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The Basic Principles of Ancient Egyptian Art

Updated: Apr 30


You always know when you’re looking at a piece of ancient Egyptian art, but have you ever stopped to consider the basic principles the artists were using to create such enduring images?


Instantly recognisable, the canon of proportions and symbols which provide the framework for ancient Egyptian art was established in the pre-dynastic period and used for well over 3000 years. All forms of artistic expression, from colossal statues to papyrus scrolls, used the same principles of composition and symbolism to create an idealised version of the world and its contents. Images were believed to be eternal truths that would exist in perpetuity and had the power to transform into reality through divine intervention. There was active resistance to changing anything which might jeopardise the power of the symbols, so they remained unchanging for millenia[1].


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Fundamental Principles

The remarkable stability and long-lived nature of how the ancient Egyptians depicted the world around them is the result of strict adherence to a prescribed set of fundamental principles:

  • ‘Aspective art’ – Instead of representing things like people or animals realistically, artists prioritised their most characteristic aspects and gave them added details to ensure they could be recognised or magically function as intended.

  • Organisation of space – Art was organised with reference to an underlying baseline, with horizontal guidelines used to order scenes. Registers of differently scaled images also maximised the use of the available canvas, so any space could be filled or added to.

  • Scale reflected status – The scale of a thing was used to reflect its status or importance, rather than to provide the viewer with a realistic impression of height, depth or distance.

  • Symbols represented ideas - Actions and concepts could be symbolically represented using a lexicon of commonly understood symbols, motifs and colours that did not require realism for identification.

  • Hieroglyphs as labels – Because everything looked the same, hieroglyphics were used to provide clear indications of names and titles, describe actions and preserve dialogue.


‘Aspective Art’

Images embodied a thing's true essence, rather than the way they really looked


Figure 1 - My reproduction of an illustration of Chapter 186 of the Book of the Dead buried with the Royal Scribe Ani c. 1250 BC. It shows two protective goddesses welcoming Ani to his final resting place, a white pyramidion-topped private tomb nestled within the pink cliffs of the Theban desert. The goddess Hathor can be seen in her cow form emerging from a thicket of papyrus and is joined by the benign hippopotamus goddess Opet.

Egyptian art placed its emphasis on explaining the interactions between recognisable characters rather than providing a single viewpoint or capturing a moment in time[2]. Unrestricted by notions of realism or perspective, the artists created composite scenes built up of characteristic features, combining several different views of a figure or object into one conceptual image[3]. One scene could feature the same person multiple times, at different ages and scales, and undertaking different tasks. This was intended to imbue the image with all the information needed for it to become whole and functional, and was expected to animate all that was depicted to become real.

  • Depictions of animals emphasise their essential traits, creating an amalgam of their characteristic silhouette in side-profile but with frontal views of their horns, ears and eyes.

  • Humans and gods were similarly shown in side-profile but with frontal views of their eyes and torso.

  • Houses, buildings, furniture, lakes, and gardens were depicted in diagrammatic form, mixing birds-eye views with side profiles. It was important to display all the external and internal features the artist knew to exist to capture its essence, even if they are usually hidden.

  • The Nile for example always appears in cross-section so that the creatures and vegetation within it can be seen. It usually occupies the lowest register, teeming with identifiable fish or shown with schematic boats sitting atop a band of lotus flowers (Figure 5).

  • Objects being carried by or associated with figures, such as the tools, flowers and food offerings were also depicted in diagrammatic form, and where the contents of baskets and chests would usually be hidden, they are shown stacked on top of their containers so they can be appreciated (Figure 1).

This unique method of representing three-dimensional forms on a two-dimensional plane, known by Egyptologist's as aspective art, gave artists a set of principles that could be applied to any form to embody its true essence, rather than reproducing its physical appearance through realism or perspective. Complex beliefs and layers of meaning were expressed through the interaction of simple forms which could be read by those sufficiently versed in their symbolism. The iconographic repertoire of standardised forms created by these conventions was used to not only graphically depict a scene to convey a deeper meaning but also create an ideogram (a character symbolising the idea of a thing without indicating the sounds used to say it). The lotus flowers in the river or held to the nose of a person for example, could act as a decorative element, the hieroglyph seshen meaning lily, or convey concepts of rebirth and divine creation linked to the ancient Egyptian's complex mythology[4].


