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The History of Egyptian Sculpture

Updated on April 4, 2014
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An astonishingly consistent tradition of sculpture flourished in Egypt for about 30 centuries, from about 3110 B.C. until its decline when it came into contact with Greek and Roman art. The site of Egyptian civilization -the Nile Valley, a fertile strip cut off from invaders by mountains and deserts- favored this kind of cultural continuity, as did the conservative Egyptian social system and religion. Sculptors worked in a wide variety of materials, including hard stones, such as diorite and granite; soft stones, such as alabaster and limestone; and wood, ivory, bronze, gold, and ceramics.

That sculpture was the main art form was due primarily to the Egyptians' view of life after death. Most of the sculpture is associated with tombs. These were regarded as the homes of the dead, which had to be equipped with everything the occupant would need for continuance of his life in the afterworld. Much of this equipment was provided in the form of sculptural representations in the round and in relief. The occupant's own continued existence was assured by mummification and by placing his sculptured "double" in the tomb. The quality of the tomb and its contents depended on the occupant's wealth and status. The tombs of the pharaohs, who were divine kings, were particularly splendid, as we know from Tutankhamen's tomb, which was discovered with all its contents intact.

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Egyptian sculpture in the round ranges in scale from the colossal rock-cut figures of the Temple of Amon at Abu Simbel to minute figures in wood and metal. The composition of the sculpture is governed by strict conventions, and in larger works the poses are severely limited. The figures stand bolt upright, kneel, squat, or sit either on seats or cross-legged. All are uncompromisingly frontal, with their main planes conforming to the faces of a cubic block. But despite its limited movement, Egyptian sculpture at its best, especially during the Old Kingdom, shows a profound grasp of the plastic essentials of both the male and female figure and is unsurpassed in its dignity and power. At its worst it is stiff and stereotyped.

The need to make sculptured doubles of the dead encouraged the development of portraiture, in which Egyptian sculptors excelled. The Old Kingdom, the 12th dynasty, and the Amarna period of the 18th dynasty are outstanding for portrait heads. The bodies rarely show individuality.

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Relief sculpture is rich in representations of scenes of everyday life—farming, hunting, craft activities, feasting, and the like. Even though the planimetric conventions that govern the composition of reliefs and the construction of the figure are strict, the reliefs are astonishingly vivid and informative. A notable feature is their sympathetic observation of the character and behavior of animals and birds. Superb examples are found in reliefs from the tombs of Ti and Mereruka (5th and 6th dynasties) at Saqqara. The refinement and elegance that the crisp, linear Egyptian style of low relief could achieve is evident in the reliefs in the tomb of the Vizier Ramose at Thebes (18th dynasty).

One of the most remarkable periods of Egyptian sculpture occurred under the pharaoh Akhenaton (Amenhotep IV) during the 18th dynasty. It is known as the Amarna period, after this ruler's capital city. This amazing man instituted a new monotheistic religion and encouraged a relaxation of the traditional conventions of Egyptian art, making it more naturalistic and human. A famous work of this period is the colored bust of his queen, Nefertiti.

Learn more about ancient Egyptian sculpture

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