Egyptian Sculpture
History & Characteristics of Statues, Reliefs of Ancient Egypt.

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Sunken Relief Sculpture of the
crocodile god Sobek (c.100 BCE)
Sculpted for the Temple of Kom Ombo.

ANCIENT ARTS AND CULTURES
For a review of prehistoric art forms
including painting, sculpture and
decorative arts, see: Ancient Art.

Sculpture of Ancient Egypt

Contents

Subject Matter
Sculptural Materials & Tools
Egyptian Statues and Statuettes
Artistic Conventions
Egyptian Relief Sculpture
History and Development of Egyptian Sculpture
Egyptian Royal Sculpture
Surviving Examples of Egyptian Sculpture
More Articles About Sculpture



Osiris, Isis and Horus (874-850 BCE)
Decorative jewellery made of gold,
lapis lazuli and glass.

EGYPTIAN ART: CHRONOLOGY
Sculpture, painting & architecture
of ancient Egypt is traditionally
divided into these rough eras.
ANCIENT KINGDOM of EGYPT
1st & 2nd Dynasty
2920-2650 BCE
OLD KINGDOM of EGYPT
3rd-11th Dynasty
2650-1986 BCE
MIDDLE KINGDOM of EGYPT
11th-17th Dynasty
1986-1539 BCE
NEW KINGDOM of EGYPT
18th-24th Dynasty
1539-715 BCE
LATE KINGDOM of EGYPT
25th-31st Dynasty
712-332 BCE
FINAL PERIOD
Ptolemaic Era (323-30 BCE)
Period of Roman rule (30 BCE - 395 CE)

ART OF ISLAM
For a brief review of the influences
and history of Muslim arts on Egypt,
see: Islamic Art.

WORLD'S BEST SCULPTORS
For a list of the top 100 3-D artists
(500 BCE - now), please see:
Greatest Sculptors.

WORLD'S GREATEST 3-D ART
For a list of masterpieces
by famous sculptors, see:
Greatest Sculptures Ever.

HISTORICAL DEVELOPMENT
For a list of important dates in the
evolution of sculpture/3-D works,
including movements, schools,
and famous artists, please see:
History of Art (Review of Movements)
Prehistoric Art Timeline (to 500 BCE)
History of Art Timeline.

DIFFERENT FORMS OF ARTS
For definitions, meanings and
explanations of different arts,
see Types of Art.

Subject Matter

Ancient Egyptian sculpture was closely associated with Egyptian architecture and mostly concerned the temple and the funeral tomb. The temple was built as if it were the tomb or eternal resting-place of a divinity whose statue was hidden within a succession of closed halls, opened to view only for a short time, when the sun or moon or particular star reached a point on the horizon from which their rays shone directly upon the innermost shrine. These divine statues were consulted as oracles, and were seldom of an imposing size. Sculptors were also employed for wall-reliefs, the capitals of columns, colossal figures guarding the pylons, and for long avenues of sphinxes. The mural illustrations on the temple walls typically depict the piety of the Pharaohs as well as their foreign conquests.

Egyptian tombs required the most extensive use of sculpture. In these vaults were placed portrait statues of the deceased King or Queen. In addition, this type of prehistoric sculpture included statues of public functionaries, and scribes, and the groups portraying a man and his wife. The walls of the earlier Egyptian tombs resemble, in effect, an illustrated book of the manners and customs of the population. Illustrative scenes feature activities like hunting, fishing, and agricultural settings; artistic and commercial pursuits, such as the making of statues, or glass, or metal-ware, or the construction of pyramids; women performing domestic chores, or wailing for the dead; boys engaged in sports. Such reliefs reveal a confident belief in the future as a kind of untroubled extension of the present life. During later periods of Egyptian art, beginning with the tombs of the New Empire, gods appear more prominently in scenes of judgment; indicating less certainty about the happiness of the future state.

For more about tomb building and other architectural designs in Ancient Egypt, see: Early Egyptian Architecture (large pyramid tombs); Egyptian Middle Kingdom Architecture (small pyramids); Egyptian New Kingdom Architecture (temples); Late Egyptian Architecture (variety of buildings).

