Ancient Egyptian Art
Characteristics, History of Sculpture, Painting, Architecture.

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Tuthankamen's famous Burial Mask
(c.1323 BCE) Egyptian Museum, Cairo.
Includes 11 kilograms of solid gold.
A wonderful piece of precious
metalwork from the New Kingdom.

For the chronology of Prehistoric art
including dates and events, please
see: Prehistoric Art Timeline.
For a guide to later works, please
see: History of Art Timeline.

Egyptian Art (3100 BCE - 395 CE)


Artists & Craftsmen
Rules of Painting
Use of Pigments
Egyptian Arts And The Afterlife
The Rule of King Amenhotep (Akhenaton) (1350­1320 BCE)
Relief Carvings
Tomb Reliefs
Low Relief
Sunk Relief
Tomb Painting
Artistic Techniques (Relief Carvings and Painting)
Architecture: Pyramid Tombs and Temples

Hypostyle Hall, Karnak temple,
Luxor. (Begun 16th century BCE)
The photo clearly illustrates the
massive scale of monumental
Egyptian architecture, which
dwarfs anything erected at the
time in Europe.

Scene from the Book of the Dead
(Thebes Dynasty c.1000 BCE)


A major contributor to late Neolithic art, Egyptian culture is probably the best known form of ancient art in the Mediterranean basin, before the advent of Greek civilization (c.600 BCE). Ancient Egyptian architecture, for example, is world famous for the extraordinary Egyptian Pyramids, while other features unique to the art of Ancient Egypt include its writing script based on pictures and symbols (hieroglyphics), and its meticulous hieratic style of painting and stone carving. Egyptian civilization was shaped by the geography of the country as well as the political, social and religious customs of the period. Protected by its desert borders and sustained by the waters of the Nile, Egyptian arts and crafts developed largely unhindered (by external invasion or internal strife) over many centuries. The Pharaoh (originally meaning 'palace') was worshipped as a divine ruler (supposedly the incarnation of the god Horus), but typically maintained firm control through a strict bureaucratic hierarchy, whose members were often appointed on merit.

For a contemporary comparison, see: Mesopotamian Art (c.4500-539 BCE) and Mesopotamian Sculpture (c.3000-500 BCE). For oriental painting, pottery and sculpture, see: Chinese Art. See also: Neolithic Art in China (7500 on) and also: Traditional Chinese Art.

The function of Egyptian art was twofold. First, to glorify the gods - including the Pharaoh - and facilitate human passage into the after-life. Second, to assert, propagandize and preserve the values of the day. Due to the general stability of Egyptian life and culture, all arts - including architecture and sculpture, as well as painting, metalwork and goldsmithing - were characterized by a highly conservative adherence to traditional rules, which favoured order and form over creativity and artistic expression. Decorative arts included the first examples of Nail Art.

Fayum Mummy Portrait (Louvre)
From c.100-200 CE, after the Rules
of Painting were relaxed under the
influence of Greek art.

For a brief review of Muslim arts
see: Islamic Art.

Ancient Egypt Timeline


1st Dynasty (2920-2770 BCE)

Horus Aha
Djer (Itit)
Djet (Wadj)
Den (Udimu)

2nd Dynasty (2770-2650 BCE)



3rd Dynasty (2650-2575 BCE)

Netjerykhet (Djoser)
Sekhemkhet (Djoser Teti)

Timeline of Ancient Egypt

Egyptian culture evolved over three thousand years, a period usually divided as follows:

The Early Dynastic Period; The Old Kingdom (2680­2258 BCE); The Middle Kingdom (2134-1786 BCE); The New Kingdom (1570­1075 BCE), including the controversial Amarna Period of King Amenhotep (Akhenaton) (1350­1320 BCE). After this, came an Intermediate Period until the Ptolemaic Era (323-30 BCE) and the period of Roman rule (30 BCE - 395 CE).

