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,..
Egyptian art can hide very important information in small pieces.
That is the case of the stele of Sebekaa in British Museum.
This piece of ancient Egyptian art dates from XI Dynasty and it was found in Thebes. In just a space of 70 cm x 60 cm (aprox.) the Egyptian artist could include a number of typical scenes which dominated the corpus of funerary Egyptian art.
Although the whole composition does not have a narrative logic, the greater part of the activities can be identified: butchery, bakery, offerings…
On the left a detail of the image of the dead being embraced by a smaller human figure.
At the left of the middle register there is an isolated scene, which was not too usual in ancient Egypain art: the dead lies on his bier and he is embraced by a smaller figure. According to the information from the British Museum’s website: “The man on the bed is probably the deceased, and the figure on top of him might be one of a variety of goddesses, such as Isis, Nephthys and Nut, who embrace him. Whether there are any sexual connotations in this scene is uncertain”.
Perspective in Egyptian art was special. For us, perspective is the representation on a flat surface of reality how it is seen by human eye. That means that observer is an important element when the artists paints or draw something.
In Egyptian art the artists had to represent reality, not how it was seen, but how it was. The Egyptian artisan did not think about depth or vanishing point when drawing, because ancient Egyptian art was not made for being contemplated, but it had a religious purpose.
However in some moment Egyptian art kept in mind the observer’s concept. When the anthropoid coffin appeared in Ancient Egypt, a new surface, with a new shape had to be decorated. This new object offered to the Egyptian artist different spaces for the iconography in the same object.
This technique, adopted from the way of drawing the professional mourners, was applied to the masculine figures in a respectful attitude. The front lock of hair forwards helped the Egyptian artist to represent the respectful bow in front of deities.
Later on, we find that this same practice was applied also to some femenine figures.
In the Papyrus of Anhai, which dates from XX Dynasty, the dead women was represented also bending her body to the goods, but her whole mane of hair is shaken forwards. The gesture remembers the one of the mourners covering their faces with their hair.
Papyrus of Anahi. the dead woman with her hair forwards and bending her body as a sign of respect. XX Dynasty. Photo: British Museum.
Obviously we are not facing here a mourning rite. The Egyptian artist took the tachnique from the mourning scenes and this way he could stress the gesture of respect of the dead women in front of the goods.
The point here is to see how this practice of the whole mane of hair forwards is applied in Egyptian art to a female figure. While for the dead men the front lock of hair was enough for stressing the respectful attitude. The idea that comes to our mind is that the hair forwards covering the face was in Egyptian art just a female gesture.
The Book of the Dead of Henuttawy dates also from XXI Dynasty and shows Henuttawy adoring the rising sun . In this case the body gesture is not just respect, but reverence. She is completely on earth, kneeling and facing the ground, while many locks of hair are falling in front of her head. Here the Egyptian artist utilised this femenine resource of the disheveled hair falling forwards for stressing the reverential attitude of the woman.
Summin up, Egyptian artists used the hair for representing the mourning gestures of women in funerals. This technique was later also adopted in Egyptian art from the New kingdom to express some quotidian body movements (playing music, dancing, bending) and some attitudes related to them (respect and reverence).
Hair became in Ancient Egypt a resource for expressing things.
As some movements were related in ancient egyptian belief to some attitudes, hair was also used for expressing those attitudes. We are referring concretly to “respect”.
The gesture of bending the body forwards was utilised by artists of Ancient Egypt for expressing the respect in front of kings and deities. And the hair forwards became a resource of stressing this gesture of veneration.
Papyrus of Ani. The couple in front of the final judgment. XIX Dynasty. Photo: British Museum.
One good example is the Papyrus of Ani (XIX Dynasty) in the Brisith Museum. In it we can see the couple bended when coming in front of the final judgment. Ani’s wife appears with her hair slightly forwards, this way the Egyptyian artists emphasized her body movement.
Papyrus of Ani. Ani greeting the Ennead. XIX Dynasty. Photo: British Museum.
This was exagerated in the same papyrus when, after passing the judgment, Ani gets into paradise and greets the gods. In this case Ani is represented with a front lock of hair forwards; the artist stressed the meaning of bending the body as a signof respect.
The papyrus of Ramose (XIX Dynasty) in the Fitzwilliam Museum of Cambridge is too damage, but we can guess the same scene as in the former one. Ramose’s body is greeting the gods, while his body is bended and a front black lock of hair can be discerned.
Although these examples all date from XIX Dyansty, next week we will see that it was not trendy just at that time,