Chapter 2: Ancient Egypt

The establishment, development, and prominence of Ancient Egypt roughly coincided with the rise of the Sumerian and Babylonian civilizations. Like the kingdom of Babylonia, Egypt would have a lasting and decided influence on the following cultures, developing technology, writing, agriculture, science, and art. We are fortunate to have extensive records and artifacts from this great civilization that illuminates many aspects of this culture. Indeed, research into the details of this period is an on-going project involving hundreds of scholars over hundreds of years. The history of this period is wonderfully complicated, for our purposes we will divide its history into three broad categories: Old Kingdom, Middle Kingdom, and New Kingdom. Due to the Ancient Egyptian belief that art came from the gods, the style remains fairly consistent throughout its early history. This changes with a significant upheaval of Egyptian culture in the New Kingdom period with the ascension of Amenhotep IV, who later changed his name to Akhenaten. Let's take a look the stylistic differences between traditional Egyptian and art that developed during the reign of King Akhenaten. 

Video Transcript

Ancient Egyptian art and architecture was closely tied to religious beliefs. The Egyptians believed their artistic style was created by the gods and existed in a perfect state; as a result, the style remained largely unchanged for thousands of years. The only exception occurred during the reign of the Pharaoh Akhenaten, who abolished the Egyptian’s traditional polytheistic religion (the worship of many gods) and replaced it with monotheism (the worship of only one god). The Egyptian artistic style changed to reflect this shift, resulting in what has come to be known as the Amarna style.

The traditional Egyptian artistic style is characterized by:

  • Ordered composition and presentation
  • Often lacks the depiction of emotion
  • Stiff and rigid figures
  • Painted works indicated gender by skin tone, with males typically exhibiting a darker complexion than females.

The Egyptian Amarna style is characterized by:

  • Softer, more rounded figures
  • Elongation of the head
  • Figures exhibit emotion and vitality

Art of the Old and Middle Kingdom 

To understand Ancient Egyptian art, it must be viewed from the standpoint of the ancient Egyptians themselves. The somewhat static, usually formal, strangely abstract, and often blocky nature of much Egyptian imagery has, at times, led to unfavorable comparisons with later, and much more “naturalistic,” Greek or Renaissance art. However, the art of the Egyptians served a vastly different purpose than that of these later cultures.

While today we marvel at these glittering treasures, it is imperative to remember that the majority of these works were never intended to be seen—that was simply not their purpose. Most commonly, these images, whether statues or reliefs, were designed to benefit a divine or deceased recipient. Statuary provided a place for the recipient to manifest and receive the benefit of ritual action. Most statues show a formal frontality, meaning they are arranged straight ahead, because they were designed to face the ritual being performed before them. Many statues were also originally placed in recessed niches or other architectural settings—contexts that would make frontality their expected and natural mode.

Statuary, whether divine, royal, or elite, provided a kind of conduit for the spirit (or ka) of that being to interact with the terrestrial realm. Divine cult statues (few of which survive) were the subject of daily rituals of clothing, anointing, and perfuming with incense and were carried in processions for special festivals so that the people could “see” them—they were almost all entirely shrouded from view, but their “presence” would have been felt.

Royal and elite statuary served as intermediaries between the people and the gods. Family chapels with the statuary of a deceased forefather could serve as a sort of “family temple.” There were festivals in honor of the dead, where the family would come and eat in the chapel, offering food for the Afterlife, flowers (symbols of rebirth), and incense (the scent of which was considered divine). Preserved letters let us know that the deceased was actively petitioned for their assistance, both in this world and the next. One of the most remarkable works that fit this description is the funerary statue of King Menkaure and Queen.

King Menkaure (Mycerinus) and Queen

Serene ethereal beauty, raw royal power, and evidence of artistic virtuosity have rarely been simultaneously captured as well as in this breathtaking, nearly life-size statue of the pharaoh Menkaure and a queen from c. 2490–2472 B.C.E. Smooth as silk, the meticulously finished surface of the dark stone captures the physical ideals of the time and creates a sense of eternity and immortality even today.

King Menkaure (Mycerinus) and queen, 2490–2472 B.C.E., greywacke, 142.2 x 57.1 x 55.2 cm (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Figure 2.1 King Menkaure (Mycerinus) and queen, 2490–2472 B.C.E., greywacke, 142.2 x 57.1 x 55.2 cm (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Undoubtedly, the most iconic structures from Ancient Egypt are the massive and enigmatic Great Pyramids that stand on a natural stone shelf, now known as the Giza plateau, on the south-western edge of modern Cairo. The three primary pyramids at Giza were constructed during the height of the Old Kingdom and served as burial places, memorials, and places of worship for a series of deceased rulers—the largest belonging to King Khufu, the middle to his son Khafre, and the smallest of the three to his son Menkaure.

