Ancient Egypt

Topic 3: Ancient Egypt

  • Historians generally divide the history of ancient Egypt into the pre-dynastic period (before 3100 B.C.E.), the early dynastic period (c.3100-2700 B.C.E.) the Old Kingdom (c.2700-2200 B.C.E.), the Middle Kingdom (c. 2200-1786 B.C.E.), and the New Kingdom (c. 1570-1090 B.C.E.). These were divided by periods of chaos and invasion (notably the invasion of the Hyksos that helped end the Middle Kingdom). Towards the end of the ancient period, Egypt fell under Greek and Roman rule.

  • Nevertheless, Egypt enjoyed a remarkable degree of stability and continuity. The fertile Nile valley, watered by annual floods that replenished the fields, was bordered by almost impassable desert, creating a unified and self-contained society. This is directly reflected in Egyptian art, which varied little in style from century to century.

  • Many characteristics of Egyptian art are already clearly present in the Palette of Narmer, dating from c. 3100 B.C.E. These include the manner of depicting the human figure with the body directly facing the viewer and the head in profile, the use of horizontal bands or registers to organize a narrative, and depicting rulers as much larger than the ruled. The use of very hard stone, which allows for clear details and remarkable durability, is also typical.

  • The major exception to this artistic continuity was the Amarna period, when the pharaoh Akhenaten (father of Tutankhamen and husband of Nefertiti) attempted a radical transformation of Egyptian religion, replacing the human and animal deities of traditional religion with a single sun god. This was accompanied by a dramatic change in the way that human body was depicted. However, his reforms did not last, and much art that he commissioned may have been destroyed.

  • Much Egyptian art was inspired by the cult of the afterlife. A tomb housed the ka (usually translated as spirit or soul) after death. Mummifying the body and filling tombs with earthly treasures were ways of providing for the ka by providing for its "body double". The monumental tombs of early pharaonic Egypt reached their peak (literally) with the building of the great pyramids. (Later tombs were more discreet, to discourage thieves). The journey of the ka into the afterlife was described in a series of texts known as the Book of the Dead.

  • The tradition of monumental stone architecture and sculpture, intended to last through eternity, can also be seen in the Temple of Amun-Re at Karnak, with its huge Hypostyle Hall supported by 134 stone columns designed to look like papyrus reeds. The structure also features one of the earliest clerestories - a row of windows just below roof level which would become a standard feature of western architecture. Another example is the mortuary temple commemorating Hatshepsut, the only female pharaoh.
  • Images of the pharaohs, regarded as god-kings, appeared frequently. These too are often carved from very hard stone and, while fairly naturalistic in their presentation of the body, are more interested in depicting the emblems of rank (such as the pharaoh's distinctive headdress) than in portraying unique individuals. The figure of Hatshepsut, created during the New Kingdom is stylistically similar to the statue of King Menkaura and his queen, dating to the Old Kingdom and a thousand years older.

Related Links:
Ancient Near Eastern and Egyptian Art Quiz
Ancient Mediterranean 3500 B.C.E. - 300 C. E.
AP Art History Quizzes
AP Art History Notes