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Ancient Egypt

Ancient Egypt

Author: Ian McConnell
Description:

This lesson will introduce some of the basic concepts associated with the art and culture of ancient Egypt.

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Tutorial

An overview of Ancient Egypt.

Video Transcription

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[MUSIC PLAYING] Hello. I'd like to welcome you to this episode of Exploring Art History with Ian. My name is Ian McConnell. And today's lesson is about ancient Egypt. And it's really an introduction to ancient Egypt, as you'll be returning to the topic in other lessons.

As you're watching the video, feel free to pause, move forward, or rewind as many times as you feel is necessary. And as soon as you're ready, we can begin.

By the end of the lesson today, you'll be able to identify and define today's key terms, identify and describe aspects of the Egyptian artistic style using the works of art provided, and explain some of the conventions used in the Palette of Narmer. Key terms, as always, are listed in yellow throughout the lesson. And there's a lot of them today.

First is Nile River, the longest river in the world located in East Africa, flowing into the Mediterranean Sea. Dynasties are a series a rulers from the same family. Ra, or sun god, is an Egyptian sun god, a universal creator, typically represented as a hawk-headed man with a solar disk and uraeus or cobra on his head. Isis is the Egyptian goddess of fertility, represented as a woman with a cow's horns and a solar disk between them. Also worshipped in Roman and Greek Empires.

Continuing with key terms. Osiris is the Egyptian king and judge of the dead, represented as a man partly wrapped as a mummy with beard and wearing a crown. Seth, or Set, is Egyptian god of deserts, storms, and foreigners. Horus the Egyptian sun deity represented by a falcon or as a man with the head of a falcon. Hieratic scale is a system that represents sizes of things according to importance and based on fixed religious traditions.

Pictographs are a record that is made up of symbolic representations, i.e. prehistory cave paintings. A register is division of a composition into bands. Canon of proportions is an Egyptian rule that mandated dimensions in scale. Ka is the Egyptian belief that identifies the difference between the living and the dead. When the body dies, the ka departs.

The idea for today is that ancient Egypt is one of the most important and influential civilizations in history. And a side note, lesson has required artwork, which will be listed in purple.

OK, we'll take a look at our timeline. Now, the entire expanse of the ancient Egyptian Empire covers a little less than 3,000 years and extends from about 3100 BC to 332 BC. Egyptian history is also broken up by dynasty. And a dynasty is a period of time in which all the rulers come from one family. And when the line was broken, a new dynasty began.

Here's an example or a picture of ancient Egypt at its greatest expanse. And you can see, right through the middle runs the Nile, which was a very important river in terms of religiously, culturally, agriculturally as well. In fact, it's the flooding of the Nile, which was a really important yearly event, that deposited the silt or the nutrient-rich soil, that the Egyptians depended on in order to grow food in an, otherwise, very arid region. So the Nile is really the lifeline of the Egyptian Empire.

OK, overview of ancient Egyptian religion. Now the ancient Egyptian religion is rather detailed and complex. When I describe this as an "overview", I really mean brief, brief overview. Just attempting to describe the very basics so that you have an idea how these deities relate to one another, as you'll see them pop up frequently in Egyptian art.

Now, like other ancient extinct polytheistic religion, it plays out a bit like a modern day soap opera. Soap opera you'll see in just a moment. So we'll begin with the sea. And they're conflicting, well, not conflicting, but different versions of more or less the same story.

And this version begins with expansive, basically, nothing but an endless sea, and out of which emerged the sun, and the sun god Ra by association. He first brought light into the world.

Now, there are conflicting traditions, but the common creation story describes Ra as creating three children-- Isis, Osiris and Seth, or Set. Now Osiris married Isis. And Set was extremely jealous of his brother Osiris and decided to murder him. So Isis grieving at the loss of her husband gathered up his mutilated remains, brought him back to life through magic, and they ended up creating a son together named Horus.

All these deities are important in their own rite and were honored in countless different ways. Osiris is of particular importance, because he became in charge of the afterlife. The notion that the ka, or spirit, survive death is an important concept, because the traditions associated with death led to the creation of some of the most recognizable artifacts and monuments associated with ancient Egypt, namely the mummified remains and great pyramids at Giza.

So the Palette of Narmer is an important piece of ceremonial propaganda. Narmer is believed to be the first pharaoh, or king, of an ancient unified Egypt. And this palette describes that story.

Palatte of Narmer dates to about 2950 BC. And it's a relief carving in a hard type of metamorphic rock called schist. Be careful with that one. It's broken up in a horizontal bands, or ground lines, which create panels called the registers.

Here we see the use of hieratic scale as well, just like we saw in ancient Mesopotamian steles. Now Narmer is the largest and most important figure in the composition. This little rectangular pictogram identifies him as the king.

There's a sandal servant or sandal-bearing servant to his right. And the unlucky gentleman right here about to get whacked with the mace is a major figure from lower Egypt. And the way you can tell is that it's shown by this pictogram or hieroglyphic in blue on the far right. The inclusion of the god Horus here adds an element of divine authority.

