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: Egyptian Art


Minneapolis Institute of Arts



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
When we come to consider Egyptian art, it is manifestly impossible, in this brief space, to do more than mention a few characteristics. We notice, for example, that in painting color used in flat areas without gradation or effects of light and shade. In drawing, outline is the principal mode of representation. Various conventions originating in the primitive stages of art became traditional and were continued with little change throughout the later periods. Such a convention is the representation of the human body with the head and legs in profile and the shoulder to the front. This convention, however, did not prevent the artist in the more vigorous periods of Egyptian art from noting with great keenness of observation many truths of nature. This curious conflict between realistic observation and conventional means of representation is characteristic of Egyptian art. Perspective was practically unknown among the Egyptians, although in a rather arbitrary way there were devices for indicating spatial relations in a composition. One can hardly, however, speak of composition in connection with Egyptian painting or sculpture. There is no insistence upon a definite and logical framework of design. Surfaces are covered with a medley of motives unconnected save by subject interest. In free-standing sculpture, the variety of postures was limited to a few unvarying poses. On the whole, types and subjects remain fixed and unvarying throughout Egyptian history, although from time to time the informing spirit naturally changed its character.This immutable character of Egyptian art is thoroughly consonant with the idea of duration which was so strongly a controlling factor in Egyptian life. We shall see later on why the Egyptians sought for permanency in many branches of art; but, before passing on to this subject, we must call attention to the system of decoration evolved by the Egyptians, after monumental architecture their greatest contribution to the world's art. Many of their decorative motives, particularly those connected with the lotus and the papyrus, have continued, modified of course, more or less, down to our day; and visitors in looking over the decorative art material in this collection will find little of that sense of strangeness which they would be likely to experience in examining Egyptian sculpture and painting.ReligionA mere recital of the names of the gods and deities of the Egyptian pantheon would fill the pages of a large book. We cannot consider here the manifold ramifications of Egyptian belief, but one central tenet-that existence continued after death-must receive some attention. This belief in the after-world explains many features that might otherwise be puzzling in Egyptian life. For example, the houses of the living were thought of as merely wayside inns; the tomb was the real dwelling-house, "the eternal house of the dead." Even the great monarchs contented themselves with palaces of mud brick and temporary construction, lavishing their care and wealth upon their tombs and temples.Man was thought of as composed of different entities, each having its separate life and functions. First, there was the body, then the Ka or double-the ethereal projection of the individual, reproducing him feature for feature. The Ka corresponds, in a way, to our ghost. Next we have the soul, or Ba, popularly represented as a human-headed bird. After the soul came the Khu, or luminous spark from the divine fire. Each of these elements was in itself perishable. Left to themselves, they would hasten to dissolution, and the man, as an entity, would be annihilated. This catastrophe could, however, be averted through piety of the survivors. The decomposition of the body could be prevented, or at least suspended, by the process of embalming; prayers and offerings saved the double, the soul, and the luminous from the second death and secured to them all that was necessary for the prolongation of their existence. The double remained in the tomb with the mummy, but the soul and the Khu went forth to follow the gods, perpetually returning, however, like travelers who came home after an absence. It would be interesting to consider the judgment of the soul, the doctrine of transmigration, and similar beliefs, but space does not permit.The influence upon the arts of these religious beliefs is interesting to note. It explains, for example, the insistence upon permanency in the structure of the tomb and upon its elaborate character. The belief that man was composed of different entities gives us the explanation of much that might otherwise be misunderstood. We find decorations on the tomb walls, either painted or sculptured, showing scenes of harvesting, hunting and similar episodes connected with the offering of food. These scenes were not painted with any intention of illustrating genre subjects. They were to provide the Ka or double of the deceased with food in case the actual offerings should fail him. Through the recitation of prayers and magic formulae, the pictured semblance became reality and saved the hungry Ka from annihilation. To take another example, illustrating the utilitarian purpose of many classes of Egyptian art, the primary reason for placing a portrait statue in a tomb was to provide a semblance of the deceased to which the Ka could return were the actual body of the dead man destroyed.SURVEY OF THE COLLECTIONFloor CasesWith few exceptions, the collection now on exhibition consists exclusively of objects found in tombs. We may, therefore, commence our study of this material with the mummies and their coffins, exhibited in the center of the room. The process of embalming, simple at first, became increasingly complex for those, at least, who could afford it. The brain and the viscera were first