Introduction | Architecture | Painting and Low-Relief Sculpture | Sculpture | Conclusion | Bibliography

Painting and Low-Relief Sculpture

Ancient Egyptian art followed a very specific canon for centuries, with very few changes. One of the main reasons for this is the fact that bodies were drawn to a specific and unchanging scale on an 18-square grid. Other important factors were as follows.

Little to no sense of depth. Almost without fail, there is no feeling of a painting continuing into the distance like you would find in paintings of today.Nefertari. Note the crowns,  staff, hieroglyphics and lack of depth.Symbolism. Those portrayed are often shown holding staffs, or other symbolic objects. They also wear intricate crowns representing the power that they held. This is not unlike European royal portraits where the Queen would be shown with a scepter. Accompanied by text. Most paintings have explanations and stories written in the background and around the subjects of the art. Strange poses. Faces are shown in profile with the front facing eye on the side of the face. Shoulders are forward, while legs and feet face the same way as the face. Men are generally very unexpressive, while females are slightly more emotive. Size. People are scaled by importance. Pharaohs are huge, commoners are tiny.
Low-relief sculpture from the Armana period showing Pharaoh Akhenaten as far larger and closer to God than the rest of  his family.

Clearly, realism is not the main goal of these paintings. The people are distinguished by captions, placement, size and what they are doing, not by facial features or different body-types as is more common in most other cultures, especially today.

During the reign of Akhenaton, artistic style changed radically for a short period of time. This time, known as the Amarna period, was not particularly influential to later Egyptian art but it did leave a mark. As well as overhauling the religion to be monotheistic, Akhenaton was responsible for a shocking change in art.low-relief carving of Akhenaton, Nefertiti and their children worshipping their one god

Though still symbolic, scaled and accompanied by text, there are many differences between this carving and earlier works. The lines are much more fluid, with body lines being more realistic and folds in skin being visible. The poses are also more realistic (though still not truly possible). Pharaoh is also seen kissing his child, showing affection. This is something that was previously reserved for women.

Though art went back to a very slightly more fluid version of the original art following Akhenaton's death, another change would still sweep Egypt. Greek and Roman influence permeated Egypt. Mummy portrait from the Faiyum basinPaintings now depicted Roman gods and very Greek-looking, realistic mummy portraits began to crop up.