Prepared for Death: Ancient Egyptian Art and Architecture

Pyramid of Kheops, Egypt / Wikimedia Commons

By Jennifer Sarathy and Amy Raffel / 01.16.2016
PhD Candidates in Art History
City University of New York (CUNY)

Ancient Egyptian culture was predicated in large part on a very close relationship to death, and you need to understand from the beginning that Ancient Egyptians thought about death and what happened after death in a radically different way than we do today. Death was always immanent for the peoples of the Ancient Near East, as there was so much civil unrest. It was quite the opposite in Ancient Egypt, where the ruling dynasties of kings and pharaohs created a stable atmosphere where people could plan for the end of their lives and their afterlife, much the same way some people have 401Ks and retirement plans today.

Both sides of the Narmer Palette / Egyptian Museum, Cairo

Our chronology for this content area begins around 3000 BCE with the beginning of this “dynastic period” under King Narmer. The Narmer Palette, c. 2950–2775 BCE, is a great place to start discussion in a class on Ancient Egypt as it highlights some key ideas: the political and social hierarchies (Narmer is huge = hieratic scale = leadership and status); society (this object visualizes and commemorates the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt, and the beginning of Dynastic Egypt); and Ancient Egyptian visual conventions (separating space using registers and depicting human figures using simplified contours and twisted perspective). The palette was found in Hierakonpolis, the ancient Pre-Dynastic capital located in the south of Egypt, by a British archaeologist in the late nineteenth century. The Pre-Dynastic Period just means the Neolithic settlement era in Egypt before Narmer came along and unified it around 3000–2950 BCE.

The Palette of Narmer provides an excellent starting point to discuss how art in Ancient Egypt was created by and for elites. Often, as it is in this case, a pharaoh commissioned artworks in order to proclaim his divine power and absolute authority through set visual conventions. The unnatural and stylized human figures in the Palette of Narmer introduce many of the standard ways of portraying the human body including hieratic scale and the composite view. Rather than seeking to represent humans as they look in real life, bodies in ancient Egyptian art are often idealized and abstracted according to a certain canon of proportions. The depiction of the pharaoh as an idealized, youthful, and athletic figure also reinforces the political message of the artwork, with the ruler appearing more eternal and divine than human.

The majority of the images appearing here are from the Old Kingdom, which is considered a period of immense development of Egyptian art, much of which was created with a concern for preserving life after death. Ti watching a hippopotamus hunt is typical of wall reliefs that were popular with wealthy patrons at the time. Like in the Palette of Narmer, he figure of Ti is shown in hieratic scale, meaning he is much larger than then hunters around him, illustrating his elite status.  Although Ti was not a pharaoh, he was a government official who was wealthy enough to have a lavishly decorated tomb. These images, carved onto the walls of his tomb, were meant to ensure his everlasting success in the afterlife.

This overwhelming concern for the afterlife is evident in the most canonical Egyptian Monuments, the Great Pyramids. Pyramids developed from the smaller mastaba tomb form. The intermediary architectural form was the stepped pyramid, exemplified by the Stepped Pyramid of Djoser.

Photo by Ricardo Liberato / Wikimedia Commons

The Great Pyramids at Gizeh took these architectural forms to the next level. They were created during the Fourth Dynasty of the Old Kingdom, which is frequently referred to as the “age of pyramids.” The difference in scale and impact can be immediately noticed, and can lead to a discussion of the change in the social status of pharaohs during the Old Kingdom. Each pyramid has a funerary temple next to it with a causeway leading to the Nile; when the pharaoh died, his body was ferried across the river. The pyramids themselves have elaborate internal plans with false passageways and corridors to thwart potential grave robbers. While many questions still remain regarding how the pyramids were built, they also remain as monumental evidence of the advanced engineering skill of the ancient Egyptians, their ability to mobilize a massive labor force, and again, the overwhelming importance of the afterlife.

Although they are still built within massive tomb complexes, each pyramid serves as a lasting monument to the individual pharaoh that created it. (See PBS’s NOVA: Ancient Egypt for interactive 360-degree views). Originally faced in white limestone, the pyramids would have been spectacular, reflecting the hot desert sun.  This association with the sun was not accidental, in fact, the form of the pyramids themselves was meant to echo the suns rays shining down on earth, emphasizing the belief that deceased pharaohs climbed up the rays to join the sun god Ra. If ziggurats have already been discussed, they could provide a fruitful comparison to look at how architectural forms refer to their sacred content and strive to connect with the heavenly realm. This is a concept that can be returned to when looking at the development of Gothic cathedrals later in the semester.

A standing/striding figure of Nefertiti made of limestone / Ägyptisches Museum, Berlin

Along with the treasures and objects within the tombs, the interiors of pyramids were filled with statuary, relief sculpture, and wall paintings such as those found in the tomb of Nefertiti, the powerful wife of the New Kingdom pharaoh Akhenaton.  All of these objects and images were meant to ensure the survival of the deceased in the next world. An image depicting an offering being made to the dead, for example, would ensure that the represented items would be available in the next world.

Howard Carter opens the coffin of King Tut / Wikimedia Commons

The lavish burial practices of the ancient Egyptians also involved the ritual mummification of the bodies of the deceased, which were dried out with salts and wrapped in linen strips and sheets soaked with resin, so that they would remain unchanging and whole forever, providing a preserved resting place for the spirit of the deceased. Although he died at age 18 and was a minor ruler, King Tutankhamen is well known for his magnificent tomb that was discovered in 1922 by the British archaeologist Howard Carter. Such fully intact tombs were rare due to rampant grave robbing, making the tomb’s remaining treasures exceedingly precious, with the most valuable find being the fully enshrined body of the pharaoh. The innermost coffin was made of over 240 pounds of gold covered with glass and semi-precious stone inlay.

