Ancient Egyptian Art and Symbolism

We look at ancient Egyptian art depicted through hieroglyphs, sculptures and paintings. The highly-symbolic ancient Egyptian art has intrigued the West ever since the cultural wealth of this desert nation was first identified. Egyptians took great effort in using language which was designed to disseminate knowledge and religious ideology, and bound to serve its purpose. 

The Egyptian art that we know so widely even today is largely based on ancient Egyptian art found all over the country. Based in Northern Africa as people of the Nile, the Egyptian civilization is said to be one of the most ancient civilizations that we have a record of, dating back to as far as the sixth millennium BC all the way to 4th century AD. This period spans the entire prehistoric Egyptian era, as well as the later Christianization of the land by Roman Egyptians.

The hieroglyphs and depictions logged on various surfaces became art, easily identifiable to the land because of its signature style. Besides this, you will also find Egyptian art in the form of sculptures outside and within temples, in tombs, and near important monuments, drawings on papyrus, jewelry, ivories, and much more.

The purpose of creating Egyptian art, or even hieroglyphs, was largely dependent on their purpose at the time. Symbols used in Egyptian culture, or hieroglyphs, were solely for the purpose of expressing religious intentions and the ideas of the Egyptian kingdom. This in itself became the identity of Egypt’s style, in terms of art as well. You will mostly see ancient Egyptian art on surfaces that are similar to the desert-like landscape of the country. Egyptians were particular about certain symbols which you can see recurring in their hieroglyphic texts over time. Even though similar artwork was drawn, it was from various occasions on the Egyptian timeline, from the Merimde culture all the way through the different kingdoms, and the birth of the New Kingdom until the 1500s. 


Ancient Egyptian Symbols via Egypt Tours Portal

Important symbols

Some of the most important symbols that can be seen in hieroglyphs, as well as drawings, in ancient Egypt were those of the ankh, which was the symbol of life itself. The Neme, or headdress, of the pharaoh was another distinctly depicted symbol. Petroglyphs and hieroglyphs were treated as “the words of the gods” and therefore they were documented, and used with utmost respect. There is no term or glyph for the word “art” because of its main purpose as a religious text. Symbols like that of the moon, sun, gods, royalty, kinship, unification, the various symbols of sun, gold, and the afterlife, and many more were depicted.

Egyptian Ankh image via Cleopatra Egypt Tours

Besides the ankh, which was the symbol of life, that was the Eye of Horus, and the Eye of Ra. Also referred to as the Wedjat or Udjat eye, it represented healing protection and well-being to Egyptians. You will also see many bird-headed features for beings in Egyptian art mostly taken from their mythology, the most popular being Horus, besides many other Gods, having the head of a falcon. Gods and certain men were also depicted with wings under their arms, similar to the Egyptian sacred bird – falcon.

Akhenaten, Nefertiti and three daughters beneath the Aten – Neues Museum – Berlin – Germany 2017 (cropped)

You can also say there was a sort of ‘Sun’ cult in ancient Egypt, with the symbol of the sun used in various applications. You would see Ra, the Sun God, depicted with the symbol of a sun around above his head. In various other images, including one depicting Akhenaten and his family, the sun‘s rays are shown at the top of an image with Akhenaten, his wife Nefertiti, and children, and the Aten right over them.

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Sculptures and the Walls

The Sphinx has been one of the mightiest symbols that shows the mix between gods and animals. Mainstream archaeologists would say this was to show the qualities a certain king seemed to lean more towards. The Sphinx is a stone statue which depicts a human head and the body of a lion. Ancient Egypt is not the only place the Sphinx has been spotted, but the sculpted monument of the Sphinx near the great pyramid of Giza is one of the mightiest feats the Egyptians accomplished, besides pyramids.

You will also see several structures and huge sculptures of Gods and men outside the tombs of various Pharaohs, including Saqqara, to give you a good example. Sculpting was one of the other talents Egypt’s artists were very good at, and their sculpting was not only limited to human figures but also animals. The cat was also seen as a very sacred animal to Egyptians, and there are many tales of cats being pets to kings because of their connection to the afterlife. 

The Great Sphinx of Giza via Wikimedia Commons.

Ancient Egyptian people would use surfaces like walls, and especially areas inside tombstones to depict several stories about the lifetime of a certain king, his passageway into the afterlife, and the power of the kingdom. Pharaohs reigned over the land of Egypt for a very long time, and kingdoms flourished under their reign. 

Painting in Egypt

Unlike many cultures around the world who could thrive on flora from their environment for color pigments, the Egyptians used colors that came from natural minerals they dug up from the ground to produce vibrant colors! To make the colors work, they would often be ground really fine into a paste, and they had to use something to hold it together, glue being the easiest solution. Common color pigments used came from red ochre (red), Calcite (white), Carbon black (black, Orpiment and yellow ochre (yellow), and malachite (green.

What color we would identify with the royal blue of Egypt is unique to it. This is because this color was not naturally available, but made ready through a proper process. According to Met Museum, Egyptian blue was made using sand + lime + sodium carbonate + copper compound + fire!

Stela of Saiah (detail), ca. 825–712 B.C. From Egypt. Wood, gesso, paint, 9 3/8 in. (23.8 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Rogers Fund and Edward S. Harkness Gift, 1922 (22.3.31)

Recent discoveries in Egypt have also revealed some very interesting art besides hieroglyphs. It seemed as though someone had taken a free hand at drawing and created massive petroglyphs. 

Egypt is a vast topic, with diversity even in its blanket terrain, and many places covered in sand are still being found and explored today. Stay tuned for more articles about different kinds of art forms and folk art this month. 


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