Art is essential when learning about ancient cultures and ways of living. If we could not study artwork from past centuries it would be nearly impossible to make notable conclusions on how humans lived and how society got to where it is now. In many ancient civilizations it was prevalent that once basic human needs like food, shelter, community and religious beliefs are taken care “cultures begin producing artwork, and often all of these developments occur more or less simultaneously (between ancient civilizations” (Mark). But what was art’s function back then? Did humans make “art for arts sake”? In this article, I will be exploring how ancient Egyptians depicted life and aspects from ordinary roles in society, gods and goddesses, to their thoughts on death and spirituality.
Researching more into the daily life of Egyptians was truly fascinating. To have a look into how their society worked to create such a massively successful civilization for it’s time is remarkable. I did notice that within most civilizations that have massively growing populations, certain trends seem to remain throughout centuries and centuries of adaptation and change. One of ancient Egypt’s most essential aspects of their society is their use of social ranks. This ranking can be resembled as a pyramid, with there being a higher population of lower class citizens than the elite. While what is categorized as middle and lower class differ today, the upper class citizens of both societies contained political figures and other figures of high power, like pharaohs and priests. As for the lives of the average Egyptians during this time period, there are some interesting differences to analyze through the art that was left behind. I became interested in researching more into the daily life of this thriving ancient civilization while looking at the statue at the VMFA entitled, Double Statue of a Man and a Woman
(shown below). It is most likely a funerary sculpture, of a man and a woman. This statue was likely made to “commemorate the life of the tomb owner … depict performance of the burial rites, and in general present an environment that would be conducive to the tomb owner’s rebirth” (Kampen). Being married was incredibly important to Egyptians of the time, even the gods and goddess were in such relationships. Making a family as soon as possible seemed to be a main goal for many egyptians and many of them were arranged to get married in their early teens (Mark).
Artisans in ancient Egypt did not make art just for “art’s sake.” In fact, the idea of art from this time period being put up in museums like the VMFA to be looked at would’ve been very strange to the people of 3000 B.C. Art was purely functional, either for spiritual use or for functional use in daily life. For ancient Egyptians, spirituality was an extremely essential part of life. Artisans made statues to hold the spirit of a god or the deceased. For example, at the VMFA, there are many statues that depict deities. In the piece Head from a Statue of Sekhmet (shown below), it shows the goddess Sekhmet, a “vengeful and protective deity.” In this piece, there is only a lion’s head on display, but we do know that Sekhmet was often depicted as a lioness or as a woman with the head of a lion. In ancient Egypt, deities were never depicted as humans as it was inappropriate to put them on the same level as humans on Earth. But, they are not always depicted as animals either. Another example would be Nut, goddess of the sky, stars, cosmos, astronomy, and the universe (“Ancient Egyptian Gods and Goddesses”). When illustrated, she has a very long elongated body that stretches over anything beneath her, representing the sky and sometimes she is also the color blue to further show what she represents.
As I said earlier, spirituality and death was a very large part of the ancient Egyptian civilization. A lot of their art as well as their daily life practices centered around their life after their body dies. Ancient Egyptians understood that the gods and goddesses they worshipped did not walk with them on Earth. But they did believe that the afterlife mirrored their life on Earth but was absolutely perfect and populated by these deities (“Funerary Religion”). Most art that has been uncovered from Egypt’s ancient civilization, were actually found in tombs (“Egyptian Art and the Afterlife”).The art that has been found is incredibly symbolic. Artisans during this time used symbols and imagery to reflect the beliefs of the people and to ensure a safe and bountiful life in the afterlife. Of these symbols it was common to use ones that were protective against evil within their waking life as well as the afterlife. Tomb art, including sculptures like Double Statue of a Man and a Woman, were known as a middle ground between the dead and the living and was often used to contact across worlds. It was a belief that “art had the power to associate with the gods and to appeal to them on behalf of people alive or dead” (“Egyptian Art and the Afterlife”). They also believed that paintings and carvings left in tombs would become living in the afterlife and welcome as well as accompany the deceased. These beautifully adorned tombs were never meant to be viewed by the living. An editor at the Australian Museum, Deborah White, states that “Egyptian tombs were like secret art galleries that were never meant to be viewed. Instead, these amazing examples of artistic craftsmanship spoke only to an elite group of visitors – the gods.” Another interesting god in Egyptian lore is Osiris. He was incredibly important in the ancient Egyptians way of dealing with death (“Egyptian Civilizations”) At the VMFA, Statuette of Standing Osiris depicts Osiris, the lord of the underworld. He was believed to be the final judge for the deceased to either be let into the afterlife or be cast into darkness.
To the ancient Egyptians, art is one of the most powerful things on Earth. As it connected the deceased to the living, and all of Egypt’s inhabitants to the deities that created all the things around them. We are only able to learn and study the ways of this civilization because of how well preserved these pieces of art are. Most of the art from this time period was made from clay and stone and were preserved within tombs. For this reason, they have survived centuries of major changes within humanity. It is truly remarkable to witness the semiotics that live within these pieces of art and to be able to understand the reasoning behind the artisans decisions. Artisans may have not been the most highly respected people of the time but they had one of the most powerful and meaningful jobs. They also never assigned their own names to work so it is hard for art historians to sort the art that way.
Once we were assigned this article, it took awhile for me to choose which exhibit to research more into because I didn’t have any immediate and obvious connections to the displays available at the VMFA. But once I looked into the beautiful stories of the ancient Egyptian art I realized how fascinated I am with other civilizations ways of coping with life and death. Today it is not a topic that is as prevalent as it was to the ancient Egyptians so I found myself not really having a solid stance on it. It also reminded me of the importance of semiotics. Without symbolism, imagery, and most importantly, function, you lose so much dimension in what you create. I’ve learned to not make art solely for art’s sake. But to find deeper and more meaningful ways to express ideas.
“Ancient Egyptian Gods and Goddesses.” Discovering Ancient Egypt, https://discoveringegypt.com/ancient-egyptian-gods-and-goddesses/.
“Egyptian Art and the Afterlife – Google Arts & Culture.” Google, Google, https://artsandculture.google.com/usergallery/PwKCm8ZaUj0BLA.
“Egyptian Civilization – Myths – Creation Myth”, https://www.historymuseum.ca/cmc/exhibitions/civil/egypt/egcr09e.html.
“Funerary Religion – A New Look at Ancient Egypt @ UPMAA”, https://www.penn.museum/sites/egypt/funerary.shtml.
Kampen, Nathalie Boymel; Bergman, Bettina; Cohen, Ada and Eva Steh. Sexuality in Ancient Art. London: Cambridge University Press, 1996.
Mark, Joshua J. “A Brief History of Egyptian Art.” Ancient History Encyclopedia, Ancient History Encyclopedia, 19 Nov. 2019, https://www.ancient.eu/article/1077/a-brief-history-of-egyptian-art/.