Ancient Egyptian civilization is symbolized by the Pyramids, most of which were constructed during the Old and Middle Kingdom periods, when the Pharaoh's power was absolute. Even today, the full significance of these funerary monuments and tombs is imperfectly understood by archeologists and Egyptologists. Testifying to the social organization and architectural ingenuity of Ancient Egyptian culture, the Great Pyramid of Giza (c.2565 BCE) remains the sole surviving member of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, as compiled by the Greek poet Antipater of Sidon.

Egyptian Artists and Craftsmen

Egyptian sculptors and painters were not artists in the modern sense of being a creative individual. Ancient Egyptian art was rather the work of paid artisans who were trained and who then worked as part of a team. The leading master craftsman might be very versatile, and capable of working in many branches of art, but his part in the production of a statue or the decoration of a tomb was anonymous. He would guide his assistants as they worked, and help to train novices, but his personal contribution cannot be assessed. Artists at all stages of their craft worked together. The initial outline sketch or drawing would be executed by one or more, who would then be followed by others carving the intermediate and final stages. Painters would follow in the same manner. Where scenes have been left unfinished it is possible to see the corrections made to the work of less-skilled hands by more practised craftsmen. Many master craftsmen reached positions of influence and social importance, as we know from their own funerary monuments. Imhotep, the architect who built the Step Pyramid complex for King Zoser, 2660-2590 BC, was so highly revered in later times that he was deified. The credit for any work of art, however, was believed to belong to the patron who had commissioned it.

4th Dynasty (2575-2467 BCE)

Khufu (Cheops)

5th Dynasty (2465-2323 BCE)

Neferirkare Kakai
Shepseskare Ini
Niuserre Izi
Djedkare Izezi

6th Dynasty (2323-2152 BCE)

Pepy I
Merenre Nemtyemzaf
Pepy II

(7th-11th Dynasties)
(2150-1986 BCE)

Neferkare II
Neferkare III
Djedkare II
Neferkare IV
Menkamin I
Neferkare V
Neferkare VI
Neferkamin II
Ibi I
Neferirkare II


11th Dynasty (1986-1937 BCE)

Inyotef I
Inyotef II
Inyotef III
Mentuhotep I
Mentuhotep II
Mentuhotep III
Mentuhotep IV

12th Dynasty (1937-1759 BCE)

Amenemhet I
Senusret I
Amenemhet II
Senusret II
Senusret III
Amenemhet III
Amenemhet IV

(13th-17th Dynasties)
(1759-1539 BCE)

13th Dynasty

Amenemhat V
Sehetepibre I
Amenemhat VI
Sehetepibre II
Sobekhotep I
Hor I
Amenemhat VII
Sobekhotep II
Antef IV
Sobekhotep III
Neferhotep I
Sobekhotep IV
Sobekhotep V
Ini I
Sobekhotep VI
Dedumes I
Ibi II
Hor II
Sekhanre I

Rules of Painting

Egyptian civilization was highly religious. Thus most Egyptian artworks involve the depiction of many gods and goddesses - of whom the Pharaoh was one. In addition, the Egyptian respect for order and conservative values led to the establishment of complex rules for how both Gods and humans could be represented by artists. For example, in figure painting, the sizes of figures were calculated purely by reference to the person's social status, rather than by the normal artistic rules of linear perspective. The same formula for painting the human figure was used over hundreds if not thousands of years. Head and legs always in profile; eyes and upper body viewed from the front. For Egyptian sculpture and statues, the rules stated that male statues should be darker than female ones; when seated, the subject's hands should be on knees. Gods too were depicted according to their position in the hierarchy of deities, and always in the same guise. For instance, Horus (the sky god) was always represented with a falcon's head, Anubis (the god of funeral rites) was always depicted with a jackal's head.

Use of Pigments

The use of colour in Egyptian paintings was also regulated and used symbolically. Egyptian artists used six colours in their paintings red, green, blue, yellow, white and black. Red, being the colour of power, symbolized life and victory, as well as anger and fire. Green symbolized new life, growth, and fertility, while blue symbolized creation and rebirth, and yellow symbolized the eternal, such as the qualities of the sun and gold. Yellow was the colour of Ra and of all the pharaohs, which is why the sarcophagi and funeral masks were made of gold to symbolize the everlasting and eternal pharaoh who was now a god. White was the colour of purity, symbolizing all things sacred, and was typically used used in religious objects and tools used by the priests. Black was the colour of death and represented the underworld and the night.

