Outline for Ancient Egyptian Art
Intro to Art History 082:105
Though Egypt is a large country, its enormous population inhabits relatively little of the land.
Two-thirds of Egypt’s people live in the delta of the Nile River, a region of Egypt seldom
experienced by tourists, and the other third inhabit what is essentially the floor of the canyon
formed by the river’s south-north course, a population pattern as typical of antiquity as it is today
Providing sufficient food in such a confined area for a large population (Egypt
remains the most populous of Arab countries) has always required a high degree of
cooperation, a major impetus for the rise of an early advanced civilization in the valley of the
Even in the valley of the Nile, where water is plentiful, wresting arable land from the desert
is a constant battle, the desert always ready to reclaim what it has lost
(Website Aerial Photo)
Indeed, in Egypt you can stand with one foot in green fields and the other foot in an
unbelievably inhospitable desert of rock and sand that stretches for thousands of miles
view of the Stepped Pyramid of Zoser, at Saqqara)
Thus the life of
the Egyptian peasant, the
, both in antiquity and today, is spent getting water from the
river into the irrigation canals.
If, as occasionally happened, the requisite cooperation broke
down, the crops failed, and famine and pestilence ensued.
Thus every aspect of ancient
Egyptian society was organized to avoid factionalism and civil strife, stressing continuity and
stability in social organization, the religion that gave sacred significance to the established social
organization, and the art that gives visual expression to these values.
For example, everyone knows that ancient Egyptians mummified the dead, making every
attempt to maintain the body’s physical integrity, even in death.
This practice was occasioned
by the Egyptian conception of life after death: that death was simply a continuity of life, of
physical existence and all its worldly pursuits (even sex) transposed from the realm of the living
to the realm of the dead.
In order to enjoy this worldly conception of life after death, a body was
necessary for the
, the life force of the deceased, to inhabit.
Obviously the wealthy could
afford more professional and complete embalming processes, but knowing that the actual body
might not survive, a person of means also had statues of himself/herself made to be placed in
tombs as alternate bodies for the
Most of the Egyptian statues that we will study
in this course were commissioned by the wealthy for this purpose, and because they were
placed in tombs, they were not meant to be seen by the public at large, an aspect that
separates them conceptually from statues created by other societies we shall study in this
course, even when the form of the other society’s statues is dependent on Egyptian prototypes,
as in Archaic Greece.
In addition, because the