One does not need to be an expert to recognize the canonical Ancient Egyptian art style. However, some kind of specific knowledge is needed to tell apart art from each period of ancient Egyptian history. Read on to discover the periods of ancient Egyptian art and the unique characteristics of each period.
The Dawn of Ancient Egyptian Art
When did Egyptian art begin? This question is not as easy as it seems. When looking at Predynastic artworks, the first thing that comes to mind is how different this art is from the more well-known, Dynastic art. It was at the end of the 4th millennium BCE when the first kings of Egypt appeared, and a clear artistic canon was imposed. Before that, artists had the freedom to experiment with forms, materials, techniques, and representational strategies.
One of the salient topics of Predynastic depictions was the struggle of order against chaos, masterfully represented in the so-called Two-Dog Palette. This thin slab of carved greywacke was used for grounding pigments, either for cosmetic or ritual use (or both). It shows several animals, including some mythical ones, placed randomly on all its surface. One of the animals is playing the flute, making some scholars think that it is the earliest representation of the god of chaos, Seth. Fortunately, this chaotic scene is contained by two huge dogs that guard the rim of the palette and even seem to hold paws. Symmetry was often used to emphasize the symbolism of order. Once a unified monarchy was established in Egypt, the maintenance of order would remain a prerogative of the king.
Old Kingdom Art: Establishing a Canon
The first dynasties formed what is known as the Thinite Period, a time when pharaohs still had no control over the whole territory. However, this changed with the Old Kingdom, and some historians argue that the pharaohs of dynasties 4, 5, and 6 were among the most powerful of all Egyptian history. The Pyramids are a testament to their authority. In the artistic field, they also developed the royal canon, a way of depicting the king and his family that remained almost untouched for the rest of Egyptian history.
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The grey stone statues of some kings accompanied by their wives or other gods and goddesses are the perfect example of Egyptian canonical representations. Not only the bodies of the king and queen are stylized, showing what the ideal body was at that time, but the regalia is in full bloom: the striped linen headdress known as nemes, the fake beard attached to the king’s chin, and the kilt, called Shendyt in Egyptian language. The smooth and shiny surface of the statues, along with the classic Egyptian proportions, give the artworks a sleek, dapper appearance, which was also fit for a king.
Intermediate Periods Art: Rise of Local Officials
By the end of the Old Kingdom, the power of the pharaoh was decaying, and the local administrators, known as nomarchs, were rapidly gaining influence among the population. In art, this historical process is reflected in the number of artworks that portray people other than the king. Local nomarchs are shown hunting and fowling, activities that were previously a royal prerogative. They were also depicted sitting at tables receiving offerings in the form of all kinds of meat, beer, fruits, oils, and so on. This tendency continued even when the unified monarchy was restored during the Middle Kingdom. Intermediate Periods are traditionally described as ages of crisis and turmoil, but in reality, it was mostly the unified monarchy that suffered as people continued to go about their lives as usual. Some of the time, they fared even better than before, thanks to the freedom local authorities enjoyed in the administration of their own domains, which they knew well.
Art from the Intermediate Periods of Egypt is less formal and more diverse than during, for example, the Old or New Kingdoms. Regional styles emerged, and different techniques were used depending on who commissioned the artwork, thus making royal and provincial art clearly distinguishable.
Middle Kingdom Art: Literature and Image
One of the most important developments that took place during the Middle Kingdom was the emergence of a true Egyptian literature. Thus far, writing had been used exclusively for bureaucratic, ritual, and religious reasons. Now, real novels and even poetry started to appear, including the Story of Sinuhe and The Contendings of Horus and Seth. This, in turn. is mirrored in the iconography of this period, as hieroglyphic writing was more and more blended with images to create works of art. Even private tombs showed a more prominent use of written narrative in order to tell the life and stories of their occupants. In some cases, clever artists even managed to fuse images and hieroglyphs, creating wonderful hybrid compositions that show the plasticity of Egyptian language and art.