For details of the colour pigments used by painters in Ancient Egypt, see: Egyptian Colour Palette.

Egyptian Arts And The Afterlife

Nearly all of Ancient Egypt's surviving paintings were discovered in tombs of the pharaohs or high governmental officials, and portrays scenes of the afterlife. Known as funerary art, these pictures depicted the narrative of life after death as well as things like servants, boats and food to help the deceased in their trip through the after life. These paintings would be executed on papyrus, on panels, (using encaustic paint) or on walls in the form of fresco murals (using tempera). In addition, models (eg. of boats, granaries, butcher shops, and kitchens) were included in the tomb in order to guarantee the future well-being of the dead person.

As the spirit inhabited the body, the preservation of the latter against decay was also critical. The use of tightly wrapped bandages to mummify the corpse, and the removal and packaging of internal organs within ceramic canopic jars and other opulent sarcophagi became widespread among the ruling elite. All these arrangements helped to support a nationwide industry of Egyptian artists and craftsmen who laboured to produce the artworks (paintings, scultures, pottery, ceramics, jewellery and metalwork) required.

Egyptian sculpture was highly symbolic and for most of Egyptian history was not intended to be naturalistic or realistic. Sculptures and statues were made from clay, wood, metal, ivory, and stone - of which stone was the most permanent and plentiful. Many Egyptian sculptures were painted in vivid colours.

NOTE: In addition to pyramid architecture, stone sculpture, goldsmithing and the Fayum Mummy portraits, Egyptian craftsmen are also noted for their ancient pottery, especially Egyptian faience, a non-clay-based ceramic art developed in Egypt from 1500 BCE, although it began in Mesopotamia. The oldest surviving faience workshop, complete with advanced lined brick kilns, was found at Abydos in the mid-Nile area. Egyptian faience is a non-clay based ceramic composed of powdered quartz or sand, covered with a vitreous coating, often made with copper pigments to give a transparent blue or blue-green sheen. See Pottery Timeline.

The Rule of King Amenhotep (Akhenaton) (1350­1320 BCE)

Pharaoh Amenhotep IV (husband of Queen Nefertiti) triggered a sort of cultural revolution in Egypt. Born into the cult of Amon (Amen), a line that worshipped a wide range of gods, he changed his name to Akhenaton and, strengthened by his control of the army, instituted the worship only of Aten, a sun god. The Egyptian capital and royal court was moved to Amarna in Middle Egypt. All this led to a radical break with tradition, especially in the arts, such as painting and sculpture. They became more naturalistic and more dynamic than the static rule-bound art of previous eras. In particular, the Amarna style of art was characterized by a sense of movement and activity. Portraits of Egyptian nobles ceased to be idealized, and some were even caricatured. The presence of Aten in many pictures was represented by a golden disc shining down from above.

After the death of Akhenaton, the next Pharaoh - the child Tutankhaten - was persuaded to move back to Memphis and change his name to Tutankhamen, thus reverting to Amon. As a result, Egyptian painters and sculptors largely returned to the old traditions which continued until the Hellenistic era from 323 BCE onwards.

NOTE: To compare earlier Middle Eastern works of Sumerian art (c.3,000 BCE), please see the Ram in a Thicket (c.2500 BCE, British Museum, London), Kneeling Bull with Vessel (3,000 BCE, Metropolitan Museum, New York) and The Guennol Lioness (3000 BCE, Private Collection). For contemporaneous sculpture, see for instance the Human-headed Winged Bull and Lion (859 BCE) from Ashurnasirpal's palace at Nimrud, and the alabaster reliefs of lion-hunts featuring Ashurnasirpal II and Ashurbanipal, both characteristic examples of Assyrian art (c.1500-612 BCE).