removed; the body was then pickled by immersion for a long period in a preservative solution. It was then carefully wrapped with strips of linen. Of greater interest, however, to us are the mummy cases or coffins. The lower part of a wooden coffin of Dynasty XXI from Thebes, exhibited in an upright case on the south wall, is an excellent example of the highly decorated type of the period of the Empire. The painting is extremely well preserved. The principle figure on the bottom of the coffin represents the god Osiris with the atef crown upon his head. Above him is a representation of the human soul in the form of a bird with a human head. On the sides (interior) are different funerary genii. The upper part of this coffin is missing, but in another example, dating from Dynasty XXV, found at Thebes, we have a complete outfit. The outer coffin is of wood, mummiform in shape, with a portrait mask of the deceased on the cover. The interior is painted, but not so elaborately as in the first example. The band of inscription on the cover recites the name and qualities of the deceased, who was the Lady Ta-Chat, daughter of the keeper of the doors of the treasury of Amon. The mummy itself is enclosed in an envelope or cartonnage (made of linen and stucco) closely following the lines of the mummy, completed by a portrait mask of the Lady Ta-Chat. This cartonnage is most elaborately painted with representations of gods and with bands of ornament. To Dynasty XIX belongs a large wooden coffin, mummiform in shape, but not so richly ornamental as the other two. In the same case is a mummy of the Ptolemaic period, interesting because of the elaborate wrappings, in a wooden coffin, rectangular in shape, with rounded top and painted decorations on the end, of the Roman period. East WallOn the central case on the east wall are objects for the most part connected with the burial. Two large canopic jars in alabaster may be noted. Canopic jars were used to contain the viscera removed in the process of embalmment. Four of these jars constituted a set, and the covers represented the heads of the four genii of the lower world, Hopi, Tuatmutf, Kebhsennef, and Amset; i. e., the Ape-head, the Jackal-head, the Hawk-head, and the Human-head. While on this topic, we may note one of the finest pieces in the collection, a terracotta head of Amset, which originally served as the cover for a canopic jar. This piece is exhibited by itself in a free-standing case. The head which is remarkable for the fineness of its modelling, dates from Dynasty XIX. In the case with the canopic jars are exhibited three figures of Ptah-Seker-Ausar, a funerary deity. The boxes upon which they stand were commonly used to contain prayers or small mummified objects. Together with these figures is a small stone coffin containing a large number of ushabtiu in blue faience.A large and representative selection of these answerers or respondents, as the ushabtiu were called, will be found in the shallow wall case to the right. These little green figures, generally in faience, were placed in the tomb that they might act as substitutes for their master when he was summoned by the gods to work in the fields of Aalu. These statuettes, therefore, are called answerers or respondents, in Egyptian, ushabtiu. Originally, the ushabti was, properly speaking, a reduced serdab statue, destined like its larger predecessor, to serve as a body for the double, and in a later conception, for the soul. As portrait statues, they were clothed like the individual whose name they bear, but later they were made in the semblance of a mummy corpse with only the face and hands unbandaged. As they were called on to work for the deceased, they are represented with agricultural implements in their hands. The majority of the ushabtiu exhibited in this case date from Dynasties XXI to XXVI. One interesting ushabti represents a taskmaster, whip in hand, who, unlike the others, wears the costume of daily life.In the desk case below are exhibited examples of gold jewelry and miscellaneous objects in faience. The jewelry, including earrings, finger rings, and necklaces, dates, with few exceptions, from the Ptolemaic Period. Finger rings in pierced faience, a large arm ring of the same material, and a perfume spoon in the shape of a duck, are exhibited with the jewelry, as well as several bronze mirrors and an extremely rare object, a diadem with the uraeus serpent, of bronze originally inlaid with enamel. The uraeus was the symbol of royal power; the diadem was found on the head of a mummy.In the other table case against this wall is exhibited a large collection of amulets, ranging in material from semi-precious stone to glazed pottery. Egyptian tombs have yielded a large number of amulets. These talismans or charms, thought to possess the magical power of averting disaster or of bringing good luck, were worn by the living and, after death, deposited with the burial, since the amulet continued to serve, as during the life of the deceased, against the dangers which must be encountered in the life beyond the tomb. These amulets, we may presume, were valued more for their supernatural virtues than for their charm of workmanship, which, nevertheless, is frequently of high order. Amulets have been found in graves of all periods in a great variety of material and shape. Among the different types of amulets exhibited may be mentioned the girdle buckle or thet, the feminine form of the ankh, thought to symbolize the blood of Isis and to possess the power of cleansing the wearer of sin. The frog is emblematic of renewed birth. The lotus flower column typifies the divine gift of eternal youth. One of the familiar types of amulet is the dad, the symbol of stability. The ut'at, or sacred eye, is of frequent occurrence, and the collection includes a considerable number of these amulets, which were tied on the wrist or arm and protected the wearer against the