Giza plateau (photo: Ikiwaner, CC BY-SA 2.0)
Figure 2.2 Giza plateau (photo: Ikiwaner, CC BY-SA 2.0)

Egyptian Pyramids

Pyramids are not stand-alone structures. Those at Giza formed only a part of a much larger complex that included a temple at the base of the pyramid itself, long causeways and corridors, small subsidiary pyramids, and a second temple (known as a Valley Temple) some distance from the pyramid. These Valley Temples were used to perpetuate the cult of the deceased king and were active places of worship for hundreds of years (sometimes much longer) after the king’s death. Images of the king were placed in these temples to serve as a focus for worship—several such images have been found in these contexts, including the magnificent enthroned statue of Khafre with the Horus falcon wrapped around his headdress.

The Excavation

On January 10, 1910, excavators under the direction of George Reisner, head of the joint Harvard University-Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Expedition to Egypt, uncovered an astonishing collection of statuary in the Valley Temple connected to the Pyramid of Menkaure. Menkaure’s pyramid had been explored in the 1830’s (using dynamite, no less). His carved granite sarcophagus was removed (and subsequently lost at sea), and while the Pyramid Temple at its base was in only mediocre condition; the Valley Temple was—happily—basically ignored. 

George Reisner and Enno Littmann at Harvard Camp, looking E toward Khufu and Khafre pyramids, 1935, photo by Albert Morton Lythgoe (Giza archives)
Figure 2.3 George Reisner and Enno Littmann at Harvard Camp, looking E toward Khufu and Khafre pyramids, 1935, photo by Albert Morton Lythgoe (Giza archives)

Reisner had been excavating on the Giza plateau for several years at this point; his team had already explored the elite cemetery to the west of the Great Pyramid of Khufu before turning their attention to the Menkaure complex, most particularly the barely-touched Valley Temple.

In the southwest corner of the structure, the team discovered a magnificent cache of statuary carved in a smooth-grained dark stone called greywacke or schist. There were a number of triad statues—each showing 3 figures; the king, the fundamentally important goddess Hathor, and the personification of a nome (a geographic designation, similar to the modern idea of a region, district, or county). Hathor was worshipped in the pyramid temple complexes along with the supreme sun god Re and the god Horus, who was represented by the living king. The goddess’s name is actually ‘Hwt-hor’, which means “The House of Horus”, and she was connected to the wife of the living king and the mother of the future king. Hathor was also a fierce protector who guarded her father Re; as an “Eye of Re” (the title assigned to a group of dangerous goddesses), she could embody the intense heat of the sun and use that blazing fire to destroy his enemies.

Four greywacke triads, Menkaure valley temple, S magazines, corridor III 4, photo: 1908 (The Giza Archives). View one of the triads in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Figure 2.4 Four greywacke triads, Menkaure valley temple, S magazines, corridor III 4, photo: 1908 (The Giza Archives). View one of the triads in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Menkaure flanked by Hathor (left) and nome goddess (Egyptian Museum, Cairo)
Figure 2.5 Menkaure flanked by Hathor (left) and nome goddess (Egyptian Museum, Cairo)

In addition to the triads, Reisner’s team also revealed the extraordinary dyad statue of Menkaure and a queen that is breathtakingly singular.

Heads and torsos (detail), King Menkaure (Mycerinus) and queen, 2490–2472 B.C.E., greywacke, 142.2 x 57.1 x 55.2 cm (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Figure 2.6 Heads and torsos (detail), King Menkaure (Mycerinus) and queen, 2490–2472 B.C.E., greywacke, 142.2 x 57.1 x 55.2 cm (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Tier 1: Content—King Menkaure and Queen

Like all artwork, the content of this work contains elements worth exploring. As you consider this work, refer to the elements of art listed in Tier 1: Content.

The artist's use of compositionform, and pictorial space helps to communicate and reinforce the work's purpose. The statute is composed of two figures, standing side-by-side, on a simple, squared base, supported by a shared back pillar. They both face to the front, although Menkaure’s head is noticeably turned to his right—this image was likely originally positioned within an architectural niche, making it appear as though they were emerging from the structure.

The form of the broad-shouldered, youthful body of the king is covered only with a traditional short pleated kilt, known as a shendjet, and his head sports the primary pharaonic insignia of the iconic striped nemes headdress (so well known from the mask of Tutankhamun) and an artificial royal beard. In his clenched fists, held straight down at his sides, Menkaure grasps ritual cloth rolls. His body is straight, strong, and eternally youthful with no signs of age. His facial features are remarkably individualized with prominent eyes, a fleshy nose, rounded cheeks, and full mouth with protruding lower lip.