Hellenistic Era (c.323-27 BCE)

The influence of Greek Hellenistic art on Egyptian artists, a process accelerated during the Ptolemaic Era, encouraged the naturalistic representation of individuals in paintings and sculpture, not unlike the process initiated by Akhenaton. Portraits became realistic and the rules of colour were relaxed. This trend was further encouraged by the practical Roman style of art.

The most famous example of Hellenistic-Egyptian painting during the era of classical antiquity, is the series of Fayum Mummy Portraits, discovered mainly around the Faiyum basin, west of the Nile, near Cairo. A type of naturalistic portraiture, strongly influenced by Greek art, notably Hellenistic Greek painting (323-27 BCE), Fayum portraits were attached to the burial cloth of the deceased person. Preserved by the exceptionally dry conditions, these paintings represent the largest single body of original art which has survived from Antiquity.

Collections of Egyptian artworks can be seen in the Egyptian Museum, Cairo; the British Museum, London; the Louvre Museum, Paris; the Agyptisches Museum, Berlin; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

14th Dynasty


15th Dynasty

Apachnan (Khian)
Apophis (Auserre Apepi)

16th Dynasty

Pepi III
Nikare II

17th Dynasty

Antef V
Sobekemzaf I
Mentuhotep VII
Nebirau I
Nebirau II
Sobekemzaf II
Antef VI
Antef VII
Tao I
Tao II


18th Dynasty (1539-1295 BCE)

Amenhotep I
Thutmose I
Thutmose II
Thutmose III
Amenhotep II
Thutmose IV
Amenhotep III
Amenhotep IV / Akhenaten
Ay (Kheperkheperure)

Note: The rulers of Egypt were not
called Pharaohs by their own people.
This word was only used by the
Greeks and Hebrews. However,
today it is the accepted term for
for all the ancient Kings of Egypt.

19th Dynasty (1295-1186 BCE)

Ramesses I
Seti I
Ramesses II
Seti II

20th Dynasty (1186-1069 BCE)

Ramesses III
Ramesses IV
Ramesses V
Ramesses VI
Ramesses VII
Ramesses VIII
Ramesses IX
Ramesses X
Ramesses XI

Egyptian Painting & Sculpture: A Brief Survey

Relief Carvings

The earliest incised figures and scenes in relief date from prehistoric times when slate cosmetic panels and combs of wood, bone, and ivory were buried in the graves of their owners. These were carved in the simple, effective outlines of species familiar to the people of the Nile Valley - antelopes, ibex, fish, and birds. More elaborate ivory combs and the ivory handles of flint knives which probably had some ceremonial purpose were carved in relief, the scene standing out from its background.

By the end of the prehistoric period Egyptian sculpture was unmistakable, although up to this point there had been no great architectural monuments on which the skill of the sculptors could be displayed. From the meagre evidence of a few carvings on fragments of bone and ivory we know that the gods were worshipped in shrines constructed of bundles of reeds. The chieftains of prehistoric Egypt probably lived in similar structures, very like the ones still found in the marshes of South Arabia.

The work of sculptors was displayed in the production of ceremonial mace-heads and palettes, carved to commemorate victories and other important events and dedicated to the gods. They show that the distinctive sculptural style, echoed in all later periods of Egyptian history, had already emerged, and the convention of showing the human figure partly in profile and partly in frontal view was well-established. The significance of many details cannot yet be fully explained, but representations of the king as a powerful lion or a strong bull are often repeated in Dynastic times.