evil eye, against words spoken in envy or anger, and against the bites of serpents. In addition to some dozen or more amulets of this type in faience, there are two fine specimens of blue porcelain inlaid with mosaic work.In the wall case above is exhibited a group of bronze statuettes representing deities or sacred animals. They date, as a rule, from the later periods of Egyptian art, but were made in moulds that might be centuries earlier, as a popular type of statuette would continue long in favor. These statuettes probably served as votive or propitiatory offerings; that is to say, they were offered at shrines in gratitude for favors experienced or in the hope of winning favors to come. Osiris, Horus, Isis, Neith, and Anubis are among the gods frequently represented. Of the sacred animals we may note the Apis bull and the sacred hawk.The finest of the statuettes in the collection is that of the goddess Neith, the Egyptian Minerva, which is exhibited in a separate case nearby. This little bronze represents the goddess in a characteristic standing position with the left food advanced.South WallAs we proceed to the cases against the south wall (opposite the windows), we come first to a spur case containing a collection of alabasters, with which are shown two bronze lustration vases. These little buckets to contain holy water were carried by the priests who sprinkled the faithful and the ground over which a sacred procession was to pass. The examples of alabaster in the collection include goblets, bowls, and a large number of vases or pots used to contain perfume and ointments. In vases of this type the Egyptians kept the antimony powder with which they darkened their eyes and eyebrows.The two desk cases contain an important collection of necklaces, the gift of Thomas B. Walker. The series is continued in two desk cases on the west wall, one containing additional necklaces from the Walker collection, and the other, necklaces from the Drexel collection. These necklaces, dating from various periods, illustrate practically all kinds of beads used by the Egyptians. Particularly interesting are the beads of patterned glass.In the two wall cases above the necklaces are exhibited amulets in the form of little figures of gods and sacred animals. The collection includes some eighty statuettes of this type, made of faience or glazed frit, light turquoise or pale green in color. The grotesque figure of Bes occurs frequently among these statuettes. Another deformed deity who evidently enjoyed considerable popularity was the god Ptah. A deity with the head of a cat, the goddess Bast, is another common type, as is also the hippopotamus goddess, Thoueris. Among the other gods we may mention Horus, Isis, and Thoth. Among the animals we may note the sacred hawk, the cat, the Apis bull, the ram, the jackal of Anubis, the monkey, and the uraeus serpent. In artistic quality these statuettes vary considerably. There are pieces, however, that exhibit a fine sense of design and modelling. The same tradition which controlled more monumental sculpture obtained in these little statuettes, and it is possible to study them, as in the major arts, the traditional poses and modes of plastic expression.In the spur case corresponding to that containing the alabasters is exhibited the collection of scarabs. The scarabaeus, or sacred beetle was called kheper in Egyptian, a name possibly derived from the root khepra, meaning to become. In any case, by an obvious play upon words, the beetle came to be thought of as symbolizing existence or the state of being, not only in terrestrial life but in the successive developments of man in the life to come. The scarabaeus amulet was, therefore, a symbol of duration, and, by its magic virtue, provided against annihilation. The scarab could be used as a seal as well as an amulet, and, in fact, gradually replaced, as such, the revolving cylinder seals of early dynastic times. When used as a seal, the scarab was engraved on the under-side with an incised design.These inscribed scarabs may be classified in three groups: those bearing royal names; those bearing names of officials and other private individuals; and seals without names but inscribed with ornamental designs, names of gods, and so on. This last class is by far the most common. The right of private individuals to have their names and titles inscribed upon their seals appears to have been confined to a privileged few. The humbler individual had in compensation an almost unlimited variety of ornamental designs and mottoes from which to make his choice. The unnamed seals may be subdivided, according to their motives, into six groups: spiral and coiled designs; plant and floral designs; animals and human figures, either singly or combined; names and figures of gods; heiroglyphics arranged as decorative designs but without meaning; and finally mottoes and good wishes, pious ejaculations, and pleasing sentiments of a rather stereotyped order. The spiral designs, often of considerable beauty, are the earliest motives, their popularity dying out in Dynasty XVIII. The plant and flower designs are generally later than the spirals. Animal and human figures are common in Dynasty XII to XVIII, the hunting scenes later as a rule. Names and figures of gods were not used generally before Dynasty XVIII. Heiroglyphics simulating an inscription often present a pleasing decorative design.The heart scarab, generally with outspread wings attached, is considerably larger in size than the seal variety. It was placed as an amulet inside the wrappings upon the breast of the mummy and was commonly inscribed on the underside with a prayer from the Book of the Dead, adjuring the heart not to bear witness against the deceased on the Day of Judgment. In the collection there is a fine heart scarab in green basalt of Dynasty XXI. One in light blue faience, but carelessly executed, illustrates the type with outspread