in the portrayal of animals or those from other countries, both of which were considered by the Egyptians as inferior to themselves. There was a prevalence of statuary in the temples and tombs and again this followed stylized forms and conventions which were not necessarily representative of reality.

New Kingdom art and architecture not only displayed a greater degree of diversity than did earlier forms, it illustrated the clearly the way in which the Egyptians considered themselves to be integrated with the cosmos as a whole. Both the architectural forms and the decoration thereon constantly reiterated the way in which the cosmological and social orders were inter-related. The temples were designed to emphasize the centrality of the pantheon, whilst royal houses followed a similar theme showing the importance of the pharaoh’s influence. Images of battles, festivals, and the natural world all demonstrated the integration of the natural world with the cosmos, and the place which human beings held with respect to the gods and to nature.

Again with Tutankhamen, there was a display of a decent development of decorative arts. Items found in the tomb of Tutankhamen, for example, show skill in woodwork, jewelry and metalwork, and representations of gods were often incorporated as part of the design in furniture and other items. Coffins themselves could be considered as works of art, as could the depiction of spells and magical texts in the Books of the Dead.

The complexity and intricacy of Egyptian art signifies Egypt’s advanced culture, and it provides a valuable window into the past. Most of what we know about Ancient Egypt we have learned from the art that has been found in tombs. It is amazing that throughout thousands of years the style of art remained the same. Archaeologists continue to learn from Egyptian art. They are gathering a better understanding of the advanced Ancient Egyptian society, which dominated its region for over 2000 years


Fiero, Gloria. The Humanistic Tradition: Volume I. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2002.

Kremen, Lisa. http://www.bergen.org/AAST/Projects/Egypt/

Detroit Institute of Art. Ancient Egypt. http://www.dia.org/collections/ancient/egypt/

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