Art of Ancient Egypt

First Things First…

As Ancient Egyptian Art spans a wide time frame, a thematic approach is helpful to conceptually link the wide range of objects that will be viewed during the lecture. An icebreaker to begin the lecture might be to simply ask what students associate with the art of ancient Egypt. This can lead to a discussion of how museum exhibitions, Hollywood films, and the media shape perceptions of certain cultures that may or may not correlate with historical truths. Initial discussions can also build off of local museum collections (if available), with students considering how objects in the museum differ from the objects in their original contexts. For example, what does it mean to view funerary objects in a museum, as opposed to within sealed tombs that were never meant to be seen by the public?

At the time of uploading this content, newspaper headlines reflect the state of civil turmoil in present-day Egypt. When the class looked at objects and sites from Prehistory and the Ancient Near East, they may have discussed architecture and design as statements of power and control. Ancient leaders used art and architecture to demonstrate their dominance, as did more contemporary figures likes Saddam Hussein in the 1980s during Iraq’s border wars with Iran. During the Arab Spring, and in its still-unstable aftermath, the role of the artist is still important, giving voice to political opinion and potentially stabilizing or subverting power.

You might begin the lesson by asking the students what they know about the Arab Spring or about the activities in Tahrir Square. The students will have seen prehistoric cave paintings by this point and might look at wall paintings in the interior of mastabas and pyramids during this lesson. Compare and contrast ancient motivations for creating visual imagery on walls (communication of ideas, ritual, tradition, commemoration, status) with, for example, Arab Spring graffiti (and further examples from the Occupy movement) to demonstrate that wall art continues and still means some of the same things.

As this article on artists in the midst of civil unrest suggests, “prior to the [Arab Spring] uprising, graffiti wasn’t much in evidence in [Cairo] … The wall was not for [the] people …. The simple reclaiming of these public surfaces was an act of defiance in itself against the government. This public space wasn’t public and that’s why graffiti appeared so quickly after the revolution, because people wanted to occupy that space.”

Background Readings

Palette of Narmer, c. 3000–2920 BCE.

You might want to use your survey textbook, and one of the comprehensive educator guides from the Met Museum. The Met’s guide cuts to the chase and highlights key images with short, explanatory texts on each one. Egyptologist Kara Cooney describes in a nutshell why we are all still fascinated with Ancient Egypt today.

Other resources include Smarthistory’s excellent Ancient Egypt section, in particular the opening essay, which highlights some of the key themes for this content area: longevity, constancy and stability, geography, and time. There are further at-home readings for students in the AHTR online syllabus.

  • Málek, Jaromír. Egyptian Art. London, England: Phaidon Press, 1999.
  • Oxford Art Online

There are a variety of video resources available on Ancient Egypt that can be selected and customized based on the interests of your class as well as the museums in your area. Included in the PPT is a brief video by History Channel on how to make a mummy.

Other online resources include:

  • National Geographic: Tombs of Ancient Egypt: This is a great video to introduce a discussion about the original contexts of museum artifacts, concisely clarifying how mummies and other Ancient Egyptian objects existed within tombs in large pyramid complexes. This raises the larger question of how objects relate to larger religious belief systems and social practices (in this case, burial practices).  Students can additionally consider how artifacts exist within larger architectural and visual settings, not only examining the function and structure of the Great Pyramids, but also the paintings and carvings that adorned the walls of tombs in Ancient Egypt.
  • PBS’s NOVA: Ancient Egypt is useful for interactive 360-degree views. This provides another great talking point to remind students that architecture and artifacts as we know them today often looked very different when they were originally built. The pyramids in their original state much more clearly convey their function as sacred spaces, and speak more directly to the wealth and power of the pharaohs that built them.
  • History Channel videos on Ancient Egypt: Topics include the building of the Great Obelisks at Luxor, the Ramses Temple at Abu Simbel, the building of the Great Pyramids, and the “archaeological chemistry” of mummies.

