The Art of the Ancient Kingdoms




From the end of the fourth millennium вс, civilizations of farmers
living along the Nile, the Euphrates, and the Tigris, and between the
Caspian and Mediterranean Seas created highly developed social
systems and sophisticated artistic cultures. Much of this
remains at the root of art today.


Head of King Djedefre
Fourth Dynasty, reign of Djedefre
Red quartzite with remains of paint
Musee du Louvre, Paris

Between 3100 and ЗОООвс, the kingdoms of Upper and Lower Egypt were united by a king named Narmer, who founded the first dynasty. This was effectively the first great state, with numerous cities including Memphis, where the king resided.
For the Egyptians, art was associated with the creative process of the universe. According to religious tradition, Khnum, the potter god with a ram's head, fashioned the world and modelled every living form on his potter's wheel. The Egyptians were also deeply influenced by magic and faith in transcendental forces, which had to be humoured or appeased in order to counteract their negative effects.

Relief of Itush
Fifth Dynasty, reign of Djedkare-Isesi
Brooklyn Museum of Art

Relief of Hesi-re
Third Dynasty, reign of Djoser
Acacia wood
Egyptian Museum, Cairo

Egyptian Art

Testimony to the intense cultural activity that characterized the predynastic period (с.5000-З00вс) exists in the form of "palettes". These slate slabs, often decorated in relief, are thought to have been used originally for grinding pigments for eyepaint. By the Late Predynastic period, they had taken on a celebratory, official character, and their decoration was inspired by specific historical events. The palette of Narmer was a symbol of power and may have commemorated the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt. Its creation heralded the beginning of the historical age, subdivided traditionally into dynasties, in which the pharaoh was the emblem of political and religious power. The compositional elements found in the palette of Narmer were to remain constant in Egyptian art: the division of the background into registers, the greater dimensions given to the figure of the sovereign, and the pictorial value of certain images. The falcon is the personification of the king seizing the Nile Delta (Lower Egypt), which is represented by a papyrus with a human head. Objects are presented as they are conceived, not as they are seen.

The Egyptian artist aimed to reflect social and religious hierarchies in the composition and to assign proportions to the figures and objects whose relationships to one another were constant. For example, the pharaoh-god was greater than man and therefore had to be shown as such. The age of the first and second dynasties (с.2850-2б50вс) saw the birth of monumental architecture, including the first mastabas - flat-topped tombs with sloping sides - and pyramids. During this period, the pharaohs had two royal cemeteries, one at Abydos, the other at Memphis; architectural elements from both sites have survived. From these seeds developed the awe-inspiring art of the Old Kingdom, third to sixth dynasties (с.2б50-2150вс).

King Khafre seated
Fourth Dynasty, reign of Khafre
Egyptian Museum, Cairo

King Menkaure and a Queen
Fourth Dynasty, reign of Menkaure
Graywacke with faint remains of paint
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Triad of King Menkaure
Fourth Dynasty, reign of Menkaure
Egyptian Museum, Cairo

Wall-painting from Thebes
showing Nebamun hunting.
British Museum, London


The name Imhotep is inscribed on the base of a statue of the pharaoh Djoser, found at Saqqara in 1926. Physician, seer, architect, and royal official, Imhotep is credited with directing the construction of Djoser's pyramid and the impressive complex around it. Living in about 2700вс, he was the first architect whose name is known and may have been the first to build in hewn stone. From 525вс, he was worshipped as the god of medicine in Egypt and in Greece.

Pyramids of King Khufu, Khafre and Menkaure, Giza

The Pyramids

It was a pharaoh of the third dynasty. Djoser, and his royal official Imhotep who created the complex of Saqqara. This was a vast area enclosed by a white limestone wall, inside which stood the Step Pyramid and several smaller structures. The project was impressive in its unprecendented use of calcareous stone instead of perishable materials, such as the bricks and wood that had been common in the preceding age. During the fourth dynasty, stepped structures, such as the rhomboidal pyramid of King Sneferu at Meidum, gave way to the uniformly smooth-walled pyramids of King Khufu, Khafre, and Menkaure in the necropolis of Giza, near Cairo. Erected between 2550 and 2470bc, they were listed by the Greeks as one of the Seven Wonders of the World. The grandiose dimensions of these funerary monuments, built to preserve the bodies of the dead kings for eternity, conveyed a sense of timeless-ness and immutability. In this, they were like the circumpolar stars towards which the pyramid sites were orientated and to which the pharaohs, departed from this earth, would return as gods to take their place among the divinities. The pyramids form part of a large complex, including mortuary temples, and mastabas, the burial places of priests, nobles, and high ranking officials.

The Great Sphinx


Scenes of everyday life are depicted in bas-reliefs and paintings in tombs and mastabas from all periods of Egyptian history. Carved or painted on sepulchre walls, figurative scenes re-create scenes of activity from the earthly life, with the aim of ensuring their continuation in the afterlife. Until the time of the New Kingdom, these did not portray specific events but were naturalistic renderings of generalized communal activities, such as ploughing, harvesting, breeding birds and livestock, hunting animals and birds, and fishing.
However, subject matter became increasingly varied during the New Kingdom (с.1550-1070вс). While daily life had previously been portrayed in a continuous succession of typical events, tomb paintings now included imagery evoking personal aspects of past life and extolling the status of the tomb's owner. The wall painting from the tomb of Nakht in Thebes, for example, is a good example of this kind of personal observation: here, we see detailed scenes of grape harvesting, wine-making, and the storage of wine in amphorae. Nakht, a noble and royal astronomer, was also the keeper of the king's vineyards.

