Ancient Egyptian Art: An Introduction
Table of Contents
Entire books have been written about the artwork that can be found on tomb walls in the Valley of the Kings, the Valley of the Queens, the Saqqara necropolis, and elsewhere. This article provides a quick introduction to some of the most common images.
Click on any image below to see it in more detail.
The Funerary Scene
Of all the images associated with ancient Egypt, the funerary scene is probably the one that is most frequently duplicated in books and art prints. This scene depicts what occurs after a person has died. Beginning with the upper left-hand corner, the deceased appears before a panel of 14 judges to make an accounting for his deeds during life. The ankh, the key of life, appears in the hands of some of the judges.
Below this, the jackal-headed god Anubis, who represents the underworld and mummification, leads the deceased to the scale where his heart will be weighed to measure his deeds. In his hand, Anubis holds the ankh.
Anubis then weighs the heart of the deceased (left tray) against the feather of Ma'at, goddess of truth and justice (right tray). In some drawings, the full goddess Ma'at, not just her feather, is shown seated on the tray. Note that Ma'at's head, crowned by the feather, also appears atop the fulcrum of the scale. If the heart of the deceased person outweighs the feather, then this person has a heart which has been made heavy with evil deeds. If that should occur, Ammit the god with the crocodile head and hippopotamous legs will devour the heart, condemning the deceased to oblivion for eternity. But if the feather outweighs the heart, then the deceased has led a righteous life and may be presented before Osiris to join the afterlife. Thoth, the ibis-headed god of wisdom stands ready to record the outcome.
The deceased is then led to Osiris by Horus, the god with the falcon head. Note the ankh in Horus' hand. Horus represents the Pharaoh during life, and his father Osiris represents the Pharaoh after death.
At the right-hand side of the scene, Osiris, lord of the underworld, sits on his throne, represented as a mummy. On his head is the white crown of Lower Egypt (the north). He holds the symbols of Egyptian kingship in his hands: the shepherd's crook to symbolize his role as shepherd of mankind, and the flail, to represent his ability to separate the wheat from the chaff. Behind him stand his wife Isis and her sister Nephthys. Isis is the one in red, and Nephthys is the one in green. Together, Osiris, Isis, and Nephthys welcome the deceased to the underworld.
Musicians & Dancers
When Amenhotep IV (also known as Akhenaten) was Pharaoh, he decreed that artists producing tomb paintings should create images showing everyday life. Up until then, much art had been very focused on scenes showing topics related to death and the afterlife. Concerned that future generations would believe that the Egyptians were obsessed with death, this Pharaoh commissioned artwork that showed everyday activities such as making music and dancing.
On the heads of the musicians are cones made of perfumed wax. As the heat from the room and the women's bodies melts the wax, it releases its scent into their hair.
This painting of the three female musicians comes from a tomb relief of a man named Nakht who lived under the reign of Tuthmoses IV, around 1401-1391 BCE. Nakht was a scribe and a temple star watcher. His tomb can be found in the West Bank area of Luxor, in the Valley of the Nobles.
The picture of the dancers comes from a tomb in Thebes (Luxor) of an official named Nebamun who lived under the reign of Amenhotep III. Historians estimate that Nebamun died around 1400-1500 B.C.E. The art was hacked out of the tomb around 1820 and taken to Great Britain where it was sold. Today, nobody knows where the original tomb was that contained these images.
The dancing girls appear as part of a large banquet scene, and in the mural they are depicted next to a group of female musicians.
In this image, a woman is holding a type of rattle known as a sistrum. This is a type of musical instrument used for percussion. The musician shakes it, and the loosely-attached crossbars jangle. In the language of ancient Egypt, the term for this instrument was sekhem.
The sistrum was commonly used to accompany sacred rituals.
As in the image above, the cone on the woman's head consists of perfumed wax. As the heat from the room and the woman's body melts the wax, it releases its scent into her hair.
The Tree of Life
On the Tree Of Life, the birds represent the various stages
of human life. Starting in the lower right-hand corner and proceeding
- The light gray bird symbolizes infancy.
- The red bird symbolizes childhood.
- The green bird symbolizes youth.
- The blue bird symbolizes adulthood.
- The orange bird symbolizes old age.
In ancient Egypt, the direction east was considered the direction
of life, because the sun rose in the east. West was considered
the direction of death, of entering the underworld, because the
sun set in the west. They believed that during the night, the
sun traveled through the underworld to make its way back to the
east so it could rise in the east again on the next day.
On the tree of life, note that the birds representing the
first four phases of life all face to the east, but the bird
representing old age faces to the west, anticipating the approach
Ma'at & Isis
This picture depicts the goddesses Ma'at and Isis. Ma'at,
the goddess of truth and justice, is the winged goddess who is
kneeling. Isis is the goddess seated on the throne.
According to legend, Isis was the wife of Osiris and mother
of Horus; therefore, the queen of the gods. The identifying characteristics
that indicate the seated goddess is Isis include the horned headdress
and the vulture on her head. Although sometimes Hathor is also
depicted with a horned headdress, only Isis has both the horned
headdress and the vulture.
Why the vulture? The ancient Egyptians respected the vulture
for its commitment to motherhood, and another goddess (Nekhebet)
who was portrayed as a vulture is also said to have suckled the
royal children, including the pharaoh. So it's natural that Nekhebet
would be incorporated into a portrait of the mother of Horus.
Notice that Isis is holding the ankh, the key of life.
In this particular illustration, because Isis is seated on
the throne and facing the goddess of justice, Isis is most likely
serving as a metaphor for the queen.
Did you think the winged goddess in this picture was Isis?
Contrary to what many people believe, not all winged goddess
images are Isis. Here's how you can tell it's Ma'at instead of
Isis: she has an ostrich feather headdress. Whenever you see
a feather headdress like this, the goddess being depicted is
Isis & Queen Nefertari
In this picture, the goddess Isis (the one with the horned headdress) is leading Queen Nefertari by the hand. As in the picture above, Isis is wearing a horned headdress. But instead of including a vulture in the headdress as above, she wears the cobra-shaped symbol.
Many people believe this picture depicts Hathor because of the horned headdress. However, in Egyptian art, the horned headdress can be used for either Isis and Hathor. Sometimes the only way to tell which goddess appears in a given image is to examine the hieroglyphics next to her. In this example, the hieroglyphics in front of the goddess' face include the throne-shaped symbol that is used to depict Isis' name in hieroglyphics. (In the funerary scene above, this throne appears on top of Isis' head.) The hieroglyphics behind the goddess' ankles in the photo to the right also include the throne symbol. In contrast, the symbol used to represent Hathor's name does not appear at all in this picture.
How do we know that the woman in the dress is Nefertari? From the cartouches next to her, which portrays the name Nefertari in hieroglyphics.
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