wings. Scarab amulets or seals were made in various materials, such as precious and semi-precious stones and very frequently of steatite or other material covered with a glaze. They are commonly pierced lengthwise, the hole being large enough to permit the passage of a fine metal wire or thread for suspension. The scarab might also be mounted in a ring. Sometimes the scarab only vaguely recalls the beetle form and is then called a scarabaeoid. Other animal forms are sometimes used for seals and of these there are examples in the collection.The mummy case in the center case on this wall has already been mentioned.West WallIn the large wall case is shown an interesting group of pottery dating from various periods. Although unpretentious in respect to decoration, the beauty of form is notable. At the right is exposed a painting on papyrus, unquestionably the oldest painting in Minneapolis, dating back, as it does, to about a thousand years before Christ. It is part of a funerary scroll made at Thebes for a priest of Amon in Dynasty XXI. The text is from the Book of the Dead, a funerary ritual to guide the deceased in the afterworld. At the right of the painting we see the deceased making offerings before Osiris, judge of the dead.At the left of the case are several stelae, dating from Dynasty XX to the Ptolemaic Period, which illustrate, more or less adequately, the relief sculpture of the Egyptians. One stele is carved in true relief; that is to say, the background is sunken. This piece is also interesting as it retains much of the original painting. It must be recalled that Egyptian sculpture, practically without exception, was painted. The beauty of material was of little importance to the Egyptian. The other four stelae are in sunken relief that is to say, the outline is cut and the modeling executed below the surface of the stone. Stelae were tablets of different kinds of stone, most frequently of limestone. Upon them were inscribed decrees and historical records, and prayers to Ra and other gods. The earliest of the stelae in the collection is one in limestone, dating from Dynasty XX. The relief, rather summarily executed, consists of two registers with representations of gods and of the deceased in adoration. To the Saite period belongs a large stele in granite with a design representing the adoration of Ra and other gods by the defunct Ptah-ar-tus, who prays: "Oh Ra, sending out thy sunbeams, shining on the eastern horizon of the sky! Ra! Shine upon the defunct Ptah-ar-tus. He makes his adoration to thee in the morning and when thou goest to sleep in the evening. The soul of the defunct Ptah-ar-tus goeth with the toward Heaven, traveling in the large Bark of the Dawn, floating in the large Bark of the Dusk." From a locality near Edfou comes the third stele, a good example of Dynasty XXX.The other two stelae are of the Ptolemaic period. In one the deceased is represented in adoration before Osiris, Horus, and Isis. The scene is enclosed in a naos or shrine. The inscription bespeaks "a good sepulchre." The other stele represents the priestess Nefertu Ankh presenting offerings to Osiris and other gods. After naming the gods and their titles, the inscription recites the prayer of the defunct; namely, that the gods "may give and make appear bread and water, oxen, geese, wines, milk, incense, clothing, refreshments, all pure and good things, agreeable and sweet, which the heaven gives, the earth produces, and the Nile brings from its sources, at the call from the shadow of the defunct, the priestess Nefertu Ankh", who concludes, "May every person seeing this tombstone be favorable to me."In the free-standing case nearby is one of the most remarkable objects in the collection, the portrait statuette in wood of a woman. She wears a thick wig, which hangs down behind her shoulders, and a thin, tight garment which reveals the lines of her figure. This piece is a splendid example of Middle Kingdom work, and dates from Dynasty XI. The statuette was found at Deir. Indications of painting may still be observed.North WallThe two cases on this wall contain, one, utensils and other objects illustrating the daily life of the Egyptians, and the other, occupation groups. In the first case, we may note a collection of bronze tools, a model wooden hoe, lasting moulds for coins, arrow, sandals, a low chair or stool, a set of stone weights, and a set of chessmen in blue faience. Four woven baskets, one of which dates back to the Old Kingdom, form an interesting group. An earthenware dish contains wheat found in a tomb at Thebes, dating from Dynasty XXI. A portrait mask in plaster, painted, of the Greco-Roman Period illustrates a late development in the type of mask placed over the face of the mummy.The other case contains occupation groups of wood, carved and painted. Model groups representing scenes of everyday life were placed in the tomb to insure to the deceased a continuation of the activities of this world in the after-life. They were intended to supplement, or in some cases, perhaps, to take the place of, the scenes of similar character that were painted or carved on the tomb walls for the same purpose of securing to the deceased in the afterworld the necessities and enjoyments of his former life. Servants busily engaged in bread and beer making, in slaughtering and cutting up oxen, crews manning a pleasure boat or the Bark of the Dead; these and similar themes are among the most common subjects represented in the model groups.Referenced Works of Art
  1. Lower part of a coffin, Dynasty XXI
  2. Amset, Dynasty XIX
  3. Statuette, Dynasty XI
  4. Goddess Neith, Dynasty XXVI
  5. Painting on papyrus, part of a funerary scroll
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Source: "Egyptian Art," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 5, no. 7 (October, 1916): 53-60.
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Added to Site: March 10, 2009