From the early figures of clay, bone, and ivory in the Predynastic period, Egyptian sculpture developed quickly. By the time of Zoser large statues of the rulers were made as resting places for their spirits. Egyptian sculpture is best described by the terms cubic and frontal. The block of stone was first made rectangular; the design of the figure was then drawn on the front and the two sides. The resulting statue was intended to be seen mainly from the front. Since it was meant to be a timeless image intended to convey the essence of the person depicted, there was no need for it to be composed in the round.
The Egyptian artist was not interested in showing movement as this term is understood today. Standing figures are not posed as if they were walking but rather at rest. From the beginning of the dynastic period human anatomy was understood but given an ideal form. Images of the kings, in particular, were idealized and given great dignity. A seated stone figure (circa 2530 BC, Egyptian Museum) of Khafre, builder of the second largest pyramid at Giza, embodies all the qualities that make Egyptian royal sculpture memorable. The king sits on a throne decorated with an emblem of the united lands, with his hands on his knees, head erect, and eyes gazing into the distance. A falcon of the god Horus behind his head symbolizes that he is the “living Horus,” one with the gods. All parts of the diorite statue are unified and balanced, creating a potent image of divine kingship.
A number of forms were developed for the depiction of private persons. In addition to seated and standing single figures, paired and group statues of the deceased with family members were made. Sculpture was of stone, of wood, and (rarely) of metal; paint was applied to the surface; the eyes were inlaid in other materials, such as rock crystal, to heighten the lifelike appearance. Only persons of importance could have such statues made; a type of sculpture does exist, however, depicting workmen and women engaged in food preparation and the crafts. These were made to be included inthe tomb to serve the spirit in the next life.
Sculpture in relief served two important purposes: On the walls of temples it glorified the king; in the tombs it provided the spirit with the things it would need through eternity. The chambered superstructures of private tombs were usually decorated with scenes of the occupant enjoying and supervising those activities in which he took part in life. The method of representing the human figure in two dimensions, either carved in relief or painted, was again dictated by the desire to preserve the essence of what was shown. As a result, the typical depiction combines the head and lower body as seen from the side, with the eye and upper torso as seen from the front. The most understandable view of each part was used to create a complete image. This rule, or canon, was applied to the king and members of the nobility, but the representation of servants and field workers was not so rigidly enforced. It is clear that some complicated actions had to be conveyed with the use of other views of parts of the body, but the face was rarely shown from the front. Relief carving was usually painted to complete the lifelike effect, and many details were added only in paint; purely painted decoration, however, is seldom found in remains from the Old Kingdom.
An understanding of much of Egyptian life and customs can be derived from tomb reliefs. The varieties of food and their preparation, the methods of caring for flocks and herds, the trapping of wild animals, the building of boats, and the processes of the other crafts are All illustrated. Such activities were arranged on the wall in bands or registers that can be read as continuing narratives, not as happenings in actual time but as timeless occupations. The sculptors working in relief or in the round acted as teams, with different stages of the work assigned to different members of the group. The artist in ancient Egypt was content to follow the rules and was proud to be part of a highly regarded craft.
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