PAINTING AND SCULPTURE
My grandmother, who was of Pennsylvania Dutch stock, used to say, “Oh, it’s just for pretty,” about some of her possessions or the ornamentation on them—a flower painted on the side of a bowl, for instance. It has taken me a long time to realize that this seemingly naive statement is actually a pretty good description of “fine art” as opposed to crafts. Ars gratia artis—art for the sake of art, not for utility. If you read books about Egyptian art you will come across sentences like these. “Egyptian art was solely utilitarian, designed for magical (religious, protective, symbolic, philosophical) purposes. Aesthetic qualities were irrelevant. Beauty was not a factor.”
All very true, no doubt, but statements like these bother me. Perhaps it’s because they sound—quite unintentionally, I am sure—somewhat patronizing. It does seem to me that they make unnecessary and meaningless distinctions. A great deal of what we call “art” is utilitarian, and the “fine art” of the Western world, enshrined in museums and drooled over by critics, includes innumerable paintings and pieces of sculpture that had religious (magical, philosophical) functions. A Gothic cathedral was constructed for the glory of God, and its elements, architectural and decorative, are full of symbolism. The great Renaissance painters specialized in saints and martyrs, and they were subsidized by wealthy patrons who often insisted on being included in the painting, kneeling in prayer and looking pious. The motive of these noble patrons was as “utilitarian” as that of an Egyptian who had himself portrayed offering to the god or the king. Both hoped it would help them get into heaven.
Now that I’ve got that out of my system, I will try to talk about Egyptian art. Before describing what they did and how they did it and offering a few informed guesses as to why they did it, one must first consider various approaches to the subject.
Over the years Egyptology has become a full-time job for a scholar. To an outsider it may seem very narrow, yet it is so complex that no living Egyptologist would claim to be a universal expert. New discoveries are constantly being made, new theories published; the language itself, like the ability to play the piano, requires daily practice in order to maintain proficiency. The result is specialization within specialization; if you approach one Egyptologist to ask his opinion on a scarab you bought in Egypt, he may pass you on to a colleague with the remark that “my field is plant ornament; so-and-so, at the Boston Museum, is the man for scarabs.”
This being the case within Egyptology itself, you may imagine how wary Egyptologists are of venturing into other fields such as anthropology or comparative religion—or art criticism. Most Egyptologists would agree that it must be done. No field of history is isolated, and the broader one’s background the more easily one may be able to interpret specific meanings. Some attempts have been made to solve the dilemma of specialization versus generalization through symposia or conferences where historians and scholars from different fields sit around a table sipping water and giving talks to one another. Despite the fact that the people who participate in these conferences are often brilliant scholars, I have yet to see one which in my opinion produced a genuine synthesis of ideas. Even in a symposium scholars tend to talk in narrow terms about their own fields (which is natural enough, with a battery of experts waiting to pounce on the first mistake), and the scholars who listen to them can usually think of too many exceptions, in terms of their specialities, to allow of generalization.
Many art historians and art critics, not to mention critics of literature and music, hold that no work of art is comprehensible out of context; a corollary is the biographical method, in which it is maintained that the artist’s work cannot be apprehended without a knowledge of his life. Another critical school, however, argues that the artist’s motives, his childhood experiences, and his cultural background are extraneous to a study of the work of art. Its form can have sufficient meaning in itself.
The Sheikh El Beled. Cairo Museum. (Photograph by D. Forbes)
Queen Tiye. Ebony head. Berlin Museum. (Photograph by D. Forbes)
Sarcophagus of Prince Thutmose’s cat Tamiut. Cairo Museum. (Photograph by D. Forbes)
Mummy of dog from Valley of the Kings’ tomb. Cairo Museum, Animal Mummy Room. (Photograph by S. Ikram)
Crowns of Princess Khnumit. Cairo Museum. (Photograph by A. Dodson)
Toilet chest with mirror. Cairo Museum. (Photograph by S. Ikram)
Deir El Medina. New Kingdom tomb builders’ village (foreground) and necropolis. (Photograph by D. Forbes)
Deir El Medina. Private tomb. (Photograph by D. Forbes)
Model of an Amarna villa. Overall view.
