Egyptian Sculpture – Part 2

HISTORIC DEVELOPMENT. In spite of wealth of materials and quantity of production, Egyptian sculpture changed so slowly that it is difficult to trace its history. From the very earliest dynasties we find a fully developed art. Sculptors handled readily the hardest stones and cast with much skill in bronze. There is no archaic period to show the struggle by which this mastery was reached. Egypt has not yet enlightened us as to a prehistoric art of her own, nor is it proved that some foreign nation provided her with an art already in its prime. Whatever its origin, the continuity of Egyptian art during the historic period is more marked than its changes. Nevertheless, the modification of Egyptian sculpture at different periods may be roughly distinguished.

ANCIENT EMPIRE. The art of the Ancient Empire centred about Memphis, although the Delta, Abydos, the neighbor-hood of Thebes, and Elephantine furnish illustrations of some of its later phases. There are no temples remaining from this period; the sculptures come exclusively from tombs. In character these Memphite sculptures were strongly naturalistic when compared with the later products of Egyptian art. The portrait statues are varied and often striking in character, and the wall-pictures depict many scenes from daily life. Generalized or typical forms are not wanting in the very earliest times, as witness the colossal sphinx at Gizeh and the statues of Chephren, builder of the second pyramid. The naturalistic tendency led to a peculiar treatment of the eye, found in statues of this period, but discontinued in later times. The pupil was represented by a glistening silver nail set in the midst of rock crystal or enamel, while the dark eyelashes were made of bronze. This treatment was followed in the case of statues in limestone, wood, and bronze, but not in the statues made of basaltic rocks. The heads of these early statues seem to indicate a strongly marked Egyptian type, not unmixed in some cases with negroid and other foreign races. The wall-sculptures, and even the hieroglyphs executed in low-relief, were finely carved. The slender type of the human form was not wanting, but short, thickset, muscular bodies were more common. From the fact that many middle-aged men and women were represented, it would seem as if childhood and old age were somehow looked upon as disappearing in the future life. The faces reflect the lives of a peaceful, happy people, to whom future life implied no great change in the mode of existence.

MIDDLE EMPIRE. The period called the Middle Empire may be divided into the first Theban period, extending from the eleventh to the fifteenth dynasty, and the Hyksos period, from the fifteenth to the eighteenth dynasty. The centre of government had now shifted from Memphis to Thebes. The later period of Memphite rule and the first dynasty of the Middle Empire seem to have produced little sculpture of monumental value. But the strong reign of the Usertesens and the Amenemhats of the twelfth dynasty marks a revival of Egyptian art. The sculpture represented in general a continuance of the art of Memphis, but there were already some changes. A desire for colossal statues of Pharaohs began to be felt, and bodily forms were given with slenderer trunks and limbs. The wall-sculptures presented subjects similar to those of earlier days, but were less individual and natural and in many cases wall-paintings were substituted for reliefs. The temple statues from Karnak of the twelfth dynasty indicate that votive offerings of statuary were not uncommon, the fine statue of Sebek-hotep III. of the thirteenth dynasty, in the Louvre, bearing witness to a new departure in the sculptor’s art.

This revival of art, which began in the twelfth and continued through the thirteenth dynasty, was checked in the fourteenth and fifteenth dynasties by the invasion of barbarous foreign rulers known as the Hyksos or Shepherd Kings. The ethnological affinities of these Shepherd Kings is an unsettled problem, the Shemitic influences which they introduced being offset by their apparently Turanian facial type. The sculptured sphinxes and statues were still executed by Egyptian sculptors, but in the gray or black granite of Hammanat or of the Sinaitic peninsula, instead of the red granite of Assouan. The Hyksos centres of activity were Tanis and Bubastis, their influence being less strongly felt in Upper Egypt. The most striking characteristic of their sculpture was the non-Egyptian cast of countenance, showing small eyes, high cheek bones, heavy masses of hair, an aquiline nose, a strong mouth with shaven upper lip, and short whiskers and beard.