Another relevant aspect of Middle Kingdom art is the detailed nature of most works of art, which implies that artists underwent intense training before being appointed to create enduring images. No example of this kind of subtlety and delicacy is perhaps more illustrative than the many faience hippopotamuses created during this period. These small statuettes provided protection to the deceased, and as such, they were left inside the tombs. Their legs were broken in purpose, so that their dangerous powers were neutralized and they would do no harm to the owner of the tomb. This in turn shows another important aspect of Egyptian art: images were not merely to be looked at or observed. Some of them had agency and could produce effects and responses in the world.
New Kingdom Art: Splendour and Political Unrest
During the New Kingdom the Egyptian empire grew to its maximum historical extension, specifically under the rule of Thutmose III. But the difficulties of managing such a large portion of the world were soon experienced by his successors. One of the main concerns of the royal families was the power amassed by the High Priests of Amun, a religious elite that was very influential among the population and threatened the power of the king. Amenhotep IV, the tenth king of the 18th dynasty, decided to take matters into his own hands and imposed the biggest religious reform of all Egyptian history, consisting of demoting the worship of Amun and instead making the sun god Aten the only and most important god in the pantheon.
The Amarna Reform, as they were known afterward, were resisted by the High Priests of Amun, and after Amenhotep’s (who had changed his name to Akhenaten) death, they went back to making Amun the main deity of Egyptians. However, not everything from Akhenaten’s reign was lost. Among the surviving artifacts, there are many examples of a completely new way of representing the human body, which now featured elongated heads and members, different facial attributes, and a complete lack of any depictions of gods. The only deity worth representing was Aten, the solar disc, and it was only done so in the form of a circle with rays emanating from it. At the end of these rays, Aten had hands that gifted Ankh signs to the king.
Late Period Art: What Even is Egyptian Art Anymore?
The Third Intermediate Period is usually characterized by the conquest of Egypt by several different empires or polities. First, a Libyan dynasty was imposed, only to be dethroned by Nubian rulers. By the 8th century BCE Assyria had conquered the land of Egypt, and their rule remained uncontested until 663 BCE, when Psamtik I re-conquered Egypt, imposing the first local dynasty in centuries. During these times, Egyptian art had changed and transformed, although it is remarkable the extent to which canonical forms were respected by the subsequent invaders.
Art from the Late Period of Egypt can be seen as a kind of hybrid. In a sense, it represents a return to traditional styles, using the same idealized proportions as in classical Egyptian art and relying on symmetry and realism to create orderly and neat compositions. On the other hand, all those centuries of foreign influence had permanent consequences in the art of this age. This influence was not only Libyan, Nubian, and Assyrian, but also Greek and Persian, with which Egyptians had intense commercial and diplomatic relations.
The statue of Chief Scribe Psamtik (who shared the name with the pharaoh, but should not be mistaken as him) being led by Hathor, the protective goddess of motherhood and love, is very interesting in this sense. The clothes of Psamtik are very different from other periods’ Egyptian garments. His headdress does not drape over his shoulders like in other statues (See King Menkaure’s above), and his kilt seems to be tight around his body, which is not a common feature in other Egyptian art. He also wears a necklace, an accessory rarely seen in “classical” Egyptian depictions of men. Finally, his facial features have little resemblance to the idealized faces of canonical Egyptian art (again, see Menkaure’s statue).
Roman Egypt Art: New Ways and Old Habits
Many scholars consider the Late Period of Egypt as the last period of Egyptian history. This is due to the fact that from that point in time onwards, no local rule was ever achieved, and Egypt was subsequently conquered by the Macedonians of King Alexander the Great, and the Romans under Emperor Augustus. However, when looking at art produced in the Roman Province of Aegyptus during this period of history, one cannot help but be reminded of classical Egyptian art. True, the Fayum portraits are clearly Roman in style, but the facial features of many of the deceased were North African. Apart from the obvious fact that the burial rituals and the practice of mummification were long-standing staples of Egyptian culture. Apparently, as these two cultures were too dissimilar, the portraits were painted on wooden boards and attached to the linen-wrapped mummies, instead of directly in the wrappings or in the coffin. One puzzling fact about Fayum mummy portraits is that most of the deceased were fairly young. While this may point to a short life expectancy, it might also be a custom adopted by the higher classes of only burying the young “the Egyptian way”. But this also begs the question, was by then any art that could be called “Egyptian” anymore?