(Garth Denning illustrations, courtesy of KMT Communications, D. Forbes)
Senet board and pieces. Cairo Museum. (Photograph by S. Ikram)
Chariot from tomb of Yuya. Painting by Howard Carter. (Photograph by D. Forbes)
Two groups of model soldiers. Egyptian spearmen. (Photographs by S. Ikram)
Nubian bowmen. Cairo Museum. (Photographs by S. Ikram)
Akhenaton. Detail of colossal statue. Cairo Museum. (Photograph by D. Forbes)
Akhenaton. Detail of small limestone statue. Cairo Museum. (Photograph by D. Forbes)
Step pyramid complex, Sakkara. (Photograph by D. Forbes)
“Astronomical” ceiling of tomb of Senenmut, Thebes. (Photograph by D. Forbes)
The White Chapel of Senusert I. Open Air Museum, Karnak. (Photograph by D. Forbes)
Herakleopolitan (above), coffin of Akhhotep,
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Anthropoid (below left),
coffin of Khnumhotep, Royal Museum of Scotland; Rishi (below right),
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. (Photographs by A. Dodson)
Hatshepsut temple, Deir El Bahri, Thebes. (Photograph by D. Forbes)
Portrait head of one of the canopic jars from tomb no. 55, Valley of the Kings, Metropolitan Museum of Art. (Photograph by D. Forbes)
Walled garden with pool
Let’s get down to cases. Take a look at the illustration (opposite) which shows the Egyptian style of drawing a walled garden with a pool. Above the Egyptian pool we have a modern perspective drawing of the same object, which should make clear to the reader, more conveniently than words could do, how the Egyptian style of representation differed from our own. The reality of the Egyptian drawing is not visual reality, yet no one would deny that it is reality of a kind. All the parts of the garden are there: pool, trees, doors in the wall, duck in the pool. Not all these elements are visible in the perspective drawing, which is thus inferior to the Egyptian version with regard to the complete and accurate rendering of an object in all its parts. The same principle holds with the depiction of the offering table (Chapter 9), which looks as if the offerings of fruit and flowers and bits of meat are piled in a two-dimensional tower. They were, of course, laid out on the surface of the table, which is shown from the side; but the artist had to use a different technique for the offerings themselves, or we (and the recipient of the goodies) wouldn’t know they were there.
One obvious characteristic of Egyptian two-dimensional art, which can be seen in our examples, is the absence of foreshortening. This is demonstrated by the Egyptian way of drawing the human figure. Suppose you—and by “you” I mean an untrained, untalented artist, like myself—suppose you want to draw a man. If you show him in front view you will run into several problems of foreshortening. Unless you are satisfied with a sort of blob, you, the untrained artist, cannot draw a nose that looks like a nose. Feet are even worse; they will look like wooden blocks. So you decide to draw your man in profile. Now the nose looks like a nose, and the feet have a certain resemblance to feet. But what are you going to do with the shoulders?
What the Egyptians did was to combine two points of view—profile and front view. The face was drawn in profile with the eye in front view; the shoulders were again in front view and the feet in profile, but in between the body was gradually turned so that there was no abrupt change in point of view. The drawing of the garden combines the two points of view less ingeniously. It is really a combination of what we would call plan and elevation.
We may tend to be a little patronizing about the Egyptian style of drawing, considering it inferior to a style which understands and uses perspective. Yet perspective in drawing is actually uncommon. We do not find it in two-dimensional art in any of the ancient cultures of the Near East. This does not mean that they were unaware of its more obvious effects. Anybody can see that the farther an object is from the beholder the smaller it appears, and obviously an object may be concealed by one in front of it. And although the vanishing point would not be defined and understood for a long time, the Egyptians were surely aware of the subtle distortion that was its effect. So why didn’t they draw things that way?
Perhaps because it was easier to draw things their way, without perspective? I find it easier; I can produce an acceptable Egyptian painting much more easily than I can produce a copy of da Vinci or Dürer. But this is a ridiculous explanation, particularly for a civilization which built the pyramids without mechanical power or iron tools.
It is at this point that the formal approach fails us. We can describe what we see in Egyptian paintings; but what we see is really meaningless unless we know why the particular forms were chosen. There are aesthetes who rhapsodize over Egyptian painting because of its purely formal qualities; and certainly it has many appeals. The colors are pretty, the drawing has the crisp assurance of long-established and accepted technique, and some details appeal to the eye or to the emotions. But there is, I think, a touch of that condescension I mentioned earlier in these evaluations, a suggestion of “how quaint these primitives were!” Egyptian painting was not quaint, and it was not primitive. The rules of style, the “canon,” were established by the middle of the third millenniumB.C., and they were not greatly altered until after the end of Egypt’s existence as a distinct cultural entity. We may speak glibly about the static quality of Egyptian culture to explain this remarkable continuity, but the fact remains that these rules would not have been followed for so long unless they had satisfied the demands of the society. What those demands were we must now try to investigate.