The sculptor's art also portrayed the minor objects of domestic and daily use; including household furniture with its opulent divans, tables and chests, and all forms of metalwork and jewellery. Items like toilet boxes, mirrors, and spoons were depicted by forms derived from the floral, animal, or human world. Sacred plants, notably the lotus, were the naturalistic basis for a large and varied class of forms which went on to influence the decorative art of the entire ancient world.

Sculptural Materials & Tools

In the valley of the Nile grew the sacred acacia and the sycamore, which provided the sculptor with material for statues and sarcophagi, for thrones and other items of industrial art. The hillsides on both banks of the Nile, as far south as Edfou, provided a coarse nummulitic limestone, and beyond Edfou there were extensive quarries of sandstone, both materials being used for sculptural as well as for architectural purposes. Close to the first cataract one can still see the quarries of red granite used not only for obelisks, but also for huge statues, sphinxes, and sarcophagi. Alabaster was quarried at the ancient town of Alabastron, near the modern village of Assiout. From the mountains of the Arabian desert and the Sinai peninsula came the basalt and diorite employed by the early sculptors, the red porphyry prized especially by the Greeks and Romans, and copper. Even the mud from the river Nile was moulded and baked, and covered with coloured glazes, from the earliest dynasties of Egyptian history. During the same early period we find the Egyptian sculptor handling with great dexterity numerous imported materials, like ebony, ivory, iron, gold and silver. Ivory carving, for instance, was widely practised, and was used in chryselephantine sculpture, for major works.

When Egyptian sculptors wanted to add extra permanence to their sculptures, as, for example, to the statues and sarcophagi of their Pharaoh kings, they used the hardest materials, like basalt, diorite, granite. This hard stone they manipulated with no less skill than they did wood-and ivory and softer stones.

The fine details were probably applied with flint instruments. Other implements, made from hardened bronze or iron, were the saw with jewelled teeth, tubular drills of various types, the pointer, and chisel. Statues of hard stone were meticulously polished with crushed sandstone and emery; softer stonework was typically covered with stucco and painted, the pigment being applied in an arbitrary or conventional manner.

Egyptian Statues and Statuettes

Egyptian artists were producing a wide variety of small figures in clay, bone, and ivory, well before the emergence of a formal style of sculpture at the time of the unification of the Two Lands of Egypt. A few, fragile figurines have been found in prehistoric graves. The tradition of making such objects survived right down to the New Kingdom. Bone and ivory were used to make stylized female figures of elaborate workmanship between 4,000 and 3,000 BCE. Clay, which was easier to shape, was molded into representations of many species of animals, easy to identify because their characteristics have been captured by acute observation. See also: Mesopotamian Sculpture (c.3000-500 BCE).

By c.3,000 BCE, ivory statuettes were being carved in a more naturalistic style, and many fragments have survived. One of the finest and most complete was found at Abydos, representing an unknown king, depicted in ceremonial costume (British Museum, London). He is wearing the tall White Crown of Upper Egypt and a short cloak patterned with lozenges. He strides confidently forward in the pose used for all male standing statues in Dynastic times, left foot in front of right. The quality of the carving is shown in the way in which the robe is wrapped tightly across the rounded shoulders, and the head is thrust forward with determination and strength of purpose.

From this period, just preceding the 1st Dynasty, there is evidence that sculptors were making great advances, and were using wood, and stone of various kinds. This development continued through the Archaic Period, when the first larger types of royal statue were made. Work in metal also made progress; miniature copper statuettes and gold amulets have been found in tombs, while an inscription of the 2nd Dynasty records the making of a royal statue in copper.

 

Egyptian Statues: Artistic Conventions

Egyptian statuary was made to be placed in tombs or temples and was usually intended to be seen from the front. It was important that the face should look straight ahead, into eternity, and that the body viewed from the front should be vertical and rigid, with all the planes intersecting at right angles. Sometimes variations do occur; large statues for instance were made to look slightly downwards towards the spectator, but examples where the body is made to bend or the head to turn are very rare in formal sculpture. It is usually accepted that the finest craftsmen worked for the king, and set the patterns followed by others who produced sculpture in stone, wood, and metal for his subjects throughout Egypt. The Old and Middle Kingdoms in particular saw the production of many statues and small figures that were placed in the tombs of quite ordinary people to act as substitutes for the body if it should be destroyed, to provide an eternal abode for the ka. Quality was desirable, but was not particularly important, for as long as the statue was inscribed with the name of the dead person it was identified with him. In fact it was possible to take over a statue by simply altering the inscription and substituting another name. This was done even at the highest level, and kings often usurped statues commissioned by earlier rulers. It was also believed to be possible to destroy the memory of a hated or feared predecessor by hacking the names and titles from his monuments. This happened to many of the statues of Akhenaten, and the names of Hatshepsut were erased by Tuthmosis III.