Organisation of Space

It’s all about the baselines.

Figure 2 - Dynasty 1 jar label with a scene showing the jubilee of King Den (British Museum EA32650) with personal reproduction highlighting the registers and baselines (red), rectangular word groups of hieroglyphs (orange), human figures aligned to the baseline (blue), and individual hieroglyphs (green) incorporated into the registers framing.


Without the need for realistic scale and perspective, the ancient Egyptians were able to use a different method to delineate scenes and draw the viewers gaze to the important elements. When applied to a two-dimensional surface, different areas of images and hieroglyphic text art were arranged in rectangular blocks known as registers. These registers enabled artists to communicate multiple concepts in an abstract but accessible way whilst maximising the available decorative surface[2]. The register’s baseline served as an anchor point for intersecting and parallel guidelines used by artists at the drafting stage to arrange decorative elements proportionally.


Figure 3 – The Narmer Palette is illustrated to show the registers (red) baselines (orange), and guidelines (blue) to organise the space and decorative elements within. Recto is a personal reproduction, verso by Quibell[5]

The earliest examples of art and hieroglyphic writing arranged in this manner come from objects intended as funerary offerings in Early Dynastic royal burials. The jar label from the tomb of King Den (Figure 2) and the Narmer Palette (Figure 3) demonstrate how registers are used to delineate orderly scenes and how the register’s horizontal baseline is used to align figures and animals. Despite the variety of figures depicted in these examples, an underlying feeling of order is created by alignment to the baseline, stylised forms, and careful use of negative space to ensure each element is distinct and identifiable. Where disorder or chaos needs to be portrayed, it is done by deviating from or abandoning this proportional use of space. This can be seen in the bottom registers of the Narmer Palette, where defeated prisoners are shown in sprawled and twisted postures.

By the Old Kingdom, the orthogonal framework developed in the Early Dynastic is fully realised.

Figure 4 demonstrates how every part of the tomb wall can be utilised by visible and invisible rectangles, with crowded horizontal registers of offering bearers separated using baselines and framed by vertical registers of hieroglyphs.


Figure 4 – Painting from the tomb of Watetkhethor in Saqqara who is receiving offerings from her funerary estate showing the horizontal baselines (orange), vertical registers (red) and the proportional guidelines applied to the human figure (blue).

The best example of aspective art is the one that springs immediately to mind when one thinks about ancient Egypt, the people. Figures always show a remarkable degree of uniformity when their bodily proportions and postures are compared. This is the result of the convention employed to depict the standing human form, whereby the feet are planted on a baseline, and up to eight parallel guidelines pass through the body at equal intervals to align features (Figure 4)[6]. In this template, the knee and elbow lines come at the one-third and two-third points up the figure measured from sole to hairline, and the lower border of buttocks come at half that height. A vertical axis also divided the body into two sides at the ear, with the hairline serving as the top guideline rather than the top of the head to give scope to accommodate a wide variety of differently sized hairstyles, headdresses, and insignia.


Gridlines

Figure 5 - A Dynasty 18 wooden drawing board showing a squared grid ruled in red was used to draw a seated figure of a king (British Museum EA5601).

In the Middle Kingdom, this framework was formalised into an 18- square grid system which was used with only slight variations throughout the pharaonic period (Figure 5, 6). This retained the Old Kingdom system of intersecting guidelines at key points on the body but added additional vertical and horizontal axes so details of the anatomy could be aligned with even more uniformity and precision[7]. The grid continued to use the hairline and the soles of the feet as the major axes and the vertical line of the grid still ran through the ear to divide the figure into two halves. There were variations of the grid to differentiate between male and female figures and versions for seated or kneeling figures to ensure all body forms and postures could be represented in a scalable way. The only real variation to the system through to the Greco-Roman period came during Dynasty 18 and the rule of Akhenaten. The Amarna Art style that characterised his reign added two squares to the grid to accomodate a longer neck and face and a more pendulous stomach.


