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Sculpture of the Old Kingdom of Ancient Egypt

Egypt is situated in the north-eastern corner of the African continent. It is composed of two very different regions–Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt. Lower Egypt–the Black Land as it was also called by the ancient Egyptians–with its fertile soil strip along the Nile River makes up the northern part of the country. The Red Land–the Upper Egypt–is a desertous southern part with the red, sun-baked soil. The history of ancient Egypt starts around 3000 B. C. when, according to the tradition, Menes Narmer unified the two lands and founded the first dynasty.

That was the beginning of the Old Kingdom–the period of stability of the state that lasted until 2263 B. C. and included the dynasties Ist to VIth. Old Kingdom is known as the Golden Age of Egyptian art: during this period the famous pyramids of Giza and the legendary Sphinx were built and the canon that lasted for two millenniums was established. Influences Even though Egyptians were the first to build a civilization they weren’t the first artists. Obviously the first artists on Earth were the cavemen who produced the beautiful cave paintings found all over the world.

However, the artworks that date tens of thousands of years back had little influence–or at least little direct influence–on the Egyptian art. The characteristic features of the art of the Old Kingdom were derived almost exclusively from the works of the Bronze Age (4500-3000 B. C. ). Made in that period, there were sculptures of animals that were the predecessors of the statues of Egyptian gods and goddesses in the shape of animals. There were terra-cotta figures of women–probably the slaves from the African tribes–which probably were to represent the Mother Goddesses.

However the art of the Old Kingdom had much more to borrow from that prehistoric period than just bits and pieces of ideas here and there. Probably the most important thing that the Bronze Age should be noted for in this context is the development of the canon of Egyptian sculpture. Here is quite long, but very complete and precise definition of the word ‘canon’ given by the Polish Egyptologist Kazimierz Michalowski in his book called Great Sculpture of Ancient Egypt:

1) The canon is a historically conditioned element of indigenous character. It is a result of a mass of observations and experiences that lead to the fixing in art of the most typical forms found in nature but brought down to specific and constant proportions. 3) Its aim is to depict in the most “legible and comprehensible” idiom and to reflect reality not only as a visible but also a social experience. 4) It fulfils an active function in the ideological superstructure, which serves the ruling class, by reinforcing the conviction that the social order is stable and just through the glorification of the gods and the king.

It is one of the essential conditions for creating teamwork in workshops, to maintain a high level of production and quality. The sculptures from the predynastic period and the Old Kingdom were similar in many ways. General stiffness, unnatural positions, and little attention to detail and musculature mark the sculptures from both time periods. However, during the Old Kingdom the elaboration of human figure occurred adding more realism to the sculptural works. General Analysis of The Sculpture of Old Kingdom–Different Canons

To me it’s a very logical approach to analyze ancient Egyptian sculpture using the ‘canonical’ criteria and analyzing the rigid sets of art rules that determined the appearance statues. Obviously all the sculptures of the Old Kingdom can be recognized as such because of the general features (barely indicated musculature, lack of detailing, and general squareness) and materials used (painted limestone, wood, terra-cotta). However, there were different canons for the people of different social classes. The sculptures of pharaohs (i. e. kings) and the high royalty were the most canonical of all.

The statues possess the very hierarchic attitudes and are depicted only in two poses–seating and walking. They have perfectly shaped young bodies and the only defects that can be found on the sculptures are due to the age of the stone that obviously did wear down in more than four millenniums. This approach is very logical since the pharaohs were considered to be the children of Egyptian greatest god Horus. The subjects of the pharaoh could only see him seating or walking and probably couldn’t even dare to imagine him doing anything like yawning, jumping, crawling, you name it.

The aim of sculpture was to depict the glory of the divine king of the land, thus the sculptures were done as perfectly and canonical as possible. Going back to Michalowski’s definition of canon, it serves to help the artist to depict the social–not just the visible–experience. In case with the pharaoh and the members of the royal family the social component was much more important than visual. In fact, today we might call the sculptures portraits, but Egyptian portraits of kings did not necessarily try to depict the actual likeness.

For the artist making the sculpture of the pharaoh, perfection and the representation of the divine power were much more important than making the nose of the sculpture look exactly like the owner’s. In many cases likeness was undesirable since not all of the pharaohs looked handsome. Some experts in the art of ancient Egypt argue that they can recognize the sculptures of certain kings even if there is no name inscribed on it. However many others, doubt that that the statue of the one pharaoh contained a sufficient amount of likeness to be uniquely different from all the others.

As a very well known Egyptologist Barbara Mertz wrote in her book Red Land, Black Land, the statues that Egyptologists are ‘certain’ about should have a question mark near the name of the pharaoh that is thought to be depicted, while those that have that question mark in brackets should not have any name on that tag at all. In fact, sometimes the pharaoh instead of ordering to make a new statue of himself would simply inscribe his name over the name of the of someone else’s statue and–voila! –it’s his statue now! A stair lower on the social staircase, right after the pharaoh and his family, were the government officials.

