Interpreting Egyptian Art

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Interpreting Egyptian Art


Art represents the world. But in ancient Egypt, art reflected a very particular worldview. Egyptian art reflected an idealized world and ignored any part of the world that did not fit the ideal. Egyptian art also incorporated certain fictions in order to express a larger truth. For example, Egyptian temple art always showed the king presiding over rituals. Since in reality it was impossible for the king to simultaneously lead every temple ritual in every temple, every day, priests usually substituted for him. Yet such scenes express a larger truth that the king was the only true intermediary with the gods according to Egyptian thought. Though modern viewers cannot always take Egyptian art at face value, it is possible to discover Egyptian conceptions of the perfect world in their art.


Historians of Egyptian art use the traditional art history terminology in a slightly different manner from historians of the art of other eras. The following definitions help the reader understand these differences.


Egyptian artists are anonymous. In Egyptian society, artists were craftsmen, usually working in large groups together on a project. There is no concept of the individual genius making art in ancient Egypt.


Iconography refers to symbols in art. Egyptian iconography allows a work of art to be read. Since Egyptian writing was recorded in pictures (hieroglyphs), Egyptian art lends itself to a very sophisticated iconography that can be clearly understood.


The patron traditionally commissions a work of art. He or she is the benefactor who pays the artist. In ancient Egypt, the patron is nearly always the state. Even individual tomb owners credit the king as the person who gave the tomb to the deceased as a gift. Thus Egyptian art always follows the official line. There are no rebellious artists commenting on society in Egyptian art.


Style in art refers to the way the work is made. Egyptian style is largely uniform for three thousand years. Differences in Egyptian style are subtle and require training to understand and notice them. An artist's training in Egypt led him to attempt to follow the rules of style with little deviation. There is little recognizable difference between the work of two Egyptian artists living in the same time period. This situation especially contrasts with the modern world where individual style is valued.

Gender Differences.

One approach to understanding Egyptian art might be to question its purpose. The main purpose of Egyptian art was to serve the needs of the elite, especially the king and his retainers, both in this life and the next. Thus it might be that many scenes can be interpreted both as what they depict, but also as a way of sending a message to those whose support the king required. The representation of males and females in New Kingdom Egyptian tombs is a clear case where the artist conveys a message other than visual reality. In the typical New Kingdom tomb painting, relief, or statue, males are dressed in kilts with perhaps a shirt, while women wear tight-fitting sheath dresses, probably made from a single piece of cloth wrapped around the body. Yet archaeological examples of ancient Egyptian clothing demonstrate that the most common garment was a bag tunic. This outfit was basically a linen bag with sleeves that fit very loosely. Both men and women wore it. In art, however, men wear an outfit that suggests freedom of movement while a woman's garment suggests restricted movement. Even without archaeological evidence, the typical female garment depicted in art could never match reality. The dresses are so impossibly tight that a woman could not move, sit, or walk. The real intention behind this representation is to reveal the woman's body. These dresses clearly reveal the overall female form and the pubic triangle. Since the difference between everyday Egyptian reality and the presentation of people in art differ so radically, there must have been a reason for the difference.

Role of Men.

Men are generally active rather than passive in tomb representations. In Old Kingdom and Middle Kingdom tombs, the deceased reaches for offerings at the offering table or inspects agricultural laborers or workshops under his control. Artists also often depicted men hunting birds or fishing. They wear loose clothing and are quintessentially the active principal in life. These roles correspond to an Egyptian view of men actively winning a place for themselves in the afterlife.

Role of Women.

The importance of women in Egyptian society is often conveyed in artwork found in temples and tombs. The role of the woman in Egypt was that of life-giver and supporter. Hence, the emphasis in art was on their role as mothers. Because of this, women were often depicted wearing little or no clothing. The artist's intention was not to portray eroticism but rather to symbolize reproduction—all people come into the world without clothing, and hence the idea of nudity is connected to that of birth. Due to their connection with birth, women are most often found depicted on tombs, for the Egyptians considered the tomb a means to re-birth into the next world. Yet women represented in tombs could also hold other meanings. When labeled with their name in hieroglyphs, a figure of a woman could represent an individual wife, daughter, or cousin. Many women represented in one tomb could be a means for a man to emphasize his wealth. Both these roles would be important to the deceased in addition to the overall conception of women as the source of rebirth.

Daily Life.