Though I don’t believe that the utilitarian approach says all that can be said about Egyptian art, there is no denying it was important. The tomb paintings were not meant to make the place look pretty. They insured that the dead man would be provided with all the objects and all the pleasures which the paintings depicted. Ancient art in general is thought to have had its origin in magic. The wonderful cave paintings of European prehistory, like those at Lascaux, were not made by a Neanderthal Pinturicchio, commissioned by Ug the chief to adorn his mansion. Many of them are stuck away in dark, unfrequented corners. By depicting the animals desired for food the prehistoric artists were invoking magical laws which promised them a successful hunt.
Now if magic is at the basis of art, including Egyptian art, it is important that the object be shown as complete and whole, so that nothing vital is missing when the spiritual similacrum is given to the soul of the deceased. As we saw in the drawings of the garden, the Egyptian version shows the whole garden, with the pool. The perspective drawing cannot show the pool, and so the spiritual garden of the dead man, in the Land of the West, might lack this desirable feature.
This is the conventional explanation for the “why” of Egyptian painting. There are two objections to it: one is the old quibble that we can never be sure that our analyses of the motives of dead and dust foreigners are correct; the other is that the magical thesis does not explain all the eccentricities of Egyptian two-dimensional art. If you want to draw a “whole” man, and make sure that no essential part of him will be missing when he is reborn into eternal life, you do not show his head in profile. The Egyptian version gives a man two shoulders, two arms, two legs, and a body, but it deprives him of one eye and one ear. The Egyptians could draw heads in front view; one of the common hieroglyphs takes this form, and the little god Bes is always depicted from the front, face and all. So perhaps the theory of magical utility is only a partial answer to our “why.” However, it does explain some of what we would consider the peculiarities of Egyptian painting and bas-relief.
Relative size is one of these peculiarities. It often indicated importance and rank, not actual dimensions or distance from the observer. So in some periods the king towers over his tiny wife, and the nobleman looms above the bodies of his workers. Showing two people seated side by side, as they actually appeared to the observer, would mean that one person was partially or entirely concealed by the body of the other. The Egyptians ignored this effect of perspective because it didn’t suit their purpose. The tomb scenes showing husband and wife, where it appears that she is sitting or standing behind him, actually depicted two people next to each other, side by side.
The magical approach can be applied to the study of sculpture as well as of painting. Some of the statues of gods and kings in our museums come from temples, but the others, particularly statues of private persons, were meant for the tombs. The utility of a tomb statue is easy to explain in magical terms; in a culture which put so much stress on the preservation of the body, we may reasonably assume that some sort of physical representation of the dead man was a prerequisite for eternal life. If the mummy were damaged or destroyed, a handsome statue could be an acceptable substitute. Statues of gods and kings in temples established their presence and formed foci of worship.
Whether they were primarily magical or not, Egyptian works of art were more than just utilitarian; they were also beautiful. Many people find the sculpture of ancient Egypt easier to enjoy than the painting, since it was not affected by the absence of perspective, which distorts—for our eyes—the two-dimensional art. There was a canon for sculpture as well as for painting; both were set early in Egyptian history, and both were followed for over two thousand years. The essential quality of Egyptian sculpture, which strikes most beholders at once, is its squareness. When you look at a statue you can almost see the block it was cut out of. The Law of Frontality applies, since most statues were set up against a wall and were meant to be seen—if they were seen at all—from the front; but a statue may be subject to this law and still not be “square.” In Egyptian statues almost all the lines are right angles or parallels. A seated statue—one of the most popular poses—was particularly “square.” Right angles at hips and knees, straight legs, rigid back, and stiff neck—there is never any twisting of the torso or turning of the head. It is all straight up and down.
Another general remark which applies to Egyptian sculpture in the round of all periods is that the body is not treated in detail. Musculature is barely indicated; the torso is a series of smooth planes, the legs and arms are shaped columns. Even when, in the Late Period, an attempt was made to show musculature, it was as formalized and lifeless as the Assyrian sculpture of approximately the same period. It is hard to find the right word for this phenomenon, because the terms we might be tempted to use have misleading connotations. Some scholars say Egyptian sculpture is abstract; this always makes me think of the blocks of concrete filled with holes, called “Woman Nursing Child” or “Aspiration,” which may be found in modern art museums. Egyptian sculpture is too close to reality to be called abstract. We can’t call this treatment “sketchy” either; it is too complete and too finished. It is better to avoid such labels altogether.