Tomb Reliefs

Early royal reliefs, showing the king smiting his enemies or striding forward in ritual pose, are somewhat stilted, but by the 3rd Dynasty techniques were already very advanced. Most surviving examples are in stone, but the wooden panels found in the tomb of Hesire at Saqqara, 2660-2590 BCE, show the excellence achieved by master craftsmen (Egyptian Museum, Cairo). These figures, standing and seated, carved according to the conventions of Egyptian ideals of manhood, emphasized in different ways the different elements of the human form. The head, chest, and legs are shown in profile, but the visible eye and the shoulders are depicted as if seen from the front, while the waist and hips are in three-quarter view. However, this artificial pose does not look awkward because of the preservation of natural proportion. The excellence of the technique, shown in the fine modelling of the muscles of face and body, bestows a grace upon what might otherwise seem rigid and severe. Hesire, carrying the staff and sceptre of his rank together with the palette and pen case symbolizing his office of royal scribe, gazes proudly and confidently into eternity. The care of the craftsman does not stop with the figure of his patron, for the hieroglyphs making up the inscription giving the name and titles of the deceased are also carved with delicacy and assurance, and are fine representations in miniature of the animals, birds, and objects used in ancient Egyptian writing. The animals and birds used as hieroglyphs are shown in true profile.

The great cemeteries of Gizeh and Saqqara in which the nobles and court officials were buried near their kings, provide many examples of the skill of the craftsmen of the 4th, 5th, and 6th Dynasties, a skill rarely equaled in later periods. The focus of these early tombs was a slab of stone carved with a representation of the deceased sitting in front of a table of offerings. The latter were usually placed above the false door, through which the spirit of the dead person, called the ka, might continue to enter and leave the tomb. The idea behind this was that the magical representation of offerings on the stelae, activated by the correct religious formulas, would exist for the rest of eternity, together with the ka of the person to whom they were made.

In single scenes, or in works filling a wall from ceiling to floor, every figure had its proper place and was not permitted to overflow its allotted space. One of the most notable achievements of Egyptian craftsmen was the way they filled the space available in a natural, balanced way, so that scenes full of life never seem to be cramped or overcrowded.

The horizontal sequences or registers of scenes arranged on either side of the funerary stelae and false doors in 5th-Dynasty and 6th-Dynasty tombs are full of lively and natural detail. Here the daily life of peasant and noble was caught for eternity by the craftsman - the action of herdsman and fisherman frozen in mid-step, so that the owner of the tomb would always be surrounded by the daily bustle of his estate. The subjects were intended to be typical of normal events, familiar scenes rather than special occasions.

Egyptian craftsmen did not employ perspective to suggest depth and distance, but they did establish a convention whereby several registers, each with its own base line, could be used to depict a crowd of people. Those in the lowest register were understood to be nearest to the viewer, those in the highest furthest away. A number of these scenes occur in the Old Kingdom: many offering-bearers bring the produce of their estates to a deceased noble at his funerary table, for instance, or troops of men are shown hauling a great statue. Statues represented in reliefs, like the hieroglyphs, are shown in true
profile, in contrast to the figures of the men hauling them. Perhaps the best-known scenes showing nearness and distance, however, are the painted banqueting scenes of the New Kingdom, where the numerous guests, dressed in their finest clothes, sit in serried ranks in front of their hosts.

The registers could also be used to present various stages in a developing sequence of action, rather like the frames of a strip cartoon. In the Old Kingdom, the important events of the agricultural year follow each other across the walls of many tombs: ploughing, sowing, harvesting, and threshing the grain are all faithfully represented. The herdsmen are shown at work in the pastures caring for the cattle so prized by the ancient Egyptians, while other scenes depict the trapping of waterfowl in the Nile marshes and fishing in the river itself. Other domestic activities, such as baking and brewing, also vital to the eternal existence of the dead noble are represented; other scenes show carpenters, potters, and jewellers at work.

It was in these scenes of everyday life that the sculptor was able to use his initiative, and free himself to some extent from the ties of convention. The dead man and his family had to be presented in ritual poses as described - larger than life, strictly proportioned, and always calm and somewhat aloof.

The rural workers on the estates, however, could be shown at their daily asks in a more relaxed manner, capturing something of the liveliness and energy that must have characterized the ancient Egyptians. While the offering-bearers, symbolizing the funerary gifts from the estates to their lord, are depicted moving towards him in formal and stately procession, the peasants at work in the fields seem both sturdy and vigorous. They lean to the plough and beat the asses, tend the cattle and carry small calves on their shoulders clear of the danger of crocodiles lurking in the marshes.