The form of Menkaure’s queen provides the perfect female counterpart to his youthful masculine virility. Sensuously modeled with a beautifully proportioned body emphasized by a clinging garment, she articulates ideal mature feminine beauty. There is a sense of the individual in both faces. Neither Menkaure nor his queen are depicted in the purely idealized manner that was the norm for royal images. Instead, through the overlay of royal formality we see the depiction of a living person filling the role of pharaoh and the personal features of a particular individual in the representation of his queen.

The artist's use of pictorial space suggests that this image is unique. Menkaure and his queen stride forward with their left feet—this is entirely expected for the king, as males in Egyptian sculpture almost always do so, but it is unusual for the female since they are generally depicted with feet together. They both look beyond the present and into timeless eternity, their otherworldly visage displaying no human emotion whatsoever. 

Heads (detail), King Menkaure (Mycerinus) and queen, 2490–2472 B.C.E., greywacke, 142.2 x 57.1 x 55.2 cm (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Figure 2.7 Heads (detail), King Menkaure (Mycerinus) and queen, 2490–2472 B.C.E., greywacke, 142.2 x 57.1 x 55.2 cm (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
King Menkaure (Mycerinus) and queen, 2490–2472 B.C.E., greywacke, 142.2 x 57.1 x 55.2 cm (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Figure 2.8 King Menkaure (Mycerinus) and queen, 2490–2472 B.C.E., greywacke, 142.2 x 57.1 x 55.2 cm (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

An Unfinished Sculpture?

The dyad was never finished—the area around the lower legs has not received a final polish, and there is no inscription. However, despite this incomplete state, the image was erected in the temple and was brightly painted; there are traces of red around the king’s ears and mouth and yellow on the queen’s face. The presence of paint atop the smooth, dark greywacke on a statue of the deceased king that was originally erected in his memorial temple courtyard brings an interesting suggestion—that the paint may have been intended to wear away through exposure and, over time, reveal the immortal, black-fleshed “Osiris” Menkaure.

Unusual for a pharaoh’s image, the king has no protective cobra (known as a uraeus) perched on his brow. This notable absence has led to the suggestion that both the king’s nemes and the queen’s wig were originally covered in a sheath of precious metal and that the ubiquitous cobra would have been part of that addition.

Who is the subject?

Based on comparison with other images, there is no doubt that this sculpture shows Menkaure, but the identity of the queen is a different matter. She is clearly a royal female. She stands at nearly equal height with the king and, of the two of them, she is the one who is entirely frontal. In fact, it may be that this dyad is focused on the queen as its central figure rather than Menkaure. The prominence of the royal female—at equal height and frontal—in addition to the protective gesture she extends has suggested that, rather than one of Mekaure’s wives, this is actually his queen-mother. The function of the sculpture in any case was to ensure rebirth for the king in the Afterlife.


Art of the New Kingdom

Three-dimensional artistic representations in Ancient Egypt often tended toward naturalism, a depiction of how an object might appear in the physical world. Two-dimensional works, however, differed significantly. Egyptian artists embraced two-dimensionality and attempted to provide the most representational aspects of each element in the scenes rather than attempting to create vistas that replicated the real world. Artists throughout the entire history of Ancient Egypt use both of these approaches to representation.

Each object or element in a scene was rendered from its most recognizable angle, and these were then grouped together to create the whole. This is why images of people show their face, waist, and limbs in profile, but eye and shoulders frontally. These scenes are complex composite images that provide complete information about the various elements, rather than ones designed from a single viewpoint, which would not be as comprehensive in the data they conveyed. 

These features are readily identifiable in the "Fowling Scene" below, a piece of a wall painting from the tomb-chapel of Nebamun, a scribe and grain accountant of the New Kingdom. 


Figure 2.9 Nebamun fowling in the marshes, Tomb-chapel of Nebamun, c. 1350 B.C.E., 18th Dynasty, paint on plaster, 83 x 98 cm, Thebes © Trustees of the British Museum

Often, scenes were ordered in parallel lines, known as registers. These registers separate the scene as well as provide ground lines for the figures. Scenes without registers are unusual and were generally only used to specifically evoke chaos; battle and hunting scenes will often show the prey or foreign armies without groundlines. Registers were also used to convey information about the scenes—the higher up in the scene, the higher the status; overlapping figures imply that the ones underneath are further away, as are those elements that are higher within the register.  

Difference in scale was the most commonly used method for conveying hierarchy—the larger the scale of the figure, the more important they were. Kings were often shown at the same scale as deities, but both are shown larger than the elite and far larger than the average Egyptian. 

One important work that employs this hierarchy of scale, and is an excellent example of a stylistic break from the Old and Middle Kingdoms, is the House Altar of Akhenaten. 