Most of the ka statues found in the tombs of nobles of the Old Kingdom follow royal precedent. Royal tombs at Gizeh and Saqqara were surrounded by cities of the dead, as the officials sought to be buried near their king and to pass into eternity with him. Gradually the beliefs once associated with the king or his immediate family were adopted by his nobles, and then by less important people, until everybody at their death hoped to become identified with Osiris, the dead king; but the quality, size, and material of the ka statue buried in a tomb depended upon the prosperity and means of its owner.

The earlier private sculptures, like the royal ones they imitated, were very much in the ritual tradition. In later periods craftsmen, particularly those working in wood, often produced small figures of great charm when they did not feel themselves bound by religious convention. Such small statuettes were often made to serve a practical purpose and carried containers which held cosmetic substances; later they were buried among the personal possessions of their owners.

Note: Egyptian plastic artists reportedly exerted considerable influence on African sculpture from sub-Saharan Africa, including works from Benin and Yoruba in west Africa.

Egyptian Relief Sculpture

Egyptian relief sculpture is executed in various modes, as follows:

(1) Bas-relief, where the figures project slightly from the background.
(2) Sunken-relief, where the background protrudes in front of the figures.
(3) Outline-relief, where only the outlines of figures are chiselled.
(4) High-relief, where the figures project some distance from the background.

Virtually all the wall-sculptures of the Ancient Egyptian Empire are in the form of bas-relief, while sunken and outline relief are the most common sculptural techniques used during the New Empire. High-relief occurs occasionally in tombs of the Ancient Empire, but is mainly confined to the New Empire and to such forms as Osiride and Hathoric piers and also to wall statues. In its treatment of figures in the round, ancient Egyptian sculpture is limited to only a few forms. These include: the standing figure, with left foot slightly in front of the right, the head erect, and the eyes looking straight ahead. Variations are obtained by changing the position of the arms. In the seated figures there is the same set pose of the head, body, and lower limbs. Beside these, the kneeling and squatting poses frequently reoccur, with little variation. Statues in the round usually depicted the gods, Pharaohs, or civic officials, and were composed with special reference to the maintenance of straight lines. But if the major monuments of state were limited in type and pose, a whole series of statues depicting domestic subjects were composed much more freely. Little importance was paid to grouping. It was usually a simple juxtaposition of two standing or two seated statues, or of one standing person and one seated person. A god and a man, or a husband and a wife, were positioned side by side. In family groups the figure of a child was occasionally added.

Symbolism was heavily used in sculptures representating the gods. When depicted in human form they were distinguished by emblems, but they were more often represented as composite creatures with animal heads on human bodies. Thus, for instance, Horus has the head of a hawk; Anubis, the head of a jackal; Khnum, a ram; Thoth, an ibis; Sebek, a crocodile; Isis, a decorative motif. On the exterior walls of temples they were typically and irregularly arranged over the surface, but on interior walls they were carefully arranged in horizontal rows. They were not really pictures, but picture-writing in relief, and were often little more than enlarged hieroglyphs. Such being their character, there was little stimulus to enhance their artistic composition.

Relief-composition merely meant arranging the figures in horizontal lines so as to record an event or represent an action. The principal figures were distinguished from others by their size - gods were shown larger than men, kings larger than their followers, and the dead larger than the living. Subordinate actions were juxtaposed in horizontal bands. In other respects there was very little importance placed on unity of effect; and empty space was typically filled with figures and hieroglyphs on the principle that nature abhors a vacuum. In composition of this kind, constructed like sentences, there was little need for perspective. Scenes were not depicted as they appeared within the field of vision: instead, individual components were all brought to the plane of representation, and laid out like writing. For example, the representation of a man - who might be depicted with head in profile, but eye en face, with shoulders in full front, but trunk turned three-quarters and legs in profile - is not the picture of a man as he appears to the eye; but is rather a symbolic representation of a man - an image that was perfectly clear to most spectators. In the same symbolic way a pond might be indicated by a rectangle, its water content by zig-zag lines, while bordering trees projected from the four sides of the rectangle. A military army was depicted with its more distant ranks brought into the plane of representation and arranged in horizontal lines one above the other. In a few instances the effects of perspective were suggested, but being largely superfluous to the purpose of Egyptian art they remained minimalistic.