King Menkaure (Mycerinus) and queen, 2490–2472 B.C.E. / Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Funerary statues were also central to burial practices. Rather than serving as realistic portraits of their patrons, Egyptian funerary statues such as that of Menkaure and his wife from the Fourth Dynasty were meant to serve as eternal homes for the spirit of the deceased, or the ka. Although the mummified body of the deceased was intended to last forever, these figures, carved in exceptionally hard stone, were meant to provide a more permanent and guaranteed home for the ka, should anything happen to the mummified body. In this example, Menkaure is shown striding forward with his hands clenched alongside his idealized youthful, muscular body, which conforms to the same Egyptian ideals visible in the Palette of Narmer. Menkaure’s stance here is indicative of power, with one foot placed slightly ahead of the other. The positioning of his wife, with her hand on her husband, speaks to their marital status. As was common in Egyptian statuary, the figures are not fully freed from the stone blocks, reflecting an interest in permanence. As in the Palette of Narmer, the figure of the pharaoh and his wife are idealized, rather than naturalistic, evidenced by their stiff and generalized features, and abstracted anatomy. These conventions can also be seen in Khafre Enthroned, another funerary statue from the Fourth Kingdom, accentuating their role as homes for the ka, rather than as portraits of living individuals.

Seated Scribe from Saqqara / Louvre Museum, Paris

In contrast to the statue of Menkaure and his wife and that of Khafre Enthroned, the Seated Scribe from Saqqara is a painted sculpture that exhibits a high level of naturalism. The Seated Scribe has a lifelike quality achieved through the painting of the plaster and the use of inlaid eyes. Despite looking more like a lifelike individual, his protruding stomach, seated pose, and the stylus he was once holding still reflect prevalent conventions, indicating his occupation as a scribe. Scribes had an elevated position in Ancient Egyptian society and were highly valued, yet they were not shown with the same level of idealism as the divine pharaohs. Further discussion can consider if similar dichotomies exist in our own image culture, with the acknowledgement that standards of the ideal vary over time and between cultures.

Deir el-Bahari with temples of Hatshepsut, Thutmosis III and Mentuhotep II, Luxor, Egypt / Photo by Ian Lloyd, Wikimedia Commons

The New Kingdom (c. 1550–1070 BCE) was a prosperous and stable era following the reunification of Egypt after the tumultuous Second Intermediate Period.  It is marked by increasingly complex and monumental building projects that were filled with statuary, painted images, and wall reliefs. Looking more closely at such architectural monuments can make it clearer how artworks now found in museums were originally part of larger architectural complexes and were intended to be seen with other visual images. The interrelation of ceremony and images can be seen with the Mortuary temple of Hatshepsut, who is the first recorded female monarch in history. The temple, carved out of the rock face, is a notable change from the use of pyramids in the Old Kingdom but has an equally monumental effect, with its massive colonnaded terraces. This incredible complex was one of several building projects executed by the female pharaoh, evidencing a desire to use art as propaganda to affirm her power and status (which was even more pivotal to her reign as a female monarch). Within the massive complex, painted reliefs celebrate the female ruler, emphasize her divine birth, and highlight her achievements. Statues such as Hatshepsut with offering jars, which show the queen making offerings to the gods, lined the entry to the temple and were found throughout the complex. Other statues depicted her as a sphinx or as Osiris, god of the afterlife. These multiple images of the queen reinforce her associations with the gods and her divine birth, as well as her absolute power as pharaoh. The multiplication of images of the monarch in different roles can later be compared to Augustus’ use of statuary in the Roman Empire.


[LEFT]: Large granite sphinx bearing the likeness of the pharaoh Hatshepsut, depicted with the traditional false beard, a symbol of her pharaonic power / Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
[RIGHT]: Osirian statues of Hatshepsut at her tomb, one stood at each pillar of the extensive structure, note the mummification shroud enclosing the lower body and legs as well as the crook and flail associated with Osiris / Mortuary of Hatshepsut, Deir el-Bahri

The statues of Hatshepsut also demonstrate her unusual position as a female monarch. Keep in mind, there was not word for “queen” in the ancient Egyptian language; the queen was called the “wife of the king” (“The Art of Ancient Egypt,” 31), illustrating the lack of precedent for female pharaohs. In artworks like Hatshepsut with offering jars, therefore, she is depicted with conventional symbols of royal males, such as a false ceremonial beard and male anatomy, despite also being shown with feminine attributes. Hatshepsut ultimately assumed the title of king, and is referred to in inscriptions as “His” majesty (Kleiner, 70–1).

The Great Temple of Ramesses II is on the left and the Small Temple of Nefertari is on the right. / Photo by Holger Weinandt, Wikimedia Commons

The consideration of sculpture in relation to architecture is even more relevant in the Temple of Ramses II at Abu Simbel. Ramses II ruled for almost 75 years and is renowned for the military successes throughout his reign. The temple complex features large scale, 65′-tall colossal images of the pharaoh that flank the entrance. Inside there are multiple 32′-tall images of the pharaoh. Together, they serve as emphatic and everlasting statements of the power and authority of the great pharaoh and bear witness to the image the ruler strove to leave for posterity. Such grand architecture and artworks of the New Kingdom again strove to provide lasting monuments and homes for the elite in the afterlife, simultaneously serving to reinforce their power, authority, and divinity for eternity.