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Two-Dimensional
Ancient Egyptian Art

by Karnak

 

 

Table of Contents

 

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Introduction

When looking at two-dimensional ancient Egyptian art, it is important not to make literal interpretations about what is depicted. While pharaonic art is easy to identify, it requires having some background knowledge in order to interpret the images correctly. Viewers must keep in mind why the Egyptians drew and painted the way that they did and how they kept their style consistent. There are also other nuances in Egyptian art to keep in mind, such as scale and color.

The canon (standardized set of rules) that ancient Egyptian artists used was developed during the Old Kingdom. These artistic devices were used almost consistently throughout Pharaonic Egypt. When Egypt experienced long periods of stability and prosperity, the style remained intact. There are examples of deviations from the canon, but they are rare. Variations can be found from the intermediate periods, from the reign of Akhenaten, and in some private collections.

Musicians

Throughout this article, click on any image to see it in more detail.

 

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Bodies

The goal in ancient Egyptian art was to show the body as completely as possible. This goal served an aesthetic purpose as well as a religious one. The ancient Egyptians believed that in order for the soul to survive after death it needed an earthly home, which is why mummies were created. Portraits of the deceased often served as a backup plan just in case the mummy would suffer damage. Since these portraits sometimes served a religious function, it was necessary to show as much of the person as possible, and this is difficult to do when the artist needs to transfer a three-dimensional image to a two-dimensional surface.

One of the devices the Egyptians used in their canon was twist perspective: they combined frontal and profile views of a person.

Isis and Nefertari

Going from bottom to top, the Egyptians showed the feet in profile, which is logical because it is much easier to illustrate feet from the side than the front. Often, the feet are separated with one slightly in front of the other to show both. The legs were also made in profile in order to show the knees and muscles.

The torso is twisted to a frontal view at the shoulders so both arms can be seen. It was also crucial to illustrate both hands, but sometimes an artist would show the same hand twice or put the hands on backwards. This doesn’t mean that the person in the portrait was deformed or the artist was incompetent; artists did this because it was more important to show all of the fingers than get the hands in the correct spots.

Anubis

 

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Heads and Faces

Heads were almost always depicted in profile view in two-dimensional art. It is easier to draw a face from the side in order to get the nose correct. Pharaonic artists didn’t use shading in their paintings, and it is nearly impossible to render a realistic nose without shadow because noses don’t have outlines in real life.

Profile heads also allowed the artist to show the ear and headdresses or hair. However, artists did not depict the face entirely in profile. Egyptians showed the eye from a frontal view, which is why the iris is in the center of the eye.

Additionally, some headdresses were twisted to show the front view to make the image cleared to the viewer. Because of this rigidity in the canon, some poses and postures look stiff and unnatural.

Sistrum

 

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Scale

Not only did ancient Egyptians have to keep the canon in mind when making artwork, they also needed to use scale to their advantage. Some people in Egyptian murals are much larger than others, and there is an important reason for that. The most important figures in artwork were the biggest; this draws the viewer’s attention to them first. If there are any Gods and Goddesses depicted, they are the largest. Pharaohs are the next biggest, and the size diminishes with the rank of the person. Children are often shown the smallest, regardless of age. If the artwork does not have any Deities or royalty in it, usually the head of the household is the biggest because s/he made the commission.

In the photo to the right, the person drawn the largest is the Pharaoh Akhenaten. The small person behind him is his wife Nefertiti, and behind her is one of their daughters.

Akhenaten

 

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Color

Color is another visual element that pharaonic artists had to consider. Many times, the artists used color as they saw it in the natural world. They were limited in their color choices based on what paint they could make in their surroundings, so they often used primary colors, neutral colors, and green.

However, artists also used color symbolically and so color can’t always be interpreted literally. During the Old Kingdom, men were painted with red skin and women were painted with yellow.

Some colors had religious connotations too. For example, red was sometimes used as a magical color.

Black and green symbolized rebirth and fertility because the rich, fertile soil in Egypt was black and the growing plants were green. Gods that are associated with the afterlife, such as Wesir (Osiris) and Ptah, were sometimes shown with green skin to show resurrection. Yinepu (Anubis) was shown in black to represent rebirth. Even some lighter-skinned Egyptians were shown with black skin in their tombs to symbolize life after death.

Funerary

 

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In Conclusion

Overall, there is much more to two-dimensional ancient Egyptian art than what meets the eye. It is vital to keep in mind that Pharaonic artists stuck to the strict canon in order to achieve the goal of showing figures as complete as possible, so it is impossible to make literal interpretations from paintings and reliefs. Additionally, Egyptian artists also used scale to show importance and they sometimes used color symbolically. This information makes it much easier to interpret ancient Egyptian art and understand what the artists wanted to share.

 

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Related Articles

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About the Author

Karnak graduated from South Dakota State University with a double major in art and religion, which provided her with many opportunities to study ancient Egypt. Her coursework covered broad topics ranging from history and visual art to specific topics including Egyptian ceramics and the Goddess Ma’at. In 2006, Karnak spent two weeks in Egypt where she took a class at the American University in Cairo and toured the country. She has presented lectures about ancient Egyptian art and culture in South Dakota, Iowa, and Nebraska. Karnak also includes pharaonic iconography in her own artwork.

Her interest in ancient Egypt led to her appreciation of contemporary Egypt, which includes belly dancing. Karnak began studying this art form in 2005, and has taken classes and workshops with many instructors. She is currently based in Sioux City, IA and performs with the Desert Angels belly dance troupe.

The photo of Karnak to the right is by Tani Russell.

Karnak, by Tani Russell

 

 

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