Egyptian Sculpture – Part 1

PHYSICAL AND POLITICAL CONDITIONS. Ancient Egypt consited of two principalities : the land of the south, or Upper Egypt, extending from the city of Elephantine, near the first cataract, to Memphis, not far from the modern Cairo ; and the land of the north, or Lower Egypt, which stretched from Memphis, widening with the mouths of the Nile, and forming a delta at the Mediterranean. These two principalities represented the consolidation of smaller prehistoric states or gnomes, and were themselves united as one nation under the Pharaohs. This country extended along the fertile banks of the winding Nile a distance of seven hundred and thirty-one miles, and it today averages in width about nine miles.

The prehistoric tribes probably became united at a remote date before Menses, after whose reign it is customary to treat of Egyptian history as a series of successive dynasties. These dynasties are sometimes named from the city which served as the capital, and sometimes from the conquering nation which furnished the kings. Historians and Egyptologists differ widely in respect to the dates of the earlier dynasties, but the difference grows less with the later dynasties and disappears when the period of Greek rule is reached.

At the head of the social organism stood the king, or Pharaoh, an absolute monarch, worshipped as a divinity after he ascended the throne. He was supreme in ecclesiastical as well as civil matters. Below him were the several orders of priests, the governors, scribes, and other civil functionaries, with the generals and officers of the army. These constituted a privileged, hereditary nobility, in whose hands was considerable power, and the ownership of the soil. Much that remains to us of the sculptures of the Ancient and Middle Empires is the result of the patronage of these classes. Architects and sculptors were highly esteemed, and the various artisans, musicians, and commercial traders had the same legal rights as the tillers of the soil. According to Herodotos, there were twenty thousand cities in Egypt, representing a total population of over five millions, and there was, therefore, a large mass of the population which could be turned to the construction of public works or to foreign conquest.

RELIGION. The religion of the Egyptians was somewhat analogous to their political organization. Many traces of a prehistoric fetichism are found, in which different animals, such as the bull, the ibis, the crocodile, were the totems of different tribes. There was also a polytheism, in which divinities were grouped in triads or enneads, with one divinity as supreme and all powerful. Underlying this was a worship of the powers of nature, especially of the sun, moon, and stars, and a manifest tendency toward organization into a unified system of monotheism or pantheism.

Intimately connected with their social and religious system was the idea of immortality. Each person in a measure reflected the constitution of the social fabric. His body was presided over by a ka, which, like a Pharaoh, ruled the body, and was in form its ethereal duplicate. The ka remained with the mummy in the tomb; it required nourishment, and it was provided with permanent bodily form in the shape of one or more statues of the deceased. The higher elements of personality enjoyed greater freedom. The ba, or soul, wandered through the Valley of Shades ; the khou, or intelligence, followed the gods, while the ab, or heart, the khaibit, or shadow, and the yen, or name, awaited the final reunion, when the individual secured his immortality and became a god.

SUBJECTS. The sculpture of the Egyptians was largely connected with the temple and the tomb. The temple was constructed as if it were the tomb or eternal dwelling-place of a divinity whose statue was concealed within a succession of closed halls, opened to view only for a brief interval, when the sun or moon or particular star reached a point on the horizon from which their rays could shine directly upon the innermost shrine. These temple statues were consulted as oracles, but were seldom of imposing size. The art of the sculptor was also employed for wall-reliefs, capitals of columns, colossal figures guarding the pylons, and for long avenues of sphinxes. The scenes upon the temple walls illustrate frequently the piety of kings as well as their foreign conquests.

The tombs called for the most extensive use of the sculptor’s art. Here were placed portrait statues of the deceased. Of this nature were many of the statues of Pharaohs, public functionaries, and scribes, and the groups representing a man and his wife. The walls of the earlier tombs resemble an illustrated book of the manners and customs of the people. Here are represented hunting, fishing, and agricultural scenes; artistic and mercantile pursuits, such as the making of statues, or glass, or metal-ware, or the building of pyramids; women at their domestic duties, or wailing for the dead; boys engaged in athletic games. Such reliefs indicate a confident belief in the future as an untroubled extension of the present life. At a later period, beginning with the tombs of the New Empire, the gods appear more prominently in scenes of judgment; revealing a less certain attitude of mind concerning the happiness of the future state.

The sculptor’s art also lent a charm to the minor objects of domestic and daily use ; to household furniture with its rich divans, to tables and chests, and to all forms of metal work and jewelry. Such objects as toilet boxes, mirrors, and spoons assumed forms derived from the floral, animal, or human world. Sacred plants, especially the lotus, were the naturalistic basis for a large and varied series of forms which influenced the decorative art of the entire ancient world.

MATERIALS, METHODS, AND CONVENTIONS. In the Nile valley grew the sacred acacia and the sycamore, which furnished the sculptor material for statues and sarcophagi, for thrones and other objects of industrial art. The hillsides on both banks of the Nile, as far south as Edfou, furnished a coarse nummulitic limestone, and beyond Edfou were extensive quarries of sand-stone, both of which materials were employed for sculptural as well as for architectural purposes. Near the first cataract may be still seen the quarries of red granite utilized not only for obelisks, but also for colossal statues, sphinxes, and sarcophagi. Alabaster was quarried at the ancient Alabastron, near the modern village of Assiout. From the mountains of the Arabian desert and the Sinaitic peninsula came the basalt and diorite used by the early sculptors, the red porphyry prized by the Greeks and Romans, and copper. The Nile mud was moulded and baked, and even covered with colored glazes, from the earliest dynasties of Egyptian history. At the same early period we find the Egyptian sculptor handling with skill various imported materials, such as ebony, ivory, gold, silver, and iron.