As Egyptian statues represented the permanent body of the deceased, so relief-sculptures (usually covered in stucco, then painted) portrayed the situations in which his ethereal body might continue to move. They were not conceived as mere architectural decorations, but had principally a recording or immortalizing function. They adorned the outer and inner walls of temples, as well as the galleries and walls of tombs, with scant regard for aesthetic considerations or colours used, were vivid in tone, few in number, and durable in quality. They were applied in uniform flat masses and arranged in striking contrasts, while techniques like chiaroscuro and colour-perspective remained quite foreign to the Egyptian art of painting. Indeed the painting of reliefs was purely functional and served to make the figures more distinct, rather than more natural. Pigment was rarely used to indicate rotundity of form, and was applied in a purely conventional manner. The faces of men were painted reddish brown, and those of women yellow, although gods might have faces of any hue. Like reliefs, wood-carved statues and those made of soft stone were frequently treated with stucco and paint, in a similar fashion.

 

History and Development of Egyptian Sculpture

Despite the wealth of materials and quantity of production, Egyptian sculpture changed so gradually that it is not easy to trace a precise evolutionary path - from the earliest dynasties we find a fully developed art. Even at this early stage, Egyptian 3-D artists demonstrated a mastery in hard-stone sculpture and bronze-sculpture, and there is no archaic or prototype period to illustrate how this mastery was attained. Egyptian culture has not yet enlightened us as to its prehistoric art forms, nor do we know of a pre-existing foreign idiom or skill-set which she may have borrowed or acquired, except possibly the art of Mesopotamia in modern-day Iraq. Thus in general, irrespective of its origin, Egyptian art during the historic period is marked more by its continuity than its evolutionary changes. Even so, Egyptian sculpture can to some extent be distinguished from period to period.

Note: For a survey of the evolution of Western sculpture, see: Sculpture History.

Egyptian Stone Sculpture

It was in the late 2nd and early 3rd Dynasties, from about 2,700 BCE, that what could be termed the characteristic ancient-Egyptian style of sculpture in stone was established, a style transmitted through some 2,500 years to the Ptolemaic period with only minor exceptions and modifications. The predominant features of this style are the regularity and symmetry of the figures, solid and four-square whether standing or seated.

Michelangelo is reputed to have believed that a block of stone contained a sculpture, as it were in embryo, which it was the artist's task to reveal. The typical ancient-Egyptian completed figure gives a strong impression of the block of stone from which it was carved. The artists removed an absolute minimum of raw stone, commonly leaving the legs fused in a solid mass to a back pillar, the arms attached to the sides of the body, while seated figures were welded to their chairs. Not that these sculptures seem clumsy or crude; they convey an impression of severe elegance, a purity of line that suggests by its tautness a restrained energy.

The first stages in the making of a statue, as with relief and painting, involved the drafting of a preliminary sketch. A block of stone was roughly shaped, and the figure to be carved was drawn on at least two sides to give the front and side views. Later, a squared grid ensured that the proportions of the statue would be made exactly according to the rules fixed early in Dynastic times. Master drawings, some of which have survived, were available for reference. A wooden drawing board with a coat of gesso, now in the British Museum, London, is a good example. A seated figure of Tuthmosis III, 1504-1450 BCE, first sketched in red and then outlined in black, has been drawn across a grid of finely ruled small squares. Master craftsmen after years of practice would be able to work instinctively, but inexperienced sculptors would keep such drawings at hand for easy reference.