Though one is entitled to generalize about Egyptian art, there were variations over time. Not all of them are obvious to the untrained observer, but they are very important to Egyptologists who want to date uninscribed objects—most objects, that is.
Sculpture and bas-relief of the predynastic and early dynastic period is restricted to small objects such as the famous Narmer palette. Slate palettes were used for grinding cosmetics, but the large, decorated versions were made to commemorate noteworthy occasions. In this case the occasion seems to have been the unification of Egypt under King Narmer. The symbolism is fairly obvious—the falcon, representing the god Horus of Upper Egypt, leading prisoners to the king, fallen bodies of the foe, and so on. It’s a battle or a war we see here, with the ruler of Upper Egypt triumphing over his foe. Even at this early age the conventions of depicting the human form had been established. There are a few small statues from the earliest dynasties, but monumental sculpture did not develop until the Old Kingdom. However, the Egyptian artist caught on fast. Some people consider this the high point of Egyptian art. The heads of Old Kingdom monarchs suggest the divinity of kingship: calm, assured, inhumanly regal, the finely cut features might be those of a god. Private statues like that of the Sheikh el Beled and Hemiun, to mention only two, are equally impressive.
The Old Kingdom royal heads are quite unlike the careworn, stern faces of the Twelfth Dynasty Amenemhats and Senuserts. This period followed a time of anarchy, when local rulers asserted their independence and decorated handsome tombs in their provincial capitals, so maybe Senusert III and his son had some reason to look worried. The fact is that nobody knows for sure what lay behind this change. It is very distinctive, however, and makes it easy to distinguish Middle Kingdom from Old Kingdom royal statues.
Another period of social and political breakdown followed the Twelfth Dynasty, before the local dynasts of Thebes re united the country. Thus begins the New Kingdom, which is considered by other experts to be the high point of Egyptian art. By the time of Amenhotep III, whom you may know as “Amenhotep the Magnificent,” or “the Sun King,” huge building projects were under way at Luxor and Karnak temples and up and down the Nile, featuring enormous statues of the king. The biggest surviving are the so-called Colossi of Memnon, which once flanked the entrance to Amenhotep’s mortuary temple, but they are so sadly battered that the features are indistinguishable. Never mind; there are a lot of other statues of Amenhotep. It isn’t difficult to distinguish sculpture of this period from that of the Old and Middle Kingdoms. Though the bodies of kings remain young and strong, the faces show a softening of contour and of expression; Hatshepsut and Thutmose III smile enigmatically, and Amenhotep III develops chubby cheeks. (This is an oversimplification, of course; a detailed description would take volumes.)
Deviations from the canon
Although details varied from century to century and sometimes from year to year, the basic rules did not change. These rules, or canons, fixed not only the form of sculpture and painting, but the poses and postures as well. The canon applied most rigidly to persons of rank. The lower the individual in the social scale, the more freely he could be portrayed; children and animals were just about at the bottom of the scale, and that is one reason why Egyptian animals and birds are particularly charming. They could fly and prance and crawl and flutter without injuring a dignity they did not possess. Servants were fairly undignified, so they could be shown indulging in activities which were not proper for the nobility. The small tomb models of the First Intermediate Period show bakers and butchers and weavers animatedly engaged in various aspects of their work, and tomb paintings include quite a variety of poses, including wrestling, dancing, and acrobatics. Our illustration shows a few such deviations from the canonical rules; some are really delightful, and they indicate that Egyptian artists were not as limited as one might think. Other attempts were not so successful.
While the servants work and cavort, the nobleman and his wife sit or stand in stiff aloofness, removed from the reality of the scene. The seated and standing postures were the most popular for persons of dignity, but distinguished persons were also allowed to kneel before the gods or the king. The king, being more dignified than anyone else, only knelt to the gods. Another favorite pose during certain periods was that of the “seated scribe”—a man sitting cross-legged with his kilt drawn taut across his knees and his shoulders slightly bowed. There are few recumbent Egyptians in our artistic representations, except dead ones. The mummy, of course, lies flat, and the anthropoid coffin itself might be regarded as a sculptured, supine figure. Limited as they are, these poses are eminently satisfactory—dignified, stately, and sometimes graceful.