House Altar depicting Akhenaten, Nefertiti and Three of their Daughters

Artists during this period made conscious stylistic departures in their work in order to reinforce the religious changes instituted by Akehnaten.  

Questions to Consider

  1. How does this art change during the reign of Akhenaten?
  2. What specific features of this work reflect the values he sought to communicate to his people?
Watch on YouTube
Video Transcript

So around 1350 BC, everything changed in Egyptian art.

When we think about Egyptian art, we don't think of change.

That's true. The Old Kingdom, the Middle Kingdom, the New Kingdom, and the transitional periods between—art is consistent for almost 3,000 years. But there is this radical break right around 1350. And it's because the ruler, Akhenaten, changes the state religion.

He changes it from the worship of the god Amun to a new god, a sun god, called Aten. So he actually changes his own name to Akhenaten, which means Aten is pleased. The key is he makes him and his wife the only representatives of Aten on earth. And so he upsets the entire priesthood of Egypt by making him and his wife the only ones with access to this new god, Aten.

And in fact, after Akhenaten dies, Egypt will return to its traditional religion. So this period is a very brief episode in Egyptian history, but it also marks a real shift in style. And this small stone plaque that we're looking at, this sunken relief carving—which would have been placed in a private domestic environment—is a perfect example of those stylistic changes.

Right. It would have been an altar in someone's home, where they would have seen Akhenaten and his wife Nefertiti and their relationship to the god Aten. This has always been one of my favorite sculptures. It's so informal, compared to most Egyptian art. We really have a sense of a couple and their relationship with one another and their relationship with their children. And love and domesticity.

So let's take a close look. On the left, you have Akhenaten himself. This is the pharaoh of Egypt, the supreme ruler. You can see that he's holding his eldest daughter, and he's actually getting ready to kiss her. He seems to be holding her very tenderly, supporting her head, holding her under the thighs. She seems to be, perhaps, pointing back to her mother at the same moment.

We see Nefertiti holding another daughter on her lap, pointing back to Akhenaten, and yet a third daughter, the youngest one, on her shoulder, playing with her earring. And I think it's immediately apparent that there's something wrong with their anatomy. If we look at the children, or we look at Nefertiti or Akhenaten, we see swollen bellies, very thin arms, and elongated skulls, forms that have made historians wonder whether there was something medically wrong with Akhenaten.

In fact, we don't think that there was. We think that this is a purely stylistic break. It was meant to distinguish this new age, this new religion, from Egypt's past.

Egyptian art had been dominated by rectilinear forms. Here, Akhenaten seems to be demanding this new style dominated by curvilinear forms.

Look at the careful attention to the drapery. There is a softness throughout that is an absolute contrast to the traditions of Egyptian art. But in some ways, there are elements of traditional Egyptian sculpture.

Right. We still see a composite view of the body. A profile view of the face, but a frontal view of the eye.

Right. Or one hip is facing us. But the shoulders are squared with us. So as much of the body is exposed to us as possible, while the figures are still in profile. So let's take a look at some of the iconography here. This little panel really tells us a lot. God is present. Aten is present, here rendered as the sun disk. And from that sun—which has a small cobra in it, which signifies that this is the supreme deity, the only deity. Akhenaten was a monotheist. And this was in such contrast to the pantheon of gods that traditional Egyptian religion counted on. Here Akhenaten says, no, there is only one true god. So we can see the cobra. We can see the sun disk. And then we can see rays of light that pour down. And if you look closely, you can see hands at the ends of those rays, except for the rays that terminate right at the faces of the king and queen. And there, you see not only hands, but also ankhs, the Egyptian sign of life. And so it's as if Aten is giving life to these two people, and these two people alone.

Those rays of light are holding those ankhs right at the noses, the breath of life for Akhenaten and Nefertiti. We can see in the throne of Nefertiti symbols of both Upper and Lower Egypt, indicating that Nefertiti is queen of both.

Akhenaten himself is sitting on a simpler throne. It does give a sense of her importance and the fact that they would rule Egypt together.


Previous Citation(s)
On general Ancient Egyptian art: Dr. Amy Calvert, "Ancient Egyptian art," in Smarthistory, August 8, 2015, accessed June 28, 2023, https://smarthistory.org/ancient-egyptian-art/. On King Menkaure and Queen: Dr. Amy Calvert, "King Menkaure (Mycerinus) and queen," in Smarthistory, August 8, 2015, accessed June 28, 2023, https://smarthistory.org/king-menkaure-mycerinus-and-queen/. On Akhenaten: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris, "House Altar depicting Akhenaten, Nefertiti and Three of their Daughters," in Smarthistory, December 6, 2015, accessed June 28, 2023, https://smarthistory.org/house-altar-depicting-akhenaten-nefertiti-and-three-of-their-daughters/.

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