The natural details used to fill odd corners in these tomb scenes show how much pleasure the ancient Egyptian craftsmen took in observing their environment. Birds, insects, and clumps of plants were all used to balance and complete the picture. The results of sharp-eyed observation can be seen in the details that distinguish the species of birds and fish thronging the reeds and shallow water of the marshes.


21st Dynasty (1070-945 BCE)

Psusennes I
Pinedjem I
Smendes II
Psusennes II
Pinedjem II
Psusennes III

22nd Dynasty (945-712 BCE)

Shoshenq I
Osorkon I
Shoshenq II
Osorkon II
Takelot II
Shoshenq III
Shoshenq IV
Osorkon IV

23rd Dynasty (828-725 BCE)

Pedubaste I
Osorkon IV

24th Dynasty (725-715 BCE)

Shepsesre Tefnakht I
Wahkare Bakenranef


25th Dynasty (712-657 BCE)


26th Dynasty (664-525 BCE)

Psammetichus I
Nekau II
Psammetichus II
Psammetichus III

27th Dynasty (525-404 BCE)

Cambyses 525-522
Darius I 521-486
Xerxes I 486-466
Artaxerxes I 465-424
Darius II 424-404

28th Dynasty (404-399 BCE)


29th Dynasty (399-380 BCE)

Nepherites I
Nepherites II

30th Dynasty (380-343 BCE)
The last Egyptian-born rulers

Nectanebo I
Nectanebo II

31st Dynasty (343-332 BCE)

Ochus (Artaxerxes III)
Darius III Codomannus

Little survives of the reliefs that decorated the royal temples of the early 5th Dynasty, but from the funerary temple of the first king, Userkaf, c.2,460 BCE, comes a fragment from a scene of hunting in the marshes (Egyptian Museum, Cairo). The air above the graceful heads of the papyrus reeds is alive with birds, and the delicate carving makes them easily distinguishable even without the addition of colour. A hoopoe, ibis, kingfisher, and heron are unmistakable, and a large butterfly hovering above provides the final touch.

Low Relief

The tradition of finely detailed decoration in low relief, the figures standing out slightly above the background, continued through the 6th-Dynasty and into the Middle Kingdom, when it was particularly used for royal monuments. Few fragments of these remain, but the hieroglyphs carved on the little chapel of Sesostris I, now reconstructed at Karnak, show the sure and delicate touch of master craftsmen. During the late Old Kingdom, low relief was combined with other techniques such as incision, in which lines were simply cut into the stone, especially in non-royal monuments, and the result is often artistically very pleasing. The limestone funerary stela of Neankhteti, c.2,250 BCE, is a fine example (Merseyside County Museums, Liverpool). The major part of the stela, the figure and the horizontal inscription above it, is in low relief, but an incised vertical panel of hieroglyphs repeats his name with another title, and the symbol for scribe, the palette and pen, needed for the beginning of both lines, is used only once, at the point at which the lines intersect. The result is a perfectly balanced design, and a welcome variation in the types of stelae carved during the Old Kingdom.

A further development is shown in the stela of Hotep, carved during the Middle Kingdom, 2000-1800 BCE (Merseyside County Museums, Liverpool). The figures of three standing officials and the hieroglyphic signs have been crisply incised into the hard red granite. Originally the signs and figures would have been filled with blue pigment, to contrast sharply with the polished red surface of the stone.

Sunk Relief

During the Middle Kingdom the use of sunk relief came into fashion, and in the 18th and early 19th Dynasties it was employed to great effect. The background was not cut away as in low relief to leave the figures standing above the level of the rest of the surface. Instead the relief design was cut down into the smoothed surface of the stone. In the strong Egyptian sunlight the carved detail would stand out well, but the sunk relief was better protected from the weather and was therefore more durable.