When the Egyptians wished to give permanence to their sculptures, as, for example, to the statues and sarcophagi of their Pharaohs, they utilized the hardest material, such as basalt, diorite, granite. These materials they handled with no less skill than they did wood-and ivory and softer stones.

The fine details were probably executed with instruments of flint. Other implements, made apparently of hardened bronze or iron, were the saw with jewelled teeth, tubular drills of various kinds, the pointer, and chisel. Statues of hard stone were carefully polished with crushed sandstone and emery; those of the softer materials were generally covered with stucco and painted, the coloring being applied in an arbitrary or conventional manner.

The wall-sculptures are executed in different modes of relief :

(1) Bas-relief, in which the figures project slightly in front of the background.

(2) Sunken-relief, in which the background projects slightly in front of the figures.

(3) Outline-relief, in which only the outline of figures is chiselled.

(4) High-relief, in which the figures project strongly from the background.

Almost all the wall-sculptures of the Ancient Empire are in the form of bas-relief; sunken and outline relief are the most common methods during the New Empire. High-relief is found occasionally in tombs of the Ancient Empire, other-wise it is almost exclusively confined to the New Empire and to such forms as Osiride and Hathoric piers and to wall statues. In its treatment of figures in the round, Egyptian sculpture is limited to a few forms. There is the standing figure, with left foot slightly in advance of the right, the head erect, and the eyes looking straight forward. Variants are formed by changing the pose of the arms. In the seated figures there is the same fixity of the head, body, and lower limbs. Beside these, the kneeling and squatting attitudes frequently occur, with little variation. Statues in the round usually represented the gods, Pharaohs, or civic officials, and were composed with special reference to the preservation of straight lines. The more important monuments were thus limited in type and pose, but a whole series of statues illustrating domestic subjects show freer modes of composition. Little attention was given to grouping. It was usually a mere juxtaposition of two standing or two seated statues, or of one standing and one seated figure. A god and a man, or a husband and a wife, were placed side by side. In family groups the figure of a child was sometimes added. Statues of Isis suckling Horns formed the only prominent exception.

Symholism usually governed the representations of the gods. When portrayed as human beings they were distinguished by emblems, but they were more frequently represented as composite creatures with animal heads on human bodies. Thus, Horus has the head of a hawk; Anubis, that of a jackal; Khnum, a ram; Thoth, an ibis; Sebek, a crocodile; Isis, a decorative effect. On the exterior walls of temples they were often irregularly disposed over the surface, but in interiors they were arranged in superposed, horizontal rows. They were not pictures, but picture-writing in relief, and were little more than enlarged hieroglyphs. Such being their character, there was little stimulus to the production of artistic compositions.

Relief-composition consisted merely in the arrangement of figures in horizontal lines so as to record an event or depict an action. The principal objects were distinguished from the rest by their size; thus, gods were larger than men, kings than their followers, and the dead than the living. Subordinate actions were juxtaposed in horizontal bands. In other respects there was little regard for unity of effect; and spaces seem to have been filled with figures and hieroglyphs on the principle that decoration abhors a vacuum. In composition of this kind, constructed like sentences, there was little or no need of perspective. Scenes were not represented as they appeared within the field of vision, but their individual components were all brought to the plane of representation, and spread out like writing. A man with head in pro-file, but eye en face, with shoulders in full front, but trunk turned three-quarters and legs in profile, is not the picture of a man as he appears to the eye; but as a symbolic representation of a man, it was perfectly clear and intelligible. In the same symbolic way a pond was indicated by a rectangle, the water in it by zigzag lines, while the trees around it projected from the four sides of the rectangle. An army was portrayed with its remoter ranks brought into the plane of representation and superposed in horizontal lines one above the other. Frequently a row of individuals projecting from the spectator was represented along a horizontal line, the nearer figures partly covering the remoter. In a few instances the effects of perspective were suggested, but being foreign to the purposes of Egyptian art they bore no fruit.

Egyptian reliefs were covered with stucco and painted. The cow; and Sekhet-Bast, a lion or cat. The same method of representation placed a human head upon an animal body and formed fantastic combinations of various creatures, birds, animals, and men.

As the statues represented the permanent body of the deceased, so the relief-sculptures reproduced the scenes in which his ethereal body might continue to move. They were not intended as mere architectural decorations, but had primarily a recording or immortalizing purpose. They covered the outer and inner walls of temples, the galleries and walls of tombs. without much regard to aesthetic considerations or colors used were vivid in tone, few in number, and durable in quality. They were applied in uniform flat masses, juxtaposed in striking contrasts. Chiaroscuro and color-perspective lay outside the Egyptian conception of painting. The painting of reliefs served to make the figures more distinct, not more natural. Color was rarely used to suggest rotundity of form, and was applied ordinarily in a purely conventional manner. The faces of men were usually reddish brown, and those of women yellow; but the gods might have faces of any color. Statues of wood or of soft stone were frequently in like manner covered with stucco and painted.