Guide to Styles and Materials of Egyptian Sculpture

Egyptian sculpture was the most realistic art form in the ancient world until the Classical Age of Greece. By modern standards, its formalism and standardization may seem quaint, but its purpose was not to record the details of an individual person, and certainly not to record any flaws; nor was it merely an aesthetic exercise.  Its purpose was to make the ephemeral permanent, to make the flawed perfect, and to bring the spiritual reality to life in the material world.  Sculpture was an act of magical creation, and one that was performed constantly throughout Egyptian history.

There were two basic kinds of sculpture in ancient Egypt, each with its own rules and purpose.  Bas relief was an extension of painting into three dimensions, while freestanding sculpture followed very different standards.  Some sculptures, such as statues of kings sitting upon their thrones, may resemble reliefs because the king’s body appears to flow into his chair, but this was just a short cut to ensure the enduring strength of the statue.  The rules of representation were clearly different.

In Egyptian magical thinking, the representation of a thing also served as a substitute for the thing.  This is one of the key motivations for the entire enterprise of sculpture in ancient Egypt: by making a statue of the king, one helps to safeguard his eternal existence, especially if circumstances threatened his physical body.  Because of this, every part of the body had to be instantly recognizable.  This is not a problem in freestanding sculpture; if one cannot see the eye well enough, one can walk around the statue until one can.

In relief, as in painting, this is not an option.  Egyptian artists rejected foreshortening because it might seem to cripple the ideal form that it represented.  A foreshortened arm might seem stunted, and could therefore harm the spirit of the person depicted.  Each part of the body, therefore, was depicted in a standard form, even though the resulting composition was inaccurate.  Eyes were depicted as if seen from the front, even though heads were nearly always shown in profile.  Shoulders were tilted in a three-quarters view facing the observer with both arms visible, and the torso then twisted so that the hips and legs could be in a profile.

Reliefs were generally a secondary adornment, and the materials used were those appropriate to the task.  Reliefs on the walls of temples, tombs and sarcophagi were carved into the stone that was always used for these permanent constructions.  Reliefs might also be carved in wood, to adorn boxes and chests, or on the metal of a hand mirror, or in the ivory of a magic wand.  Usually, it was only in cases like the wand that the reliefs were vitally important to the purpose of the item; in other cases, the relief was secondary, offering the opportunity to memorialize an event in its owner’s life, or to give the owner’s spirit some needed comforts in the next life, or even to firmly identify the object as a possession of its owner.

A freestanding statue was more than just a representation of its subject; magically, it could actually be its subject, or at least its proxy.  A statue of a god might house some of the god’s divine power; a statue of the king could ensure the king’s presence where a flesh and blood presence was impossible.  The statue of a dead person could house his spirit.  A statue of a beloved pet or even a useful beast of burden could ensure that a dead person could always have those animals in the next life.

Monumental sculptures were almost exclusively those of kings and gods.  Particularly favored wives, like Nefertari, the wife of Rameses II, constitute the primary exception, and in monumental art she is usually shown much smaller than her husband.  These sculptures are usually carved from a very hard stone, such as granite.  In many cases, the kind of stone is chosen for a symbolic purpose; red stone took on a solar significance, while black stone, like basalt, often represented the realms of the dead.

Merely life-sized statues might also be carved from wood.  Such statues have not survived as well as those made of stone, however, and in part for that very reason they were never as common in the first place.  Kings and gods continue to dominate statues of this size, but favored courtiers, powerful nobles and successful professionals had opportunities here.  Statues on this scale were often painted, and sometimes other realistic touches might be employed, such as ivory inlays for eyes.

The same subjects might also be represented in smaller than life-sized statues.  These statues are still large enough to carry significant detail, but small enough that metal or ivory could be used as well as stone or wood.  Seated scribes are a common motif, and a related image, the “block statue,” appeared in the New Kingdom.  The “block statue” compresses a seated person into a cube, with the head and feet protruding from it.  On this scale, servants and soldiers have also been found.  Wood is the most common material for such common subjects, but royal images of this scale could easily be made of gold, silver or ivory.

The smallest statues, less than the length of a hand, might still be made of any of the above materials, but there are also additional possibilities: wax, clay and faience.  Faience is a paste made from ground silicates that hardens into a solid form.  Even common artisans could afford materials such as these in the quantities one would use for a small sculpture, and so small amulets and the like are very common. One of the most common forms of sculpture in all of Egypt is that of the Ushabti, which is usually a small mummiform figure.  These were buried with the deceased to provide a substitute to perform the labor required in the next world; wealthy nobles were often buried with many Ushabtiu, which ensured that they could continue to live as they were accustomed.

Egyptian sculpture was a mirror of its society.  Massive statues and prized materials were the unique preserves of kings and gods, but as the scale dwindled and humbler materials were used, sculpture branched out to represent a wider portion of society.  At every scale and with every material, however, certain standards remained true.  Sculpture served to make the symbol real, to give everlasting form to fleeting essences, and to gain power over forces beyond human control.  Sculpture is not merely the most enduring representation of Egyptian culture; it embodies the very essence of Egyptian culture.


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