Egyptian Painting

Painting in ancient Egypt followed a similar pattern to the development of scenes in carved relief, and the two techniques were often combined. The first examples of painting occur in the prehistoric period, in the patterns and scenes on pottery. We depend very much for our evidence on what has survived, and fragments are necessarily few because of the fragile nature of the medium. Parts of two scenes depicting figures and boats are known, one on linen and one on a tomb wall. Panels of brightly coloured patterns survive on the walls of royal tombs of the 1st Dynasty, the patterns representing the mats and woven hangings that decorated the walls of large houses. These patterns occur again and again throughout Egyptian history in many different ways. Some of the finest may be seen on the sides of the rectangular wooden coffins found in the tombs of Middle Kingdom nobles at Beni Hasan and elsewhere, c.2,000-1800 BCE.

Egyptian Tomb Painting

The earliest representational paintings in the unmistakable traditional Egyptian style date from the 3rd and 4th Dynasties. The most famous are probably the fragments from the tomb of Itet at Medum, c.2,725 BCE, showing groups of geese which formed part of a large scene of fowling in the marshes (Egyptian Museum, Cairo). The geese, of several different species, stand rather stiffly among clumps of stylized vegetation, but the markings are carefully picked out, and the colours are natural and subtle.

Throughout the Old Kingdom, paint was used to decorate and finish limestone reliefs, but during the 6th Dynasty painted scenes began to supersede relief in private tombs for economic reasons. It was less expensive to commission scenes painted directly on walls of tombs, although their magic was just as effective.

During the First Intermediate Period and the Middle Kingdom, the rectangular wooden coffins of nobles were often painted with elaborate care, turning them into real houses for the spirits of the dead. Their exteriors bore inscriptions giving the names and titles of their owners, and invoking the pro-tection of various gods. The remaining surface areas were covered with brightly painted panels imitating the walls of houses hung with woven mats, and incorporating windows and doors in complicated geometric patterns. Great attention was paid to the "false door" situated at the head end of the coffin through which the ka would be able to enter and leave as it pleased. This panel always included the two sacred eyes of the falcon sky-god Horus, which would enable the dead to look out into the living world.

The interior surfaces of the coffins were sometimes painted with the offerings made to the dead, ensuring that these would continue in the afterlife. An offering table piled with bread, meat, and vegetables was the central feature. A list of ritual offerings was also important, and personal possessions such as weapons, staffs of office, pottery and stone vessels, and items of clothing were all shown in detail. Headcloths were painted at the head end, and spare pairs of sandals at the feet.

These coffins were placed in the small rock-cut chambers of Upper Egyptian tombs, where the stone is often too rough or crumbly to provide a good surface for painting. Fragments of painted murals do survive, however, and some tombs have lively scenes of hunting in the desert or of agricultural work. Acute observation also produced unusual subjects such as men wrestling or boys playing games, shown in sequence like a series of stills from a moving film. Others are painted with outstanding skill. Part of a marsh scene in a tomb at Beni Hasan, c.1,800 BCE, shows a group of birds in an acacia tree. The frond-like leaves of the tree are delicately painted, and the birds, three shrikes, a hoopoe, and a redstart, are easily identifiable.

Tomb painting really came into its own, however, during the New Kingdom, particularly in the tombs of the great necropolis at Thebes. Here the limestone was generally too poor and flaky for relief carving, but the surface could be plastered to provide a ground for the painter. As always, the traditional conventions were observed, particularly in the formal scenes depicting the dead man where he appears larger than his family and companions. Like the men who carved the Old Kingdom reliefs, however, the painters could use their imaginations for the minor details that filled in the larger scenes. Birds and animals in the marshes, usually depicted in profile, have their markings carefully hatched in, giving an impression of real fur and feathers; and their actions are sometimes very realistic. In the tomb of Nebamun, c.1,400 BCE, a hunting cat, already grasping birds in its claws, leaps to seize a duck in its mouth.