They had very high positions in society, but were not considered divine. Therefore their sculptures are the mixture of strict canonical representation used for kings and the more realistic approach usually applied to the depiction of the lower-class people. The statues’ attitudes are still very hierarchic and the positions are stiff and proper for the high-class nobles, but there is no “timeless youth” approach and the sculptures are more like the people they represent. The classical example is the Sheikh el Beled (Arabic ‘head of village’)–very famous wooden masterpiece from the IVth dynasty.

The hierarchic position indicates the nobility of the person represented by the sculpture, but he has fat cheeks and round belly showing more personality and realism. Another interesting category is the scribes. As we know, ancient Egyptians developed the system of hieroglyphic writing. The scribes were very important for the Egyptian society and, as educated people, enjoyed a certain degree of respect. However, the work they performed was considered a manual labour thus making them very close to the third class of ordinary workers.

The importance and a special position of scribe resulted in a basically separate canon leading to the cubic form with only the head emerging. The canon started to develop at the end of the Old Kingdom, during the Vth dynasty and continued to be used in the Middle and the New Kingdoms. The sculptures of the manual workers still can be easily identified as the ancient Egyptian because of the general features common for all the ancient Egyptian statues. However, they are different from the statues of gods, pharaohs, officials, and scribes because they are the least canonical of all.

This occurred because when depicting the manual worker, the artist actually tried to depict the activity the worker was performing, while his personality absolutely did not matter. Naturally, the artist should have gotten rid of the strict canons to make the activity look recognizable and more or less realistically. Sculptures of children and animals are also the least canonical. Compositional Analysis–The Scribe, Vth dynasty The statue that I picked for the compositional analysis is the Scribe–famous sculpture from theVth dynasty that is now kept in Paris, Louvre.

Sitting on the ground there is a man holding the papyrus that Egyptians used to write on in his hands. We can say it’s a portrait even bearing in mind that Egyptian portraits do not necessarily aim to depict likeness. Background and foreground can hardly be identified since all we see is a front of a seating man. In fact, Egyptian sculptures often were done to be looked at only from one side, and this is the case with the Scribe too. Some scholars tend to call Egyptian art abstract because the sculptures do not resemble men realistically enough.

However, I believe it’s not correct to call the art of Old Kingdom abstract for it looks too realistically for that. After all, we all can see totally recognizable objects on them. I think that the Scribe can be called a realistic sculpture; maybe the people who have Renaissance as the mark for realism might call the Scribe semi-abstract that leans much more towards realism than abstraction. The most important element of the sculpture is form since the object is three-dimensional and is, actually, composed of forms. Colour in this statue–as well as many other ones by ancient Egyptian artist–is another very important element.

Even though a lot of the paint came off, we still can see the orange-pinkly skin, dark hair, green eyes with a green rim around (I wonder if the rim represents the make-up that was used not only by ancient Egyptian women but by men as well. ) The colours add a lot to the realism of the sculpture and make it more interesting to see than the non-coloured statue. The balance of this work can be called asymmetrical because of the slightly different positions of hands and legs, but it’s extremely close to the complete symmetry because the artist’s goal was not to make the sculpture interesting but to follow the canon, which is symmetrical.

Obviously the author created the sense of three-dimensional space because the sculpture it self is three-dimensional. However, as I have mentioned earlier the space does not look very deep–again, it’s because the artist didn’t want it to be deep since canon says it shouldn’t. In my own opinion, this piece of art is a masterpiece–it has a charm and spirit of ancient Egypt and it looks beautiful because of the skilfully carved shapes and nice bright colours. My Opinion on The Sculpture of Old Kingdom

I found it hard to talk the ancient Egyptian sculpture from the point of view of aesthetics because most of it was not necessarily made for the purposes of pleasing the eye. Usually the statue had either religious purposes–depicting one of several hundreds of ancient Egyptian gods or representing the owner to live in the world of dead instead of him–or social purposes like spreading the image of stabler society of the Old Kingdom and glorifying the pharaohs.

However, even in those cases the Egyptian sculpture has a certain artistic merit–sometimes very high–otherwise, it wouldn’t have been called great art (and it truly is great art. ) Many sculptures that I’ve looked at when doing this project wonderfully represented the power and dignity of pharaohs, depicted with the great realism different shades of people’s mood and personality, caught the movement beautifully when making the statues of working. Every sculpture of the Old Kingdom resembles the other in appearance–and yet they are not exactly the same.

I think that the great ancient sculptors had an amazing ability to catch mood and personality just with a few lines without showing all the detail. Some people say that they find ancient Egyptian statues lifeless. Maybe they are lifeless, but it’s not because they are dead–it’s because they are magically frozen in time. Every single one carries the flavour of the great Old Kingdom of Egypt, and through its ‘lifeless’ art ancient Egypt continues the journey through the millenniums. The ‘lifeless’ statues keep the spirit of the amazingly great ancient civilization alive.

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