The actual carving of a statue involved the sheer hard work of pounding and chipping the block on all sides until the rough outline of the figure was complete. New guidelines were drawn in, when it became necessary to keep the implements cutting squarely into the block from all sides. The harder stones, such as granite and diorite, were worked by bruising and pounding with hard hammer-stones, thus gradually abrading the parent block. Cutting by means of metal saws and drills, helped by the addition of an abrasive such as quartz sand, was used to work the awkward angles between the arms and the body, or between the lower legs. Each stage was long and tedious, and the copper and bronze tools had to be resharpened constantly. Polishing removed most of the tool-marks, but on some statues, particularly the really large ones such as the huge figures of Ramesses II at the temple of Abu Simbel, traces of the marks made by tubular drills can still be seen. For a colossal statue, scaffolding was erected round a figure, enabling many men to work on it at once. Limestone, of course, was softer, and therefore easier to work with chisels and drills.

Unfinished statues provide useful evidence of the processes involved. Most of them showed that work proceeded evenly from all sides, thus maintaining the balance of the figure. A quartzite head, possibly of Queen Nefertiti, found in a work-shop at Amarna, c.1360 BCE, is obviously near to completion (Egyptian Museum, Cairo). It was probably intended to be part of a composite statue, and the top of the head has been shaped and left rough to take a crown or wig of another material. The surface of the face appears to be ready for the final smoothing and painting, but the guidelines are still there to indicate the line of the hair and the median plane of the face. Rather thicker lines marking the outline of the eyes and the eyebrows make it look as if further work was planned, to cut these out to enable them to be inlaid with other stones so that the head would be really lifelike when it was finished.

Egyptian Sculpture During the Ancient Empire

The art of the Ancient Empire was centred around the city of Memphis, although the Delta, Abydos, the neighbourhood of Thebes, and Elephantine also provide us with examples of some of its later phases. No temples have survived from this period; the sculptures come exclusively from tombs. In character these Memphite sculptures are strongly naturalistic when compared with later Egyptian art. Portrait statues are varied and often striking in character, while murals depict numerous scenes from daily life. Generalized or typical forms include the monumental sphinx at Gizeh and the statues of Chephren, the builder of the second pyramid. The naturalistic tendency of this Memphis style of art led to a peculiar treatment of the eye, a technique seen in statues of this period (made from limestone, wood, and bronze, but not in statues made of basaltic rocks), though discontinued later. The pupil was represented by a shiny silver nail set in rock crystal or enamel, the dark eyelashes being made from bronze. The heads of these Ancient Empire statues reveal a marked "Egyptian type", though not entirely unmixed in some cases with negroid and other foreign races. Although slender body shapes were represented, short, thickset, sometimes muscular bodies were more common occurences. Given the great many middle-aged men and women who were depicted, it appears that childhood and old age were not key paradigms in the future life. Overall, faces reflect a peaceful, happy people, for whom the future life offered no great change or uncertainty. Wall-sculptures and the hieroglyphs executed in low-relief, were typically finely carved.

Egyptian Sculpture During the Middle Empire

The sculptural art of the period known as the Middle Empire may be divided into two sub-periods: the first Theban period, from the 11th to the 15th dynasty, and the Hyksos period, from the 15th to the 18th dynasty. By now, the centre of Egyptian government had moved from Memphis to Thebes.

The last period of Memphite rule and the 11th (Middle Empire) dynasty produced little sculpture of lasting value, but the succeeding period of the Usertesens and Amenemhats of the 12th dynasty witnessed a revival of Egyptian creativity. In general, sculpture was merely a continuation of the art of Memphis, but some changes were already apparent. There was a general desire for more large-scale statues of Pharaohs, while bodily forms began to acquire slimmer trunks, arms and legs. Wall-sculptures focused on subjects similar to those of earlier days, but were less individual, less natural and, in many cases, mural-paintings were substituted for relief sculptures. The 12th dynasty temple statues from Karnak reveal that votive offerings of statuary were not uncommon, while the fine statue of Sebekhotep III (Louvre, Paris) of the 13th dynasty, reveals a new departure in the sculptor's art.

