In ancient Egypt the word art was not known, at least not in the way we generally use it.
Art had a practical purpose, and had a great ideal aspect. It was functional in religious or everyday contexts and was meant to underline the harmony or maat, the most important, moral aspect within the Egyptian life and religion. Egyptian art is instantly recognizable by showing the reality not in the way it appears but what the artist expected to exist for eternity.
The artistic skills and the way an artist expressed his artistic view on humans, gods and nature were bound by strict rules or conventions concerning drawing, the style, forms and the colours. These standardized set of rules were developed in the Old Kingdom and were used throughout the whole Pharaonic times, except some rare exceptions. Concerning the Egyptian two-dimensional art (painting and relief) it is hard to make a literal interpretation about what is depicted. If we want trying to explain the meaning of two-dimensional representations we have to take a look at the temporary principles and conventions. By taking the mastaba-chapel of Hetepherakhti as example we can try to examine the, at the time common, conventions and describe them.
About the tomb
The chapel is a part of a mastaba, of the judge and priest of the goddess Maät, Hetepherakhti, who lived in Saqqara, in Dynasty 5. The mastaba, originally from Saqqara, is located in the National Museum of Antiquities at Leiden, the Netherlands. The chapel consists of just one room and nine walls. The text on the outside of the tomb is made in sunk relief (cutting back the stone below the background level). The depictions inside the chapel of Hetepherakhti are examples of two-dimensional representations in (painted) raised relief (relief comes forward of the stone, the background is cut away).
The main theme of the images in the chapel has to do with the preparation of food offerings. As with many other tombs, the chapel is also decorated with an offering scene, several stages of funeral preparation and pastimes of the owner.
Scale and idealising major figures
Decoration and inscriptions of tombs and temples had a functional purpose, it was a statement of the cosmic order, a place for the hereafter. The ancient Egyptians had to create a version of reality in which there was no place for the evil. Therefore, the Egyptians idealized the major figures, it is one of the conventional rules. Tomb owners, kings and gods were represented in a perfect form: tall, youthful, good-looking and with a dignified appearance. Women were also depicted youthful, slim and pretty. Rendered with the man, a woman could have the same size or was represented on a much smaller scale. Despite the fact that children were sometimes grown, they were occasionally depicted on a small scale, naked and with a side lock.
Idealizing the major figure is also visible in the mastaba of Hetepherakhti. The entry doorway of the mastaba, on both sides, shows Hetepherakhti, bearing himself with dignity, holding a sceptre. His son, standing in front of him, is depicted on a much smaller scale. These so-called, formal scenes are tend to be static and unchanging in character. Movement is limited, stately and under control.
Informal scenes, scenes with less important persons, show much more variety of poses, and movement is frequently present. Concerning idealizing, the minor figures could be shown far from perfect, for instance suffering from deformity, in motion and full-face.
The hieroglyphic text, in sunk relief, on the façade is divided into two symmetrical parts in which Hetepherakhti is talking to the visitors of his tomb. His name and major titles are part of the text. Inscriptions that sets the scene, describe the action or defines the purpose and names of the actors, are most of the time provided in Egyptian art. Art and inscriptions were inseparable. In fact, hieroglyphs were also depictions. It was a complementary way, with a magic impact, to complete the work of the artists, ensuring that his product would be a part of the divine, powerful order.Conceptual issues
It has been argued that two-dimensional representations in Egyptian art were more conceptual than perceptual. In fact, Egyptian art does not recognize or use the principles of perspective. An Egyptian artist represented not what could be seen, but what he expected to exist for the afterlife. The subject in the scenes were made for eternity, without depth and independent of time and space. The artists painted and arranged the subjects on a flat surface, representing them through a series of symbols. The subjects were shown in their most characteristic aspect.
The human body in formal art was represented as a composite diagram. Each part of the body shows its typical aspect. In that way the artists re-create figures of objects with al their powers of the original. It was physically not correct, but it was an insurance for the deceased: they would be able to use all their body parts in the afterlife. Today, for this type of art, the term 'aspective' has been used within the Egyptology.
As we look at the head of Hetepherakhti, we can see that it is shown in profile, with a full-view eye and eyebrow and a half mouth. The shoulders are shown from the front, in full width. The representation from armpit to the waist, nipple, elbows, legs and feet were again en profile. In case of a women one breast is partly of wholly uncovered. The breast appears in profile.
Standing men have their legs a pace apart either has Hetepherakhti. During the time artists experimented with drawing hands and feet. First both feet were always shown from the inside, showing just the big toe and the arch of the foot. Later on they showed all five toes. There was no ideal image of the hand. Sometimes they could be open or clenched, or depicted form the front of the back and sometimes they could be empty of holding objects.
The contour lines of the body result in geometric figures. Both, the upper part and the legs and the pelvis form triangles. Müller argues that the body is structured according to two principles: it combines natural proportions with a symmetrical double triangle.
Minor figures were drawn with more room for some experimentation. The delineation concerning the shoulders was the most remarkable difference. Shoulders may be treated in several ways. The consequence was that they could express different gestures and movements of the arms.
Objects and nature were also shown in their characteristic, schematic way. Often, the images were highly detailed. Depictions followed the conventional rules: based on frontal images without perspective. A perspective-like exception to this convention is the representation of the (right) kingfisher in the papyrus swamp in Hetepeherakhti's tomb. The kingfisher is depicted with one wing within the outline of the body. It is suggesting that the wings grow out of the surface of the body, an obvious perceptive representation.