Figure 6 - The grid system applied to a Dynasty 19 bas-relief from the tomb of Seti I, showing Hathor welcoming the dead pharaoh.

Guided by the principles used to proportionally lay out the human form on a baseline, the guidelines and grids were used to distort the perspective of each body part to give its most distinctive view. In the example from the New Kingdom in Figure 7, Nebamun, his wife and his daughter are shown with their heads, breasts, legs, and feet in profile, whilst their torsos, eyes and hands are depicted front on. To accommodate both feet, their legs are shown apart, with only the big toe visible as the most distinctive of the digits. Though this method creates a half-twisted, unnatural pose, it elegantly conveys all the necessary information to identify a whole and healthy person. As this is their eternal image, they are depicted as young, physically fit, and perfect, with no distinguishing features or emotions.


Figure 7 – My reproduction of a tomb painting from the 18th Dynasty tomb chapel of Nebamun showing several common standardised figures and postures in ancient Egyptian art.

Scale and Status

Scale had nothing to do with size, and everything to do with importance


Without identifying characteristics in human representation, Egyptian artists relied on a wide variety of symbolic iconography to portray ideas of status. Within individual registers, scale was used as a tool to indicate the person’s importance. The smallest figures are generally those of the lowest status and the largest are the gods, king, or in the case of tomb decoration, the deceased[8]. This concept was already well-established in the Early Dynastic period and can be seen in the treatment of the king and his attendants on the Narmer Palette (Figure 3).


Figure 8 - Painting from the tomb of Watetkhethor in Saqqara showing her (centre), her son (left), daughter (right), workers of her funerary estates (far left) and female palanquin bearers (far right).

In the tomb of Watetkhethor, her status is confirmed by her monumental size (Figure 8), and she is accompanied by two others, whose larger scale, proximity to her and formalised postures also suggest high status. They are identified as children, not by their size, but by the artistic convention of depicting the hair in a sidelock or plait-and-disc[9]. The smallest figures, and consequently those with the least status, are the mass of workers shown hauling nets of fish, punting reed boats filled with offerings, and undertaking various stages of cow husbandry and slaughter. Social status within this class is identified using symbols rather than scale, with overseers distinguished by their projecting kilts and staves of offices, whilst the workers wear simple loincloths or appear naked. These figures mostly conform to the Egyptian canon of proportions for human representation, but their execution is less detailed, and they show a wider variety of postures[10].


Colour

Colours expressed ideas

Artistic conventions are not only confined to the organisation of forms created by Egyptian sculptors and draughtsmen but also extend to the final stage of decoration, the application of colour. The artists' palette was limited to six pigments based on naturally occurring materials that were mixed to create a variety of shades[11]:

  • Chalk, gypsum and carbonates and sulphates of lime were used to create white

  • Carbon in the form of soot was used to create black, which was mixed with white to create shades of grey

  • Earth ochres were used for red, yellow and brown

  • Artificial compounds of powdered copper, malachite or azurite were used to create blue (called "Egyptian blue") and green ("green frit")

  • Orpiment, an arsenic sulfide mineral found in volcanic fumaroles, was used on the rare occasion to create yellow and orange


Figure 9 – My reproduction of a painting from the tomb of Queen Nefertari in the Valley of the Queens dating to Dynasty 19. The Great Wife of Ramesses II is being led by the hand of the goddess Isis towards Khepri, the beetle-headed sun god.

Egyptian art uses polychromy, filling in the outlines with solid blocks of these contrasting colours which were chosen as much for their symbolic meaning as they were to accurately illustrate the subject. In Figure 9, the green of the reed mat beneath Khepri’s throne and the gold of Nefertari’s crown is accurate, whereas the colours chosen for the three figure’s skin indicate another layer of meaning. It was a convention to depict women with lighter brown or yellower skin to men, whose was usually reddish-brown. The gods were depicted with yellow skin and blue hair to reflect the myth that the gods’ bodies were made of precious metals and stones. Gods like Osiris and Ptah could also be green or black-skinned to reflect ideas of fertility and regeneration embodied by the black fertile soil and green growth that characterised the Nile floods.