This revival of Egyptian, which started in the 12th and continued through the 13th dynasty, experienced a pause in the 14th and 15th dynasties due to the cruel foreign rulers known as the Hyksos or Shepherd Kings. The ethnological affinities of these Shepherd Kings remains an unsettled issue, the Shemitic influences which they introduced being counterbalanced by their Turanian facial type. The sphinxes and statues were still executed by Egyptian sculptors, but in the grey or black granite of Hammanat or the Sinai peninsula, rather than the red granite of Assouan. The centres of Hyksos activity were Tanis and Bubastis, their influence being weaker in Upper Egypt. The most notable feature of their sculpture was the non-Egyptian style of face, showing small eyes, high cheek bones, heavy mop of hair, an aquiline nose, a strong mouth with clean-shaven upper lip, and short facial-hair and beard.

Egyptian Sculpture During the New Empire

The early portion of the New Empire included the 18th, 19th, and 20th dynasties. Egypt now liberated herself from Hyksos rule and expanded her empire to include Assyria, Asia Minor, and Cyprus in the north and east, and Nubia and Abyssinia in the south. Many large temples were erected, especially during the rule of Seti I. and Rameses II, which led to numerous commissions for new sculptures. And since monumental temples led naturally to momumental statuary, the statues of Amenophis III., at Thebes, are 52 feet high, those of Rameses II., at Ipsamboul, are 70 feet high, while the Rameses sculpture at Tanis, was 90 feet high excluding its pedestal. The slender proportions of the human form which were popular in the 12th and 13th dynasties were continued and even advanced, notably in the bas-reliefs of the New Empire. The simplicity of dress, prevalent in earlier days, was now replaced by richer garments and more elaborate personal adornment, while crowns were not uncommon. Another change concerned background and ornamentation: overseas varieties of fauna and flora, as well as foreign men and women, were depicted more frequently and in greater variety than before.

Otherwise, subject matter for sculpture and painting remained relatively constant. Scenes of warfare and conquest remained common, as did images of the gods - one small temple located at Karnak contained over 550 statues of the goddess Sekhet-Bast - and Kings - see the beautiful seated statue of Rameses II (Museum of Turin), and the fine heads of Queen Taia and Horemheb and the outstanding limestone relief sculptures at Seti's temple in Abydos. However, at Tell-el-Amarna the revolutionary king Khou-en-Aten encouraged his sculptors to break with traditional themes and to depict palaces, villas, gardens, chariot driving, and festivals.

Royal tombs of the New Empire exhibit the usual high quality of relief sculpture, but the demand for carvings for the exterior walls of temples appears to have greatly exceeded the supply of creative sculptors. At any rate, artistic standards dropped significantly following the glorious reign of Rameses II. Indeed, Egypt itself experienced a gradual but significant decline. During the latter period of the New Empire, from the 21st to the 32nd dynasty, the country's dominance was over and she was obliged to yield to the Ethiopians, to the Assyrians, and again to the ancient Persians. The headquarters of the Egyptian empire moved several times: first to Tanis, to Mendes, then Sebennytos, and for a long time remained at Sais, hence this period is usually classified as the Saite Period.

Under such changing and unpredictable conditions artists, especially sculptors, struggled to find appropriate themes and styles, and often reverted to Ancient-Empire forms for inspiration. There were occasionally more positive developments. King Psammetichos I championed a minor artistic revival during the 26th dynasty, restoring temples and commissioning more painting and sculpture. Sculptors again worked the hardest stones, as if to prove that their knowledge and mastery of technique was still intact. However, many works from this dynasty, such as the green-basalt statues of Osiris and Nephthys and the statuette of Psammetichos I in the museum at Gizeh, reveal that the dominant sculptural forms were effeminate and refined rather than sharp and vigorous as before.

Egyptian Sculpture During the Greco-Roman Period

When Egypt was subjugated by Alexander the Great, her art did not change overnight to accomodate the taste of these new and powerful Greeks. Ptolemaic temples - though characterized by a number of changes, notably in the capitals of columns - were not built like Greek temples, in Hellenic style. Similarly, Ptolemaic statues remained Egyptian. And while Alexander's successors became Pharaohs; they did not convert the Egyptians into Greeks. Nonetheless, the development of Greek cities in Egypt - which had been going on since the 7th century BCE - plus the Macedonian conquest of Egypt led to a mixed Greco-Egyptian style of art. And although the Romans continued to restore temples from the Ancient and Middle Empire in the Egyptian style, they too encouraged a form of sculpture in which classical motifs and iconography took precedence over an "Egyptian" style.

