Egyptian art had a magical-functional purpose and did not take into consideration the figure of the spectator.
For that reason, we cannot consider Egyptian art from just an aesthetic empiricism. Which makes art feel in a subjective way through sensations.
We must read the Egyptian Art from the technical realization, but also from its ideological-religious motivation, a motivation of a social group that gives the work a collective nature.
Egyptian Art is Objects and Texts.
In ancient Egypt written language and figurative language go together. Usually the images reach where the texts do not arrive and vice versa. For that reason, Objects in Egyptian art must be “read”, as if they were manuscripts or inscriptions.
The art of ancient Egypt is neither as transparent nor as natural as it seems at first sight. Egyptian Art is a figurative art that does not always present evidence and whose images often contain codified information.
Statue of Ramses II from Tanis.
We have a good example in a statue of Ramses II, from Tanis and now in the Cairo Museum At first glance, it is an image of Ramses II child protected by the figure of the god Huron.
However, this, which is pure iconography, has an iconology that turns this statue into a true cryptogram in three dimensions.
Ramses II from Tanis. Cairo Museum. Photo: Panoramio
Reading literally every part of this sculpture, we get the following:
• The solar disk that appears on the head of Ramses is “Ra” in Ancient Egyptian.
• The image of Ramses is that of a child and follows the protocol of the infantile effigies: the finger of the right hand to the mouth. We should read this part of the statue as “mes”, which means “child” in Egyptian.
The image in Ancient Egypt had a power in itself.
Why? Because in addition to evoking a reality, they made it arise. In Ancient Egypt everything that was depicted was also happening.
The Power of Scenes on Walls.
The mural scenes that we observe in the mastabas of the Old Kingdom depict very realistically scenes of daily life. However, they did not consist in the memory of an earthly world that the deceased wanted to take to the Hereafter. In the belief of Ancient Egypt those scenes were moments and situations that happened perpetually.
Making Bread. Mastaba of Ty in Saqqara. V Dynasty. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo.
The depictions of bread manufacture or agricultural and livestock activities provided food for the dead eternally. The iconographic environment surrounding the deceased was an ideal reality in which he would live forever and which was in his best interest.
In the same way, the ancient Egyptian reliefs that invaded the walls and columns of the temples (whether funerary or state) immortalized the rituals that took place in them. It was the way to make the rite always happen.
The physical space in which an ancient Egyptian plastic production is located is essential to analyse it.
Reliefs, paintings and statues of ancient Egypt we know come mainly from temples and / or tombs, that is, from sacred spaces impregnated with spirituality.
Serdab with the statue of Ti. Mastaba of Ti in Saqqara. VI Dynasty. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo.
The art of Ancient Egypt was not “contemplated”.
The tombs were houses of eternity that remained closed in perpetuity (except for receiving the funerary cult) and the temples were sacred constructions to which only the royal house and the priesthood had access. Therefore, the mural scenes and sculptures of Ancient Egypt were not conceived for being contemplated.
Egyptian artists did not think of a spectator,..
One of the main challenges for priests and artists in Ancient Egypt were to combine the osirian and solar cosmogonies in the funerary literature and iconography.
Ram-Headed mummy (Re-Osiris) with Isis and Nephthys. Tomb of Nefertari. XIX Dynasty.
The two main pillars in the belief of resurrection in Ancient Egypt were the myth of Osiris and the solar theory. The central aspect in the first one was the resurrection and new life in its most human version: a human body (Osiris), which needs to be embalmed and revived for the eternity. In the second one the stellar body (the sun-Re) did a cyclic trip through the sky; it died in the night and sailed in the solar bark through the dark sky; in the morning after the sun came back to life renewed plying the clear sky.
In Ancient Egypt both ideologies, due to its importance, were quickly conciliated as two versions of a same concept. In the thinking, ancient Egyptian priests could unite Re and Osiris in the funerary texts through the narrative, that is why, for instance, in chapter 67 from the Book of the Dead the dead Osiris wants to get out from the tomb and get into the solar bark of Re.
What happened in the art of Ancient Egypt?