Hieroglyphs

Figure 10 – My reproduction of a scene from the Book of the Dead, taken from the Papyrus of Ani dating from c. 1250 BC.

Hieroglyphic signs form the basis of Egyptian iconography, being themselves individual works of art used to symbolically represent both sounds and ideas. We see the earliest examples being used individually in royal contexts to represent a name or idea (the Narmer Palette in Figure 3), or combined with others to create narratives and titles (king Den’s jar label in Figure 2).

The hieroglyphic script embodies all the principles of aspective art, with standardised recognisable forms created out of composite parts used to communicate clear and often specific symbolic statements[12]. They could be read as words in registers or be transposed into other representational settings, so they formed part of the decorative scheme. For example, the depiction of men kneeling with one arm bent against the chest and another raised in a gesture corresponds exactly with the hieroglyph meaning ‘jubilation’, communicating the meaning both visually and verbally.

­Written words have the potential for immortality, and in the funerary context performed a vital function in preserving the name of the deceased and ensuring all their needs in the afterlife would be met. They were used to clarify the precise identity of the idealised representations by applying a label or to provide dialogue or description of the actions being performed or the words being spoken[13].


Examples of Symbolism


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References and Further Reading

[1] Aldred, C., 1988. Egyptian Art in the Days of the Pharaohs 3100-320 BC. London: Thames and Hudson, p15

[2] Manley, B., 2017. Egyptian Art. London: Thames and Hudson, p91

[3] Arnold, D., 2013. Ancient Egyptian Art: Image and Response. In: R. Koehl, ed. AMILLA: The Quest for Excellence. Studies Presented to Guenter Kopcke in Celebration of His 75th Birthday. Philadelphia: INSTAP Academic Press, p6

[4] Wilkinson, R. H., 1992. Reading Ancient Egyptian Art: A Hieroglyphic Guide to Ancient Egyptian Painting and Sculpture. London: Thames and Hudson Ltd, p121

[5] Quibell, J. E., 1898. Slate Palette from Hierakonpolis. Zeitschrift für ägyptische Sprache und Altertumskunde (Z.A.S.), Volume 36, pp. 81-84, plate 12

[6] Robins, G., 1994. Proportion and Style in Ancient Egyptian Art. Austin: University of Texas Press, p64

[7] Aldred, C., 1988. Egyptian Art in the Days of the Pharaohs 3100-320 BC. London: Thames and Hudson, p26

[8] Manley, B., 2017. Egyptian Art. London: Thames and Hudson, p92

[9] Wen, J., 2018. The Iconography Of Family Members In Egypt’s Elite Tombs Of The Old Kingdom. s.l.:University of Pennsylvania Publicly Accessible Penn Dissertations, p258

[10] Pieke, G., 2011. The Evidence of Images: Art and Working Techniques in the Mastaba of Mereruka. In: N. Strudwick & H. Strudwick, eds. Old Kingdom, New Perspectives: Egyptian Art and Archaeology 2750–2150 BC. Oxford: Oxbox Books, pp. 216-228.

[11] Duell, P., 1938. The Mastaba of Mereruka, Part I. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, p10

[12] (Wilkinson, 1992, p. 10) Wilkinson, R. H., 1992. Reading Ancient Egyptian Art: A Hieroglyphic Guide to Ancient Egyptian Painting and Sculpture. London: Thames and Hudson Ltd, p10

[13] Staring, N., 2011. Fixed rules or personal choice? On the composition and arrangement of daily life scenes in Old Kingdom elite tombs. In: N. Strudwick & H. Strudwick, eds. Old Kingdom, New Perspectives: Egyptian Art and Archaeology 2750–2150 BC. Oxford: Oxbow Books, pp. 245-256.

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