Content Suggestions


  • Palette of Narmer, Pre-Dynastic Period, c. 3000–2920 BCE, slate, 2’1’’. General concepts: Art as used to express power and authority/relationship between art and politics/idealization versus naturalism/art and social hierarchies
  • Ti watching a hippopotamus hunt, from the mastaba of Ti, Saqqara, Old Kingdom, c. 2450–2359 BCE, painted limestone, 4′ high. General concepts: Conventions in art: canon of proportions (idealization), composite view, hieratic scale/art and the afterlife
  • Great Pyramids, Gizeh, Fourth Dynasty, Old Kingdom. General concepts: Art/architecture as a reflection of a culture’s central belief systems and social hierarchies/art and the afterlife
  • Menkaure and his wife, from Gizeh, Fourth Dynasty, Old Kingdom, c. 2490–2472 BCE, 4’6” high; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. General concepts: Idealization versus naturalism/art and social hierarchies/conventions in art/art and the afterlife
  • Seated Scribe, from Saqqara, Fourth Dynasty, Old Kingdom, c. 2500 BCE, 1’9” high, painted limestone
    • Compared with Khafre Enthroned, Gizeh, Fourth Dynasty, Old Kingdom, c. 2520–2494 BCE. General concepts: Funerary monuments/idealization versus naturalism/conventions in art/art and the afterlife/art and social hierarchies
  • Mortuary temple of Hatshepsut, Deir el-Bahri, 18th Dynasty, New Kingdom, c. 1473–1458 BCE, red granite, 8’ 6” high; Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY, reconstructed
    • Hatshepsut with offering jars, from the upper court of her mortuary temple, Deir el-Bahri. General concepts: Representations of power and authority/relationship between art and architecture/representations of women in art/conventions in art
  • Temple of Ramses II, Abu Simbel, New Kingdom, c. 1290–1224 BCE, sandstone, Colossi= 65’ high. General concepts: Representations of power and authority/relationship between art and architecture
  • Akhenaton, from the Temple of Aton, Karnak, Amarna Period, c. 1353–1335, sandstone, 13’ high. General concepts: Why do conventions in art change?/the human body in art


  • Pre-Dynastic and Early Dynastic Periods (c. 3500–2575 BCE)
  • Old Kingdom (c. 2575–2134 BCE): the “age of pyramids”
  • Middle Kingdom (c. 2040–1640 BCE)
  • New Kingdom (c. 1550–1070 BCE)

Canon of proportions
Composite view
Hieratic scale
Ka: the immortal spirit of the deceased, in Egyptian religion.
Mastaba: a key term referring to the standard tomb type in early Egypt characterized by a rectangular stone or brick structure with sloping sides and a flat top over an underground burial chamber.

General concepts:

Although the images are ordered primarily by chronology, they can be used to address a variety of themes throughout the lecture to guide discussions and related assignments.

Thematic concepts include:

  • Conventions in Ancient Egyptian art: This theme focuses on how certain conventions persisted over thousands of years. Consider why certain conventions were used for such long periods of time, also discussing why certain conventions changed over time. If you have already covered the art of the Ancient Near East, comparisons can be made between the conventions of Ancient Egypt and those of the Ancient Near East.
  • Idealization versus naturalism: Perhaps stemming from a consideration of hieroglyphs, students can see how visual images are often abstracted and standardized to emphasize certain symbolic meanings, in contrast to showing objects and people as they would appear in real life. How does idealization relate to social and political structures? Ask students to compare with our own standards of depicting leaders in the media.
  • The relationship between art and a culture’s belief systems and/or social hierarchies: Why was art in Ancient Egypt created, and for whom was it made? The art of Ancient Egypt was largely created for elites, with visual conventions expressing consistent ideals. A persistent concern with death, burial, and the afterlife were also driving forces of Egyptian visual culture.

You might start discussion around the first object by asking your students how we prepare for major life events, posing the following questions to them:

How many of you prepare for going out on a weekend night (getting dressed up, inviting friends over, deciding where to go out)? Chances are, many of your students will be able to relate to this.

How many of you prepare for your birthday or help prepare for the birthday of a great friend or family member (getting a cake, candles, gifts, arranging a party)? Again, it’s very probable that most students will have planned a birthday event.

How many of you have made plans for when you die, your funeral, and your trip into the afterlife (having a tomb or coffin built, deciding what to have buried with you, figuring out what the afterlife might look like)? It is less probable—although not completely unlikely!—that your students will have given this major life event much thought.

