Essay on Egyptian Art and Culture
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Egyptian Art and Culture
Current scholarship generally acknowledges that art does not exist in a vacuum. Rather, art is an expression of the culture which creates it, revealing common beliefs, aspirations, and feelings. Within the vein of "cultural art history" the true nature of ancient Egypt has become the focus of much questioning. Much has been said regarding this ancient civilization within the context of the continent of
Africa. The focus has not been merely geographic—although some scholars contend that the physical location of Egypt has been all but overlooked. At the core of this controversy is the issue of ethnicity and culture. What was the identity of the people who built and populated ancient Egypt?1
Many scholars decry the…show more content…
Shu and Tefnut, representing Space in its dual aspects, male and female, were of the first generation. They in turn
"engendered Geb and Nut"—earth and sky, who "gave birth to Osiris,
Horus, Seth, Isis, and Nepthys and they "gave birth to the multitudes of this world."4
In another version, the creation was understood in its first state as metaphysical, attributed to Atum. On the spectrum, creation progressed each step closer toward matter. Myth often relates the story of Ptah, the divine blacksmith, who "brought materialization to the entities created by Atum." And, to Khnum, the divine potter, who modeled men and things from clay on his potter’s wheel.5
It is within this framework that the Egyptians conceived of what it meant to be human. A distinction was made between the aspects of a human being of that which was eternal and that which was subject to cycles of death and rebirth. According to funerary texts, humans are composed of a mortal body, called the "kha," and three immortal elements known as the "akh," "ba," and "ka." These have been translated as the spirit, soul, and double. More current interpretation assigns a less specified role for each entity.
Regardless of the translation, an understanding of the concept of creation by the divine, imparting multiple aspects to each being was necessary to the Egyptian use of art to represent themselves and deities. The personification of the
Egypt’s Old Kingdom (Dynasties 3–8, ca. 2649–2130 B.C.) was one of the most dynamic periods in the development of Egyptian art. During this period, artists learned to express their culture’s worldview, creating for the first time images and forms that endured for generations. Architects and masons mastered the techniques necessary to build monumental structures in stone. Sculptors created the earliest portraits of individuals and the first lifesize statues in wood, copper, and stone. They perfected the art of carving intricate relief decoration and, through keen observation of the natural world, produced detailed images of animals, plants, and even landscapes, recording the essential elements of their world for eternity in scenes painted and carved on the walls of temples and tombs.
These images and structures had two principal functions: to ensure an ordered existence and to defeat death by preserving life into the next world. To these ends, over a period of time, Egyptian artists adopted a limited repertoire of standard types and established a formal artistic canon that would define Egyptian art for more than 3,000 years, while remaining flexible enough to allow for subtle variation and innovation.
Although much of their artistic effort was centered on preserving life after death, Egyptians also surrounded themselves with beautiful objects to enhance their lives in this world, producing elegant jewelry, finely carved and inlaid furniture, and cosmetic vessels and implements in a wide variety of materials.
Catharine H. Roehrig
Department of Egyptian Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art