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Sculpture and religion

The art of ancient Egypt manifests itself primarily in monumental temples, tombs and statues of rulers that commanded respect among people living at that time. They were developed from the 4th century BC and served as a servant to state power and religion. This meant that almost everything that was created served the pharaoh as ruler and deity in one person, and the priests as the sustaining element of the ruling system of government.

Since they believed in the afterlife most of the structures were prepared for those who were dying. The tombs were filled with treasures that were to accompany the deceased in the afterlife and guarantee him eternal rest. The vision of the perpetual existence of the deceased has always been understood as being in a purely material dimension.

In ancient Egypt, the canon of representations was in great force and art depicted mainly gods and pharaohs. Due to the hierarchical perspective, the most important personalities have always been larger than the rest of the characters. The gods and pharaohs were idealized as timelessly beautiful and young. Most of them are shown as walking or seated on a throne with their hands straight on their lap, their head raised up straight and one leg extended, usually in a crown or scarf. They were always the characters of the highest level. Accompanying wives or daughters, by definition of the lower class, were much smaller.

Statue of Ramses II with his wife in Karnak (Luxor)

The representatives of the lower classes, in accordance with the principle of realism, were always depicted on the move and at work. Interestingly, the gods were often depicted in the form of animals or as a human with an animal head.

They avoided breaking the lumps and shaping the legs and arms too clearly - they were part of the monolith. This tendency changed only during the reign of the pharaoh Akhenaten (Amenhotep IV) and Queen Nefertiti - it was then that the elements of realism were introduced to portraits for a very short time. The portrayed, however, had an elongated figure and elongated faces, and the faron was also portrayed as a concrete man with all body imperfections. It was a short-lived but radical revolution in ancient Egyptian art.

Ancient  Egypt & Egyptology

Due to the difficult access to wood, Egyptian carvings were made of very hard stone, such as basalt or diorite. They were all polychrome - painted, and each color had its own symbolic meaning. Light yellow was reserved for women and officials, and brown-red for men in their prime. Red represented vitality, blue was an attribute of divinity, and black symbolized the fertility of the Nile. The eyes, as in Mesopotamian art, were made of crystals and precious stones.

Among the notable sculptures of this period is the King Mykerinos Triad from around 2530 B.C. C.E. The pharaoh walks between the goddess Hathor (on her head between the horns she has a sun disk) and the goddess called nom, who is the personification of one of the provinces (on her head there is a symbol of the territory under her jurisdiction). The figures hold hands, which can be interpreted that the pharaoh Mykerinos was considered as being equal to the gods.

the King Mykerinos Triad Hathor, Mykerinos and the goddess of the province of Diospolis.

The Sphinx that guarded the pyramid of Pharaoh Khafre at Giza most likely has his face. The statue is made in the form of a body a lion with a human head. It is over 20 meters high, 73 meters long and weighs up to 150 tons. The weight is difficult to precisely define as the statue is partially buried in the sand. The guardian has a royal headdress and a royal cobra on his forehead. However, it lacks a part of the face: a nose and a beard, which were thought to be damaged by Arabs in the 13th century, as Islam forbids depicting human figures. According to the canon, the statue of the Great Sphinx had to be polychrome (painted with paints). To this day, the Sphinx of Giza arouses great emotions among tourists and Egyptologists.

the Great Sphinx in Giza

In 1871, two inlaid sculptures with inlaid eyes were found inside the mastaba (a tomb shaped like a truncated pyramid on a rectangular base) near Medium, Egypt, These sculptures of Rahotep and his wife sit on thrones with names and titles. The woman has a richly ornamented necklace, a headband and a smooth dress that fits perfectly to the body.

sculptures of Rahotep and his wife

Although the remarkable monument astonished and delighted its explorers, it was even more fascinating that Howard Carter discovered in November 1922 the golden mask of King Tutankhamun, found in his tomb in the Valley of the Kings. The mask was meant to protect the king's face from destruction and is richly inlaid with precious stones: turquoise, lapis-lazuli, carnelian, and also polychrome. On the forehead there is a royal ureus - a symbol of royal and divine power in the form of a holy cobra and a vulture, intended to protect the deceased. An artificial, curved beard links the pharaoh with the god of the dead, Osiris.

Both the mask and the tomb made a great impression on the explorer, who later recalled: "At first I couldn't see anything, but the more my eyes got used to the dark, the more animals, statues, and gold I noticed in the darkness. Wherever I looked, gold sparkled everywhere." (David Meyerson, In the Valley of the Kings: Howard Carter and the Mystery of King Tutankhamun's Tomb). The origin of the mask dates back to the 14th century BC and is currently stored in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. The image of the pharaoh was recreated in 2014 and this reconstruction shows that Tutankhamun had a rounded face and chin and full cheeks, protruding teeth, girl's hips and a varus foot.

 the golden mask of King Tutankhamun

Not only was Queen Nefertiti (literally "beauty to come") exceptionally wise. Her bust is in the Neues Museum in Berlin, Germany, where it is exhibited in a specially arranged space, so nothing distracts away the attention that visitors devote to studying it. It is the most beautiful and most important full-blown sculptural portrait of a woman in the art of ancient Egypt, which entered the canon of world art masterpieces, as well as the canon of female beauty. Interestingly, a CT scan showed that the skilled sculptor added delicate wrinkles to the perfect face. The bust was found during archaeological research in 1912 in the Amarna area in the sculpture workshop of Tuthmosis. 47 cm high and weighing about 20 kg, the Nefertiti sculpture was carved from limestone and, as was the Egyptian custom, covered with polychrome stucco. Nefertiti's headdress was decorated with a royal diadem and an ureus. The researchers were fascinated with the sculpture so much that in 1923 a chemical analysis of the paints used was commissioned. They were found to be mainly copper and iron oxides, wax and calcium.

The popular sculptures of ancient Egypt, apart from the images of pharaohs and gods, are represented by animals. They were treated with great reverence, respected, prayed to, mummified and buried. There are stone statues, for example, of cats, which were placed in animal cemeteries. Some of them were decorated with jewelry: necklaces, earrings or pendants. A special type of Egyptian sculpture is the so-called shabti - usually made of polychrome terracotta, figurines in the shape of a mummy with two hoes in their hands and a bag on their back. They were placed in the grave along with the body of the deceased.

In the last period of ancient Egyptian art, sculptures were given individual features. An example is the head of the priest of 220-180 BC now housed in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. The man's face has a stern expression, and the taut skin covers the clearly defined muscles. Gently raised eyebrow arches emphasize the cold gaze of the old man, additionally highlighting the wrinkles on the forehead. This type of portrait becomes more and more realistic and is combined with later analogous images that are created in the Roman Empire.

You can get to see many sculptures up close and personal when visiting Egypt with us on one of our amazing tours. Why not join us to make your own memories and take away your own impressions.