Ancient Egyptian culture was predicated in large part on a very close relationship to death, and to understand much of the material culture in this lesson, students need to understand from the beginning that Ancient Egyptians thought about death and what happened after death in a radically different way than we do today. Death was always immanent for the peoples of the Ancient Near East, as there was so much civil unrest. It was quite the opposite in Ancient Egypt, where the ruling dynasties of kings and pharaohs created a stable atmosphere where people could plan for the end of their lives and their afterlife, much the same way some people have 401Ks and retirement plans today.

Our chronology for this content area begins around 3000 BCE with the beginning of this “dynastic period” under King Narmer. The Narmer Palette, c. 2950–2775 BCE, is a great place to start discussion in a class on Ancient Egypt as it highlights some key ideas: the political and social hierarchies (Narmer is huge = hieratic scale = leadership and status); society (this object visualizes and commemorates the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt, and the beginning of Dynastic Egypt); and Ancient Egyptian visual conventions (separating space using registers and depicting human figures using simplified contours and twisted perspective). The palette was found in Hierakonpolis, the ancient Pre-Dynastic capital located in the south of Egypt, by a British archaeologist in the late nineteenth century. The Pre-Dynastic Period just means the Neolithic settlement era in Egypt before Narmer came along and unified it around 3000–2950 BCE.

The Palette of Narmer provides an excellent starting point to discuss how art in Ancient Egypt was created by and for elites. Often, as it is in this case, a pharaoh commissioned artworks in order to proclaim his divine power and absolute authority through set visual conventions. The unnatural and stylized human figures in the Palette of Narmer introduce many of the standard ways of portraying the human body including hieratic scale and the composite view. Rather than seeking to represent humans as they look in real life, bodies in ancient Egyptian art are often idealized and abstracted according to a certain canon of proportions. The depiction of the pharaoh as an idealized, youthful, and athletic figure also reinforces the political message of the artwork, with the ruler appearing more eternal and divine than human.

The majority of the images appearing in this lecture are from the Old Kingdom, which is considered a period of immense development of Egyptian art, much of which was created with a concern for preserving life after death. Ti watching a hippopotamus hunt is typical of wall reliefs that were popular with wealthy patrons at the time. Like in the Palette of Narmer, he figure of Ti is shown in hieratic scale, meaning he is much larger than then hunters around him, illustrating his elite status.  Although Ti was not a pharaoh, he was a government official who was wealthy enough to have a lavishly decorated tomb. These images, carved onto the walls of his tomb, were meant to ensure his everlasting success in the afterlife.

This overwhelming concern for the afterlife is evident in the most canonical Egyptian Monuments, the Great Pyramids. Pyramids developed from the smaller mastaba tomb form. The intermediary architectural form was the stepped pyramid, exemplified by the Stepped Pyramid of Djoser.

The Great Pyramids at Gizeh took these architectural forms to the next level. They were created during the Fourth Dynasty of the Old Kingdom, which is frequently referred to as the “age of pyramids.” The difference in scale and impact can be immediately noticed, and can lead to a discussion of the change in the social status of pharaohs during the Old Kingdom. Each pyramid has a funerary temple next to it with a causeway leading to the Nile; when the pharaoh died, his body was ferried across the river. The pyramids themselves have elaborate internal plans with false passageways and corridors to thwart potential grave robbers. While many questions still remain regarding how the pyramids were built, they also remain as monumental evidence of the advanced engineering skill of the ancient Egyptians, their ability to mobilize a massive labor force, and again, the overwhelming importance of the afterlife.

Although they are still built within massive tomb complexes, each pyramid serves as a lasting monument to the individual pharaoh that created it. (See PBS’s NOVA: Ancient Egypt for interactive 360-degree views). Originally faced in white limestone, the pyramids would have been spectacular, reflecting the hot desert sun.  This association with the sun was not accidental, in fact, the form of the pyramids themselves was meant to echo the suns rays shining down on earth, emphasizing the belief that deceased pharaohs climbed up the rays to join the sun god Ra. If ziggurats have already been discussed, they could provide a fruitful comparison to look at how architectural forms refer to their sacred content and strive to connect with the heavenly realm. This is a concept that can be returned to when looking at the development of Gothic cathedrals later in the semester.

Along with the treasures and objects within the tombs, the interiors of pyramids were filled with statuary, relief sculpture, and wall paintings such as those found in the tomb of Nefertiti, the powerful wife of the New Kingdom pharaoh Akhenaton.  All of these objects and images were meant to ensure the survival of the deceased in the next world. An image depicting an offering being made to the dead, for example, would ensure that the represented items would be available in the next world.