NEW EMPIRE. The second Theban or early portion of the New Empire included the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth dynasties. Egypt now freed herself from Hyksos rule and extended her empire to Assyria, Asia Minor, and Cyprus in the east and north, and to Nubia and Abyssinia in the south. Numerous large temples were erected, especially during the reign of Seti I. and Rameses II. These furnished a new stimulus to the sculptor’s art. Colossal temples led naturally to colossal statuary. The seated statues of Amenophis III., at Thebes, are fifty-two feet high, those of Rameses II., at Ipsamboul, are seventy feet high, while the standing Rameses at Tanis, according to Mr. Petrie, stood ninety feet high without its pedestal. The slender proportions of the human form which prevailed in the twelfth and thirteenth dynasties were continued and even advanced, especially in the bas-reliefs of the New Empire. The primitive simplicity of dress, characteristic of earlier days, was now replaced by greater richness in personal adornment, and elaborate crowns and highly ornamented garments were not uncommon. Foreign fauna and flora, as well as foreign men and women, were represented more frequently and in far greater variety than in earlier days.

Scenes of warfare and foreign conquest were portrayed, and images of the gods were now abundant. A single small temple at Karnak contained five hundred and seventy-two statues of the goddess Sekhet-Bast, but at Tell-el-Amarna the heretic king Khou-en-Aten stimulated his sculptors to break with traditional themes and to portray military reviews, chariot driving, festivals, palaces, villas, and gardens.

The school of sculptors now established made itself felt throughout the reign of Seti I. and Rameses II. The fine heads of Queen Taia and Horemheb and the remarkable limestone reliefs at Seti’s temple in Abydos may be traced to its influence; so, also, the beautiful seated statue of Rameses II. in the Museum of Turin. Royal tombs of this period maintained the traditional excellence of relief sculpture, but the demand for carved scenes upon the outer walls of temples was probably too great for the supply of sculptors. At all events, we find here poverty of invention in the subjects and haste in the execution. After the brilliant reign of Rameses II. Egypt lost much of her military spirit, the country was divided, and the decadence of art began. This was a gradual decline, with here and there an upward struggle, as shown, for instance, in the reliefs of the twentieth dynasty at Medinet-Abou.

During the later portion of the New Empire, from the twenty-first to the thirty-second dynasty, the power of Egypt was broken. She yielded now to the Ethiopians, to the Assyrians, and once and again to the Persians. Her seat of empire shifted to Tanis, to Bubastis, to Mendes, to Sebennytos, and for a long time remained at Sais. This period is therefore characterized as the

SAITE PERIOD. Under such shifting conditions it was hardly possible for art to flourish. Sometimes sculptors turned back to Ancient-Empire work for inspiration, and modelled forms which might readily be mistaken for the products of earlier days. Under Psammetichos I. of the twenty-sixth dynasty there was something of an artistic revival. He restored the temples and revived the demand for sculpture. and painting. Sculptors again attacked the hardest stones, as though they would prove to the world that their knowledge of technique had not suffered; but the green-basalt statues of Osiris and Nephthys and the Hathor-cow supporting a statuette of the deceased, in the museum at Gizeh, show that the sculptors of the reign of Psammetichos I. were possessed of an artistic sense which preferred effeminate and refined to sharp and vigorous forms. No change in the current of the Egyptian sculpture was produced by the Persian conquest.

GRECO-ROMAN PERIOD. When Egypt became subject to Macedonian rule, her art did not wholly submit to foreign taste. Ptolemaic temples, though characterized by certain changes, especially in the capitals of columns, were not constructed in Hellenic style. Similarly, Ptolemaic statues are still Egyptian. The successors of Alexander become Pharaohs; they did not convert the Egyptians into Greeks. But the presence of Greek cities in Egypt from the seventh century B.C. made it impossible that Greek and Egyptian types should remain for-ever separate. It was inevitable that in certain directions a Greco-Egyptian style should arise; and this was the case.

In architecture even the Caesars continued the restoration of temples in the Egyptian manner, but in sculpture they stimulated a mixed style in which the Egyptian is the retreating and the Greek and Roman the advancing element. Even Christian civilization, under Byzantine rule, failed to subject Egyptian art. The final surrender was made in 638 A.D. to the Mohammedans.

EXTANT MONUMENTS. Egyptian sculpture may be best studied in Egypt at the temples of Abydos, Thebes, Edfou, Esneh, Philae, and Ipsamboul; at the tombs about Memphis, Beni-Hassan, and Thebes, and especially at the Museum of Gizeh. Important collections exist in the Vatican, Rome; the Museo Archeologico, Florence ; the Museo Egizio, Turin ; the Royal Museum, Berlin; the Louvre, Paris ; the British Museum, London ; the Metropolitan Museum and the Historical Society, New York. Minor collections may be seen in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston ; the University of Pennsylvania Museum, Philadelphia ; the Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore ; and the Field Columbian Museum, Chicago.