Next I'm showing you the two "hats." The one on the left is the white hat of upper Egypt, where Narmer was king. And on the right, we seed Narmer wearing the unified hat of both kingdoms, while observing some post-battle presentation of decapitated enemies.

And finally, at the bottom, there are two lion-headed creatures intertwined, possibly suggesting a unified Egypt. In the center, which is a circular depression that would have typically been used as a place to crash pigments for use as eyeliner. Although this palette was probably never used that way.

This palette also offers a good example of what came to be known as the canon of proportions. And these are strict standards of Egyptian design. And one of them is illustrated here.

Figures were typically proportional to the size of their fist, which was a unit of measurement. And this figure fits the Egyptian canon of proportion that states that figures must be 18 fists from the top of their heads to the ground. 17 and 18.

Now, the standards of body portrayal in canon of proportions is really important to the Egyptians, particularly, because of the effects it could have on an individual in the afterlife. There's a reason they were codified. Egyptian works of art from this period have a very recognizable quality. It wasn't because they were incapable of rendering a realistic image, but because of the meaning associated with the symbolism.

Statues are stiff, rigid, and durable, because they were more than decorative. They needed to survive indefinitely. The reason is because they were homes of an individual's ka, or soul. And this is why you see figures like the sculpture of the Pharaoh Khafra, who was responsible for the Great Sphinx of Giza, by the way, designed with zero space between their appendages and the body.

For one, it was a depiction of an ideal, more so than an individual. But secondly, arms, legs, and heads were easy to break. And these design elements ensured their survival was intact. elements. That we can see carried over on other sculptures, like this one of the Pharaoh Menkaure and a Queen.

Now, Menkaure was the successor to Khafra. And what's interesting about this is in how the two figures are portrayed. His queen is much less rigid in her depiction. Her arms are rendered in a far more natural, relaxed way, as opposed to Menkaure, who looks like he's caring invisible suitcases.

Now, her foot is also slightly set back. And she's slightly shorter as opposed to Menkaure, whose foot is positioned further forward and he's taller. These are elements that help in identifying her status as less important than her king.

Now, like I mentioned before, these stylistic elements were the result of deliberate stylistic decisions, rather than the limitations of the artists themselves. And here's an example from about this time showing a very realistic and naturalistic representation of a scribe. And why the difference? Well, individuals that ranked lower on the social status scale could be depicted in a more realistic manner.

All right, well, that brings us to the end of this lesson. Let's take a look at our objectives to see if we met them. Now that you've seen the lesson, are you able to identify and define today's key terms?

Can you identify and describe aspects of the Egyptian artistic style using the works of art provided ? Can you explain some of the conventions used in the Palette of Narmer?

Once again, our big idea for today is that ancient Egypt is one of the most important and influential civilizations in history. So there you go. Thank you for joining me today.

Citations

Map of Ancient Egypt; Creative Commons: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Egypt_NK_edit.svg Image of Isis Creative Commons http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Isis.svg; Image of Osiris Creative Commons http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Standing_Osiris_edit1.svg; Image of Horus Creative Commons http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Horus_standing.svg; Image of Ra Creative Commons http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Re-Horakhty.svg; Image of Reproduction of Palette of Narmer, Public Domain,http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:NarmerPalette_ROM-gamma.jpg Image of Statue of Khafra,  Creative Commons,http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Planche_26_Monuments_Historiques_(1872)_-_TIMEA.jpg Image of Seated Scribe, Creative Commons, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Seated_Scribe_Full.jpg Image of Menkaure and Khamerernebty, Creative Commons,http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:King_Menkaura_(Mycerinus)_and_queen.jpg

 

 

TERMS TO KNOW
  • Nile River

    The longest river in the world located in East Africa flowing from the Mediterranean Sea.

  • Dynasty

    A series of rulers from the same family.

  • Ra (sun god)

    Egyptian sun god, a universal creator typically represented as a hawk-headed man with a solar disk and uraeus or cobra on his head.

  • Isis

    Egyptian goddess of fertility, represented as a woman with cow’s horns and a solar disk between them, also worshipped in ancient Rome and Greece.

  • Osiris

    Egyptian king and judge of the dead represented as a man partly wrapped as a mummy with a beard and wearing a crown.

  • Seth

    Egyptian god of deserts, storms, and foreigners.

  • Horus

    Egyptian sun deity, represented by a falcon or as a man with the head of a falcon.

  • Hieratic Scale

    A system that represents sizes of things according to importance and based on fixed religious traditions.

  • Pictographs

    A record that is made up of symbolic representations.

  • Register

    The division of a composition into bands.

  • Canon of Proportions

    An Egyptian rule that mandated dimensions and scale.

  • Ka

    The Egyptian belief that identifies the difference between the living and the dead. When the body dies, the ka departs.