Akhenaten Presenting a Duck to Aten
Dynasty 18, c.1345-1335 B.C.
Painted limestone
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Painting and Sculpture

The most important paintings and sculptures of the Old Kingdom come from the mastabas. The frieze of geese in the tomb of Itet at Meidum was the lower part of a huge painting depicting the hunting of birds with nets, and is perhaps the oldest surviving wall painting on stucco. The function of bas-reliefs and paintings was to furnish the tomb with enduring pictures that imitated, transcended, and re-created nature. The need to guarantee the survival of the dead and to assemble in one single figure or object the fundamental elements for their magical re-animation lies at the root of the Egyptian iconographical repertory. The desire to show all the essential characteristics of the human figure in a single image led the Egyptian artists to present it in an unnatural way. The face was shown in profile with the eye to the front; shoulders and chest were viewed from the front, showing the juncture of the arms; and the legs were shown in profile to indicate the direction of movement. Each part was exhibited from its most characteristic angle in order to present the whole figure cm the flat surface.
Similar conventions governed the plastic arts. Enclosed in its cubic structure, the funerary effigy of Khafre is the prototype of pharaonic statues, with its immobile, hieratic, imperturbable pose - the very   essence of royalty. Standing or seated, in wood or in stone, such figures, in spite of their rigid attitudes, are independent and vivid entities that immortalize the individual. At Saqqara, the statue of    Djoser was positioned inside a stonebuilt chamber next the Step Pyramid, where it could "watch" the performance of rituals for the dead through tiny apertures in the walls.
While it cannot compare to the Great Prvamids in monumentality, its sculpture and painting reveal great clarity and compositional rigour. Typical of Middle Kingdom royal statuary are the colossal red granite sculptures of Sesostris III and the maned sphinxes of Amenemhet III. which personify the pharaoh and his power. Freer of the conventions of official art are the small sculptures in painted wood  in which the artists skilfully and naturalistically capture aspects of everyday life. The Second Intermediate Period (13th-17th dynasties, c.1778—1570bc) witnessed much internal unrest and the waning of centralized power. Virtually defenceless against the incursions of the Hyksos from Western Asia. Egypt was nonetheless to rise phoenix-like from the ashes to enter its most splendid period of artistic achievement - the 18th dynasty.

Reserve head Fourth Dynasty
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

Reserve head Fourth Dynasty
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna



The Egyptians considered earthly life to be a fleeting moment, the prelude to eternal happiness. Man. absolved of all his sins after death, would continue to live among the blessed in the Fields of lalu, identified symbolically with the god Osiris. At the end of the Old Kingdom, this privilege, once reserved for the pharaohs, became the prerogative of all. Essential elements of the death ritual were mummification, the "opening of the mouth", and the protection of the corpse. To assist the dead person in his or her transition before the tribunal of Osiris was the Book of the Dead, a roll of papyrus containing religious and magical texts. It included the representation of the tribunal of Osiris and answers to the questions posed by the 42 deities sitting in judgment. In order to verify the "negative confession", the heart of the dead person was placed on one pan of a scale, under the supervision of the god Anubis, while on the other was placed an ostrich feather, symbol of Maat. the goddess of truth. The sarcophagus preserved the mortal remains, which were necessary for eternal life. In the Old Kingdom this was decorated with brief texts and. occasionally, panelled decoration. In the period of the Middle and New Kingdoms, it was covered in magical religious inscriptions and images of the protecting divinities.

Book of the Dead
of the Scribe Hunefer, 19th dynasty.
British Museum, London



Stela of King Qahedjet
Third Dynasty
Fine-grained limestone
Musee du Louvre, Paris

Relief block with the figure of Aa-akhti
Late Third Dynasty
Fine-grained limestone with traces of paint
Musee du Louvre, Paris

Horus on the left and Anubis, the god of cemetaries and embalming



The pharaohs of the 18th dynasty, originating from Thebes, chose the left bank of the Nile as their heavenly resting place. Beyond the long line of funerary temples, which extend to the edges of the cultivated land, is the winding Valley of the Kings, with its tombs of the sovereigns of the New Kingdom cut into the cliffs. While the plan of the early tombs was asymmetrical, that of later tombs was symmetrical - best exemplified by the tomb of Seti I. The room where the sarcophagus was placed was originally painted in yellow, with the mummy housed in a gold coffin - the unalterable nature of the metal was believed to guarantee the incorruptibility of the mummy. In the square, columnar hall, were placed the royal chariot and funerary equipment. Walls and pillars were decorated with texts and scenes symbolizing the transformation of the dead king into the sun and the transmission of power to his successor. To the south of the Valley of the Kings lies the Valley of the Queens, resting place of queens and other members or the royal family: a large private necropolis accommodates the tombs of the nobles.


Discuss Art

Please note: site admin does not answer any questions. This is our readers discussion only.

| privacy