The lavish burial practices of the ancient Egyptians also involved the ritual mummification of the bodies of the deceased, which were dried out with salts and wrapped in linen strips and sheets soaked with resin, so that they would remain unchanging and whole forever, providing a preserved resting place for the spirit of the deceased. Although he died at age 18 and was a minor ruler, King Tutankhamen is well known for his magnificent tomb that was discovered in 1922 by the British archaeologist Howard Carter. Such fully intact tombs were rare due to rampant grave robbing, making the tomb’s remaining treasures exceedingly precious, with the most valuable find being the fully enshrined body of the pharaoh. The innermost coffin was made of over 240 pounds of gold covered with glass and semi-precious stone inlay.

Funerary statues were also central to burial practices. Rather than serving as realistic portraits of their patrons, Egyptian funerary statues such as that of Menkaure and his wife from the Fourth Dynasty were meant to serve as eternal homes for the spirit of the deceased, or the ka. Although the mummified body of the deceased was intended to last forever, these figures, carved in exceptionally hard stone, were meant to provide a more permanent and guaranteed home for the ka, should anything happen to the mummified body. In this example, Menkaure is shown striding forward with his hands clenched alongside his idealized youthful, muscular body, which conforms to the same Egyptian ideals visible in the Palette of Narmer. Menkaure’s stance here is indicative of power, with one foot placed slightly ahead of the other. The positioning of his wife, with her hand on her husband, speaks to their marital status. As was common in Egyptian statuary, the figures are not fully freed from the stone blocks, reflecting an interest in permanence. As in the Palette of Narmer, the figure of the pharaoh and his wife are idealized, rather than naturalistic, evidenced by their stiff and generalized features, and abstracted anatomy. These conventions can also be seen in Khafre Enthroned, another funerary statue from the Fourth Kingdom, accentuating their role as homes for the ka, rather than as portraits of living individuals.

In contrast to the statue of Menkaure and his wife and that of Khafre Enthroned, the Seated Scribe from Saqqara is a painted sculpture that exhibits a high level of naturalism. The Seated Scribe has a lifelike quality achieved through the painting of the plaster and the use of inlaid eyes. Despite looking more like a lifelike individual, his protruding stomach, seated pose, and the stylus he was once holding still reflect prevalent conventions, indicating his occupation as a scribe. Scribes had an elevated position in Ancient Egyptian society and were highly valued, yet they were not shown with the same level of idealism as the divine pharaohs. Further discussion can consider if similar dichotomies exist in our own image culture, with the acknowledgement that standards of the ideal vary over time and between cultures.

The New Kingdom (c. 1550–1070 BCE) was a prosperous and stable era following the reunification of Egypt after the tumultuous Second Intermediate Period.  It is marked by increasingly complex and monumental building projects that were filled with statuary, painted images, and wall reliefs. Looking more closely at such architectural monuments can make it clearer how artworks now found in museums were originally part of larger architectural complexes and were intended to be seen with other visual images. The interrelation of ceremony and images can be seen with the Mortuary temple of Hatshepsut, who is the first recorded female monarch in history. The temple, carved out of the rock face, is a notable change from the use of pyramids in the Old Kingdom but has an equally monumental effect, with its massive colonnaded terraces. This incredible complex was one of several building projects executed by the female pharaoh, evidencing a desire to use art as propaganda to affirm her power and status (which was even more pivotal to her reign as a female monarch). Within the massive complex, painted reliefs celebrate the female ruler, emphasize her divine birth, and highlight her achievements. Statues such as Hatshepsut with offering jars, which show the queen making offerings to the gods, lined the entry to the temple and were found throughout the complex. Other statues depicted her as a sphinx or as Osiris, god of the afterlife. These multiple images of the queen reinforce her associations with the gods and her divine birth, as well as her absolute power as pharaoh. The multiplication of images of the monarch in different roles can later be compared to Augustus’ use of statuary in the Roman Empire.