In conjunction with how women and men were portrayed individually, much can be learned from the different scenes that artists chose to portray. Daily life scenes of craftsmen and of peasants engaged in agricultural tasks had a deeper meaning than the tasks portrayed. These scenes functioned at a literal level, but also represent a way of structuring life. Artists chose some activities to represent status and wealth in tombs while other activities were left out of art altogether. This selection was purposeful. Craftsmen and peasants were always portrayed at their most productive for the benefit of the owner of the art. Though Egyptologists depend on these scenes for knowledge of all kinds about ancient Egypt, artists had no interest nor intention of providing an illustrated guide to Egyptian life when they decorated temples and tombs. Rather agricultural scenes of peasants working in the fields stress the owner's status and distinction in the physical world. They also provide a permanent supply of provisions for the next world. In addition, they function symbolically to depict the passage of the seasons of the year and thus the continuation of life for the deceased spirit. The flax harvest painted in a tomb suggests an abundance of linen clothing for the deceased. Scenes of manufacturing jewelry guarantee that the tomb owner will have jewelry in the next world.

Fishing and Fowling.

Scenes of fishing and fowling (bird hunting) in the marsh with the tomb owner and his family in attendance are one of the most common scene types in Egyptian tombs and households. Yet it seems unlikely that these scenes depict only a family outing. Scenes of a nobleman fishing or hunting birds are very ancient, beginning in the Old Kingdom. Both kings and officials included them in their tombs. Usually the male figure actively fishes with a harpoon or hunts birds with a boomerang-like throw-stick. His wife is at his side and usually a child accompanies the family. They are all dressed in their most elaborate linen clothing. Often they are in a small papyrus boat. Their clothing is clearly too elaborate for the activity that engages them. The clothing, thus, must reveal their status rather than a true picture of the way they would dress for a day of fishing or hunting. Additionally, the boat is both too small and too unstable to be the sort of boat used for a family outing. A child could easily capsize it. The boat, the most archaic type of woven papyrus boat, has symbolic meaning of transition and togetherness. The Egyptologist Gay Robins speculated that scenes of fishing and bird hunting represent the deceased as Osiris. In Coffin Text 62, Osiris claims he will have thousands of birds available in the next world. Whenever Osiris hunts with a throw-stick, a thousand birds will fall. Since each deceased Egyptian hoped to be assimilated to the god Osiris, king of the dead, such scenes in tombs suggest another means of expressing the same hope for obtaining thousands of birds to eat. Moreover, when a man dominates wildlife he also makes order from chaos in Egyptian thought. This is the role that both the king and Osiris play. Thus the deceased further identifies with Osiris by bringing order to the natural world. Fishing also represents a man dominating nature and thus bringing order to the world. But fishing for the tilapia fish also relates to rebirth. The tilapia fish accompanies the solar barque of Re in the underworld. The tilapia is a symbol of fertility and rebirth because the female carries its fertilized eggs in its mouth. When the eggs hatch, it appears that the offspring are born live from the mother's mouth. In Book of the Dead Chapter 15, the deceased is assured that while in the god's barque he will see the tilapia fish. This means that he will experience the re-birth each Egyptian desired into the next world. Thus scenes of family outings in the marshes represent much more than a picnic. These scenes convey ideas about rebirth into the next world by associating the deceased with the god Osiris.

in Coffin Text 62

Many Egyptian tombs contain scenes of the deceased hunting birds. Usually such scenes include the deceased, his wife, and one child. These scenes probably can be explained by examining Coffin Text 62. The Coffin Texts are spells recited as part of the funeral ceremony. Scribes recorded them on the interior of wooden coffins during the Middle Kingdom (2008–1630 b.c.e.). Coffin Text 62 contains the god Horus's description of the next world. Horus is speaking to his father Osiris, the king of the dead: "Waterfowl will come to you in the thousands, lying on your path; you throw your throw-stick at them and it means a thousand are fallen at the sound of its wind." When bird hunting is included in the decoration of a tomb, the deceased is associated with the god Osiris, the desire of every Egyptian.

as Symbols in Tomb Paintings

Many Egyptian tombs contain scenes of the deceased harpooning tilapia fish. They depict the deceased, his wife, and a child in a papyrus boat. The tomb owner stands with a harpoon in one hand that has a tilapia fish on the end of it. These scenes can be explained by the reference to the tilapia fish in Chapter 15 of the Book of the Dead, the papyrus scroll Egyptians started including in their tombs during the New Kingdom (1538–1075 b.c.e.): "You will be summoned into the sun-god's Day-Barque … You will see the tilapia completely, in the stream of blue."

In Chapter 15, seeing a tilapia fish while in the barque of the sun-god Re is an indication of rebirth. The female tilapia carries her fertilized eggs in her mouth during gestation. At birth, it appears that the offspring swim alive from their mother's mouth. The Egyptians thus regarded the tilapia as a symbol of fertility.


Gay Robins, "Interpreting Egyptian Art," in Discussions in Egyptology 17 (1990): 45–58.

Wolfhart Westendorf, "Bemerkungen zur 'Kammer der Wiedergeburt' im Tutanchamungrab," in Zeitschrift für ägyptische Sprache und Altertumskunde 94 (1967): 139–150.

see also Fashion: Clothing

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Interpreting Egyptian Art

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