To place more than one figure together the artists used two means: overlapping and symmetry. In general the figures were standing on the baseline, arranged from left to right or vice versa. They form a ladder shape when they overlap. Sometimes one figure or a motif is repeated several times (translational symmetry), sometimes figures of motifs consists of two halves that are mirror images of each other (axial symmetry). Also a combination of both kinds is possible. This common way of depicting is a reference to pursuit harmony. Besides it could create a kind of movement. Mirror like scenes can be seen alongside the door in the tomb of Hetepherakhti.
In the Old Kingdom figures in formal art were mostly drawn with the help of guidelines to place different parts of the body between the soles of the feet and the hairline in a correct way. Later on in the Middle Kingdom the artists used a squares grid system for proportioning the human body. They developed a canon of proportions, which controlled the angel of view, and the size of each part of the body in relation to the whole body. There are no evidences that the artists used guidelines in the tomb of Hetepherakhti, but normally the craftsmen cut the guidelines and grid away and painted them over. So we may presume that they also used guidelines.
The grid system was a basic tool used by artists to draw scenes. It was part of the stages of composition. To prepare a private tomb or a temple for decoration and the grid system the craftsmen had to polish the walls to a smooth surface, so that they were suitable for cutting in relief and painting. When ready for use, the scenes were marked out with red lines. Grid lines were usually made by dipping a length of string in red paint. They stretched the string and snapped it to the surface.
Generally, the technique of the grid system was used for formal scenes with static figures and compositions. The proportions of the figures were not static during the time. Stylistic differences were seen from various periods. Those different variations could eventually have developed a production of a style in a particular period. A remarkable change in style can be seen during the Amarna period when an extra two squares were added to the grids. The early Amarna style results in changing style and proportions.
In subsidiary, in informal scenes the minor figures were drawn according to the conventional rules which ensured that the proportions were in relation which each other. So, the fundamental principles were also applied, but less strict. The artists had significantly more freedom and clearly experimented in representing human figures, nature and animals, sometimes with humour. During the time many of this scenes came to be drawn without the aid of grids.Registering scenes
The scenes in the mastaba of Hetepherakhti are subdivided in horizontal registers, placed vertically, above each other, showing all kind of activities. The specific items had not to be read in a fixed order. Drawing into registers was a convention and method of ordering motifs and activities. These scenes can be seen as an ideal aspect of the natural world in which calm people are working on social harmony. Often the tomb owner is a major figure in this scenes, overlooking the activities or take part on them. The proportion shows his relative importance, but as far larger than other people the order of registering scenes could be interrupted.
Additionally to registers the baseline, the lower register line was important. The baseline served to link people together at the same level and the same high. Seen from the ground level the artists did not want to represent true spatial relationship between figures. So, the feet of all figures were placed on the baseline. Often a register was divided in sub-registers with baselines for even smaller figures. In the same way processions of people, animals of overlapping figures were placed on a baseline, emphasizing an ordered world. Exempting form baselines meant chaos and could be seen in desert and battle scenes. Undulated register lines often marked desert terrain, while the lines disappear altogether in the confusion by battle scenes. Sometimes the artists even drew 'maps' in this kind of representations.
The relief in the tomb of Hetepherakhti was also formally painted. Today, the paint on most of the relief-cut monuments are disappeared but, a significant part of colours remained in the tomb of Hetepherakhti. Colour, skin, nature and character were related to each other. Figures without colour were incomplete. The abundance of colours used in two-dimensional art was limited: black, white, red, yellow, green and blue They were derived from mineral pigments (Robins 2001, p. 291-293). From the second half of Dynasty 18 some in-between colours appeared, based on the primary colours. After the cutting has finished, and a thin layer of plaster was placed over the surface, the artist redrew the figures. For outlining figures the artists frequently used black or red. Figures themselves and the background were painted in flat masses of colours. Using shadows was not relevant.
Distinctive colours were used for men and women, probably an idealization of reality. The skin of most male figures was reddish brown. Most upper class female figures were yellow or paler brown. Idealisation of reality may haven been the reason for the strong contrast between male and female skin. To distinguish overlapping figures artists sometimes used a light and a dark colour. In the added image several figures are depicted next to one another and partly overlapping each other. Clearly, there is a distinction in colour.
Normally the colours were based on the colour of the object represented. For example, vegetation was painted green, water blue and gold yellow. Black and green were associated with fertility and renewal. So, gods could be painted in black and green, for instance the god Osiris. As can be seen in later times the skin of gods were generally painted in golden yellow, However, in the Old Kingdom when Hetepherakhte's tomb was build, it was not custom to represent divine scenes.
Egyptian two-dimensional art is distinguished from Western art by handling his own conventions, as it is generally assumed within the Egyptology. As we also can see in the tomb of Hetepherakhti the lack of perspective and idealizing of the reality were important and characteristic aspects. Above all, Egyptian art was not art for art sake. Art had a function, a specific purpose. The two-dimensional visualisation of a good life in temples and tombs was associated with religion and the afterlife. In order to achieve an afterlife the ancient Egyptian had to measure up to the prevailing conventions. Apparently, an overly perfect representation of the reality according the rules, was the best way to get in the Hereafter or to survive in the tomb, if it was not possible to achieve an afterlife beyond the tomb walls.
During the Dynastic period there were not many developments in style that occurred in Egyptian art, the most remarkable was the Amarna art. Nevertheless, Egyptian art remains unmistakable Egyptian. The system of representation proves that the Egyptians were certain that the world as it it was in order. Hetepherahkti and all other tomb owners presumably thought that it will always remain so. Admittedly, at a certain way their world remains, even today.
© Joke Baardemans 2018
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