The statues of Hatshepsut also demonstrate her unusual position as a female monarch. Keep in mind, there was not word for “queen” in the ancient Egyptian language; the queen was called the “wife of the king” (“The Art of Ancient Egypt,” 31), illustrating the lack of precedent for female pharaohs. In artworks like Hatshepsut with offering jars, therefore, she is depicted with conventional symbols of royal males, such as a false ceremonial beard and male anatomy, despite also being shown with feminine attributes. Hatshepsut ultimately assumed the title of king, and is referred to in inscriptions as “His” majesty (Kleiner, 70–1).

The consideration of sculpture in relation to architecture is even more relevant in the Temple of Ramses II at Abu Simbel. Ramses II ruled for almost 75 years and is renowned for the military successes throughout his reign. The temple complex features large scale, 65′-tall colossal images of the pharaoh that flank the entrance. Inside there are multiple 32′-tall images of the pharaoh. Together, they serve as emphatic and everlasting statements of the power and authority of the great pharaoh and bear witness to the image the ruler strove to leave for posterity. Such grand architecture and artworks of the New Kingdom again strove to provide lasting monuments and homes for the elite in the afterlife, simultaneously serving to reinforce their power, authority, and divinity for eternity.

At the End of Class...

Façade of the temple of Ramses II at Abu Simbel, New Kingdom, c. 1290–1224 BCE, sandstone, Colossi 65’ high.

The artworks seen in this lecture adhere to conventions and formulaic depictions of the human body that persisted for thousands of years. The focus was not on the genius of individual artists, nor do Ancient Egyptian artworks adhere to a modern notion of aesthetic beauty. Instead, the symbolic meaning of artworks took precedence, in order to reinforce the social order and influence the outcome of the afterlife. Visual conventions only began to shift during the more unstable Amarna Period (exemplified by the sandstone statue of Akhenaton from the temple of Aton at Karnak (c. 1353–1335), and later in the 1st century BCE with the conquest of the Nile region by Alexander the Great.

For homework or discussion during lectures on Ancient Greek Art, ask students to consider why art in Greece was created, as opposed to its function in ancient Egypt.  In ancient Egypt, artists were not guided by creative impulses like they are today but instead were valued for their technical skills as specialists. Artwork was almost exclusively created for elites, to emphasize their status. Conventions were used over time, demonstrating the symbolic role of visual images over an interest in naturalism. How would this change in Ancient Greece? How would the role of the artist change in relation to patrons? This is a discussion that can be revisited with the art of ancient Rome—and again with the Renaissance—to discuss changing conceptions of the artist and new modes of patronage.

Another Class Activity – Ancient Egypt Recap

At the end of the lesson or the beginning of next lesson, ask the class to work in pairs or small groups to answer the questions below. Provide a sheet with a selection of images covered in class for them to refer to, or use the PPT to project the sheet so they have images as a resource to refer to as they answer the questions.

1) Discuss how the Palette of Narmer is an early example of several ancient Egyptian conventions of representation. What is going on in the narrative depicted? Can you relate it to other objects we have seen in class over the past few lessons? How/why?

  • Twisted perspective
  • Simplified contoured figures
  • Low relief
  • Different registers used to indicate distance and hierarchy
  • Hieratic scale
  • Animal figures used to indicate the narrative (e.g., intertwined tails = unification)
  • Hieroglyphs
  • Equating earthly ruler with godly ruler
  • Glorification of the king

2) Why were structures like pyramids and objects like the statue of the butcher or statues of pharaohs created in Ancient Egypt? What do Ancient Egyptian funerary statues tell us about their cultural attitudes toward death?

  • Ka, the idea of a spirit housed in a statue after life
  • Statues and objects as status symbols to remind the living of rulers
  • Objects that were useful in the afterlife were created, like the butcher
  • These tell us that death and the afterlife were taken very seriously by Ancient Egyptians and that these eventualities were prepared for all the way through life
  • We can relate this preparation to cultures today who plan funerals in advance or who leave commemorative objects or architecture for the dead.

Jennifer Sarathy (author) is a PhD Candidate at the CUNY Graduate Center.

Amy Raffel (editor) is a PhD candidate at the CUNY Graduate Center. She has a Master’s degree in Contemporary Art history from the Institute of Fine Arts (NYU) and has taught Introduction to Modern Art as a Graduate Teaching Fellow at Lehman College since 2010. Currently, Amy is a genome contributor for Artsy and editor and contributor of Art History Teaching Resources.