See also: Greek Sculpture and Roman Sculpture.
For Hellenistic-Egyptian painting, see: Fayum Mummy Portraits.

Egyptian Royal Sculpture

It is the sequence of formal royal sculpture, however, that most clearly shows the changes in detail and attitude that occurred during the many centuries of Egyptian history. Unfortunately very little royal sculpture has survived from the earliest periods, but one of the oldest examples is also one of the most impressive. This is the life-size limestone statue of King Djoser, c.2,660-2,590 BCE, found in a small chamber in the temple complex of the Step Pyramid, which was planned by the architect Imhotep (Egyptian Museum, Cairo). Once in place, the statue would never again be seen by the eyes of the living. It was made to provide a dwelling place for the ka of the king after his death, and was walled up in a niche. Two holes were left opposite the eyes so that it could look out into the adjacent chapel where daily offerings were to be made. The king, seated on a square throne, is wrapped in a mantle. The face, framed by a full wig, is impassive and full of brooding majesty, conveyed in spite of the damage caused by thieves who gouged out the inlaid eyes. Smaller statues of nobles from the first three Dynasties, seated in the same position with the right hand across the breast, convey a strong impression of the density of the stone from which they were carved.

The magnificent diorite statue of Khephren, c.2,500 BCE (Egyptian Museum, Cairo), builder of the second pyramid of Gizeh, once stood with 22 others in the long hall of the Valley Temple there. The posture of the king has changed a little from that of the statue of Zoser, and both hands now rest on the knees. The detail of the body, no longer enveloped in a mantle, is superbly executed. Protected by the falcon of the god Horus, the king sits alone with the calm assurance of his divinity. This statue was intended to be seen in the temple, and the power of the king is underlined by the design carved on the sides of the throne which symbolized the union of the Kingdoms of Upper and Lower Egypt with a knot of papyrus and lotus plants.

The sculptors represented the rulers of the Old Kingdom as gods on earth. During the Middle Kingdom the surviving fragments of royal statues show a line of rulers who had achieved their divinity by their own power and strength of personality. The aloof and solitary nature of kingship appears in their portraits, but it is combined with an awareness of a human personality beneath the trappings of royalty. The heads and statues of these Middle Kingdom rulers give the impression of being real portraits, carved by craftsmen of consummate skill.

During the New Kingdom the lines disappear from the faces of kings, who gaze into eternity with unclouded expressions. Many more statues survive than from earlier periods, and some kings, such as Tuthmosis III and Ramesses Il, had hundreds of portrait busts and other works carved to decorate the temples they raised for the gods. Many statues show features taken from life, such as the large hooked nose of Tuthmosis III, but the faces were idealized. From the reign of Queen Hatshepsut onwards there is a certain softness about the expression, and a refinement in the treatment of the body. Sculpture during the New Kingdom is technically splendid, but it lacks something of the latent power of the royal sculpture of the Old and Middle Kingdoms.

See also Egyptian Pyramid Architecture.

Surviving Examples of Egyptian Sculpture

Egyptian statuary and reliefs can be seen at the temples of Abydos, Thebes, Edfou, Esneh, Philae, and Ipsamboul; in the tombs situated around Memphis, Beni-Hassan, and Thebes, and especially at the Museum of Gizeh. Important collections of statues from ancient Egypt are held by the Louvre, Paris; the British Museum, London; the Metropolitan Museum of Art New York; the Vatican, Rome; the Museo Archeologico, Florence; the Museo Egizio, Turin; and the Royal Museum, Berlin. Other collections in America may be viewed at the J Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the University of Pennsylvania Museum, Philadelphia; and the Johns Hopkins University.

More Information About Sculpture

Classical Antiquity

Most Sculpture of Ancient Greece is traditionally divided into six basic styles:
Daedalic Sculpture (c.650-600 BCE)
Archaic Greek Sculpture (c.600-500 BCE)
Early Classical Greek Sculpture (c.500-450 BCE)
High Classical Greek Sculpture (c.450-400 BCE)
Late Classical Greek Sculpture (c.400-323 BCE)
Hellenistic Sculpture (c.323-27 BCE).

See also:
Greek Statues & Reliefs: Hellenistic Period and
Relief Sculpture of Ancient Rome.

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