Art History for Normal People: Egypt

The next stop on our journey through art history brings us to ancient Egypt, a civilization that emerges sort of abruptly along the Nile and rapidly overtakes the various Mesopotamian city-states as the real power in the ancient Middle East. After the Upper and Lower Kingdoms unified around 3,000 BC, Egypt rapidly became one of the most stable civilizations in world history. This stability allowed the pharaohs to undertake unprecedented public works programs, which led to development and prosperity, which led to wealth and disposable income, which led to art and leisure.

Art History for Normal People
Introduction  •  Mesopotamia

Art and Liturgy - Ancient Egyptian HieroglyphsIn my view, Egyptian art is the first “liturgical art” in history. Let me explain. Liturgy means the work of God. Here we have people (the artists) striving to adhere to the guidelines set down by a god (the pharaoh) in a meaningful way. Most — but not all — Egyptian art had a religious function, and so there was the challenge of fashioning the art in a way that was worthy. Ancient Egyptian art was not generally a medium for self-expression, though some of that comes through anyway. It relied heavily on symbolism and iconography, and was mainly concerned with communicating higher truths, revealing a part of the divine order, and reconciling man with the gods in some way. Doesn’t this sound similar to our modern, Christian idea of liturgy?

To Ancient Egyptians, there was no such thing as purely decorative art. All art was communication. In pictures like this one, the writing tells the viewer about the scene, the characters, the context, and so on. The hieroglyphs are just as much a part of the work as the stork in this picture. It is sort of similar to a picture of President Obama in his home, but instead of actually drawing the walls of the Oval Office, the artist fashions the walls out of words that read “This is Barack Obama, the 44th President. He is standing in the White House,” and so on.

Because all art was fundamentally communication, its creators had exalted positions in the kingdom, and the pharaohs relied on the artists to communicate with their subjects. The regime selected the standards to which all art had to conform, and they were enforced strictly. This is why, over 3,000 years of Egyptian history, much of the art appears similar, if not nearly identical, to most of us.

Art and LIturgy - Egyptian hands and eyes
Look at the wonky hands. The artist shows all ten fingers, even though the perspective is all wrong, because this is the clearest way to say “Hey, these are hands.” — Christopher Michel [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Because the artist was fundamentally a communicator, they aimed to present as much information as possible, and not necessarily to depict a subject with visual accuracy. Sometimes we look at Egyptian art and see characters in weird, contorted poses. It is because the artist’s job was to convey what he conceptually knew to be present, not how things actually looked. Each body part was shown in its most representative view. For this reason, we all know how to dance along to The Bangles’ Walk Like An Egyptian with outstretched arms and bent wrists.

Despite the strict pharaonic code of how art should look, artists still explored new media and searched to find the most beautiful set of proportions for the human body. This is what we call the canon. The quest for the perfect canon becomes a Pretty Big Deal™ when we get to classical art, and the Greeks start off by pretty much cribbing the Egyptian canon anyway.