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Appreciating and Understanding Ancient Egyptian Art

Ancient Egyptian art must be viewed through the lens of ancient Egyptians to be understood. Many Egyptian images are somewhat static, often formalized, strangely abstract, and frequently blocky in nature, sometimes leading to unfavorable comparisons with the later, more “naturalistic” arts of Greece or the Renaissance. However, Egyptian art had a radically different purpose than these later cultures. While we marvel today at the glittering treasures of Tutankhamun’s tomb, the grandeur of the reliefs from New Kingdom tombs, or the serene beauty of Old Kingdom statuary, it must be remembered that much of what is found in these works was never intended to be seen by human eyes—it wasn’t their purpose.

Function of Egyptian Art
These images, whether statues or reliefs, were designed to benefit the gods or the deceased recipient. Statues provided a place for the recipient to display and receive the benefits of ritual action. Most statues were presented with formal frontality, meaning they were directly arranged in front because they were designed to face the rituals taking place before them. Many statues were also originally placed in recessed niches or other architectural settings—settings that would make frontality their expected and natural mode.

Statues, whether divine, royal, or elite, provided a channel for interacting with the spirit (or ka) of that being in the earthly realm. Sacred cult statues (few of which have survived) were the subjects of daily dressing, anointing, and incensing rituals and were carried about in processions on special festival days so that people could “see” them—they were almost entirely covered from view, but their “presence” was felt.

Royal and elite statues served as intermediaries between humans and gods. Family chapels with ancestor statues could function as a “family shrine.” On festivals commemorating the dead, family members would come to the chapel to eat, providing food, flowers (symbols of rebirth), and incense (whose perfume was considered divine) for the afterlife. Surviving correspondence lets us know that the deceased were actively petitioned for help both in this life and the next.

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