Art In Ancient Egypt
THE FUNCTION OF ART IN ANCIENT EGYPT
What we call Egyptian art was originally created for religious and magical purposes. Its symbols and functions reveal the Egyptians’ beliefs about the world and their attempts to understand and relate to it. In the Egyptian social and religious context, works of art played a practical role, whose straightforward physicality is not easy for the modern viewer to realize. For example, the reliefs on temple walls depicting the king making offerings to the gods and smiting Egypt’s enemies not only communicated the idea that the king was fulfilling his duty to maintain order in the universe. Egyptians also believed that these images, through their very existence, were instrumental in making this order a reality. Likewise, the statues Egyptians placed in their tombs and temples served as physical repositories for the spirit and material representatives of important and venerable persons. Through the ritual of “opening the mouth,” each statue was made an actual living being able to receive offerings and prayers. The fundamental difference between an ordinary living being and a statue was that the “work of art” was destined to live eternally. To this end statues ideally were made of stone or other durable materials, such as hardwood or metal. Their features and poses were idealized, that is, they were represented according to the general standards Egyptians held for the beauty, dignity, and ethical attitude becoming to gods, kings, and human beings in high places. The identity of a statue’s subject was established only in exceptional cases by the depiction of individual features. Identification was usually established by an inscription giving the individual’s name. Writing, therefore, was an integral aspect of art; composed of pictorial signs, writing was, in fact, in itself a work of art. Aesthetic beauty, superb workmanship, and choice materials enhanced the potency of works of art for the ancient Egyptians as they do for us.
Cycles of Life Egyptians believed that at the beginning of creation, a mound of earth arose out of an infinite watery darkness, just as the fields of Egypt reappear after the annual floods of the Nile. Upon this mound the Creative Force, the most visible aspect of which was the sun, generated the gods and, ultimately, all the living things on earth, in the waters, and in the sky. In plan and construction, Egyptian temples were metaphors in stone for these creation myths .
III. Egyptian Art
For the Egyptians, creation was reenacted yearly as the inundation of the Nile receded and the land was renewed, bringing forth lush vegetation and a good harvest. They interpreted this annual event as a renewal of life and a triumph over death. They saw the same cosmic drama embodied in the daily cycle of the sun, which was born in the east and died in the west only to be reborn the next day. They also saw it in the human cycle of birth, death, and rebirth in the afterlife. The Role of the Gods The Egyptians believed the universe and all events that occurred within it were governed by the will of gods. If the annual inundation of the Nile was too great or too scant, it was because the river was angry or because the king had become lax in maintaining order, not because of weather patterns in central Africa. The gods embodied not only all natural phenomena but also abstract concepts such as justice, kingship, protection, and truth. Their actions dominated all aspects of life. Therefore, to ensure survival and prosperity, the Egyptians performed elaborate rituals and made rich offerings to gain the favor of gods and spirits. To portray the multiple powers of their gods, the Egyptians imagined them in many different forms, often combining animal and human shapes . To make matters more confusing for us, some animals were shared by more than one god, and some gods had more than one animal attribute. For instance, Thoth, god of writing, was often symbolized by the baboon, known for its cleverness, especially with its hands . The baboon was also associated with the sun god, because at sunrise baboons tend to sit facing the sun to warm themselves. Their poses suggested to the Egyptians that the baboons were worshiping the rebirth of the sun. Thoth also appeared as an ibis or ibis-headed human, for reasons the Egyptians understood but we do not. This profusion of imagery was perfectly natural to the Egyptians because they believed no single image could fully represent the powers of a god. The association of divine powers with animals was understandable for the ancient Egyptians, who lived closely with the many animal species that inhabited the Nile Valley and the surrounding desert. They must have been keenly aware of faculties animals have that humans lack, such as the ability to fly, to see in the dark, to hear and smell the approach of beings at great distances, and to move with extraordinary speed. To the Egyptians these animal characteristics seemed to be fueled by supernatural energy and to symbolize powers of certain deities. The Egyptians did not believe, however, that the gods were actual animals or human-animal combinations. An animal-headed image of a deity was an attempt to visualize the multiple aspects of that god. The human part of the image indicates that no ordinary animal is depicted and the animal head symbolizes the superhuman endowments of the god.