Fragments illustrating a banquet from the same tomb give the impression that the painter not only had outstanding skill but a particular delight in experimenting with unusual detail. The noble guests sit in formal rows, but the servants and entertainers were not so important and did not have to conform in the same way. Groups of female musicians kneel gracefully on the floor, the soles of their feet turned towards the viewer, while two in one group are shown almost full-face, which is very rare. The lightness and gaiety of the music is conveyed by their inclined heads and the apparent movement of the tiny braids of their elaborately plaited hair. Lively movement continues with the pair of young dancers, shown in profile, whose clapping hands and flying feet are depicted with great sensitivity. A further unusual feature is the shading of the soles of the musicians' feet and pleated robes.


Egyptian Frescoes

Painting not only decorated the walls of New Kingdom tombs, but gave great beauty to the houses and palaces of the living. Frescoes of reeds, water, birds, and animals enhanced the walls, ceilings, and floors of the palaces of Amarna and elsewhere; but after the 19th Dynasty there was a steady decline in the quality of such painting. On a smaller scale, painting on papyrus, furniture, and wooden coffins continued to be skillful until the latest periods of Egyptian history, though there was also much poor-quality mass-produced work.

C. Artistic Techniques of Relief Carvings and Painting

Before any carving in relief or painting could be done, the ground - whether stone or wood - had to be prepared. If the surface was good, smoothing was often enough, but any flaws had to be masked with plaster. During the New Kingdom, whole walls were plastered, and sometimes reliefs of exquisite detail were carved in the plaster itself. Usually mud plaster was used, coated with a thin layer of fine gypsum.

The next stage was the drafting, and the scenes were sketched in, often in red, using a brush or a scribe's reed pen. This phase was important, particularly when a complicated scene with many figures was planned, or when a whole wall was to be covered with scenes arranged in horizontal registers. Some craftsmen were confident enough to be able to use freehand, but more often intersecting horizontal and vertical lines were used as a guide. These could be ruled, or made by tightly holding the ends of a string dipped in pigment, and twanging it across the surface. Quite early in Egyptian history the proportions of the grid were fixed to ensure that human figures were drawn according to the fixed canon. Since the decoration in some tombs was never finished, the grid lines and sketches can be clearly seen, together with corrections made by master craftsmen.

The next stage in producing a relief was to chisel round the correct outlines and reduce the surrounding level, until the scene consisted of a series of flat shapes standing against the background in low relief. Then the final details could be carved and the surface smoothed ready for painting. Any corrections and alterations made to the carving could be hidden beneath a coat of plaster before the paint was applied.

The painter worked directly to a draft on a flat surface, and began with the background. This was filled in with one colour, grey, white, or yellow, using a brush made of a straight twig or reed with the fibres teased out. The larger areas of human figures were painted next, the skin colour applied, and the linen garments painted. Precise details, such as the markings of animals and birds or the petalled tiers of an ornamental collar, were finished with a finer brush or a pen. The pigments were prepared from natural substances such as red and yellow ochre, powdered malachite, carbon black, and gypsum. From about six basic colours it was possible to mix many intermediate shades.

The medium was water to which gum was sometimes added, and the paint was applied in areas of flat colour. During the New Kingdom delicate effects were achieved by using tiny strokes of the brush or pen to pick out animal fur or the fluffy heads of papyrus reeds. Shading was rarely used until the mid-18th Dynasty, when it was employed, particularly in crowd scenes, to suggest the fine pleating of linen garments.

Architecture: Pyramid Tombs and Temples

Egyptian architecture is world famous for its unique underground tomb design, exemplified by the Egyptian Pyramids at Giza, along with its tomb artworks (mummy paintings, sculptures, ceramics and precious metalwork) and Sphinx. All the great monumental pyramids were erected during the era of Early Egyptian Architecture, with only a handful of smaller ones being constructed in the era of in Egyptian Middle Kingdom Architecture. After this came the golden age of Egyptian New Kingdom Architecture, with its huge temple precincts at Karnak and Luxor, after which the extended period of Late Egyptian Architecture was a distinct anti-climax.

• For more about art and design in early civilizations, see: Visual Arts Encyclopedia.

Art Glossary | Visual Artists, Greatest
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