If the canon applied rigidly to the pose of the kings, it was equally inflexible about the royal physique. Trim and muscular, shapely as the body of an Apollo—this is the form of the king’s statues—almost always.
If we stroll through the halls of the Cairo Museum contemplating kings—Menkaure, the Senuserts, the Thutmoses—we see them all as similar in shape: broad-shouldered, slim of waist and hip, straight and strong. Then we come upon Akhenaton, with his potbelly, his sagging breasts, his elongated skull, and spindly shanks! Carrying tact to an unnecessary extreme, his wife and the nobility of his court were represented in the same way, so the tomb reliefs of the period teem with oddly shaped people. Postures too are radically different in Amarna art. Tutankhamon is shown leaning on his staff or slouching—in the royal throne! Akhenaton kisses his wife and bounces his children on his knee.
Here we must pause for a brief historical digression in order to set the scene. Akhenaton was the heir of a perfectly respectable, conventionally pious royal family whose members built temples to various gods, particularly Amon-Re of Thebes, and divided their time between Thebes and Memphis, the northern capital. Shortly after he came to the throne, Amenhotep IV, as he was then named, went off the rails. He changed his name to Akhenaton, honoring a fairly obscure sun god, Aton, and built a new city in a new site, several hundred miles north of Thebes. It is known today as Tell el Amarna, hence the designation of this period and its characteristics. Among the characteristics was a rejection of the extensive Egyptian pantheon. Akhenaton worshiped only his “sole god” Aton and sent emissaries around the country to excise the names and images of the gods, with special emphasis on Amon of Thebes. His “revolution” died with him. His successor, young Tutankhaton, changed his name to one that honored Amon and moved the court back to Thebes. We don’t know what happened to Akhenaton’s remains, or those of his beautiful wife Nefertiti, or those of their six daughters. We all know what happened to Tutankhamon.
The art of the Amarna Period is as distinctive as the new religious attitudes. It’s not only the drastic changes in the depiction of the human figure. There is an overall relaxation of the older rigidity, a greater use of curved lines, one might even say a loosening of rules, which may be interpreted as charming freedom or dreadful decadence, depending on one’s general attitude toward Akhenaton and his new ideas. Scholars have been arguing for decades about what prompted the change. According to some, the clue may lie in the word “maat,” often translated as “truth,” which was the leitmotif of Akhenaton’s reign. He wasn’t the only pharaoh who honored maat, but he emphasized it more than many other kings, adding the epithet “living in truth” to his titulary.
Unfortunately, maat, like our own “truth,” means a lot of different things. That it involved a code of ethical conduct seems undeniable. A judge is expected to render “maat” a virtuous man speaks “maat.” “Justice” and “truth” are the obvious translations, and I believe they meant the same to the Egyptians as they do to us.
“True” has another meaning, that of accuracy. One does see in Amarna art an increased emotional content, an expressiveness—not, please, expressionism—of genuine feeling. This may be viewed as the logical consequence of maat, “candor,” or an effect in itself.
However, Amarna art never really challenged the basic canons. Grotesque as the forms may be, unusual as the postures may appear, they are distortions, not violations, of the old forms and the old poses. Sculpture is softer and more rounded, but it is still frontal and still, despite the deceptive suggestion of curves, essentially straight up and down. Painting and relief give the human body in the familiar combination of profile and front view, depictions of houses and palaces are the same confusing blend of plan and elevation. Of course, the court artists were used to working in this style, and most of them would have found it utterly impossible to break away from it, but I cannot help suspecting, particularly in view of earlier successful, if spasmodic, attempts at deviation from the canon, that a talented young painter could have made a closer approximation to visual reality if that had been what the king was demanding. Akhenaton wanted something different from the old formal style, assuredly; but what he wanted and why he wanted it we may never know.
In some cases early Amarna art may strike a modern viewer as less pleasing than the canonical style. The plant and animal forms attract us because of their increased freedom; but the human figure still has the disadvantages of the unfamiliar perspective (or lack of it), plus the new distortions which rob the body, male or female, of its grace. The two little Amarna princesses, who are often reproduced and admired, are really rather horrid. Their bodies are boneless, their arms and legs have a rubbery flaccidity, and their long, naked skulls suggest a pair of extraterrestrials out of H. G. Wells. These elongated skulls are characteristic of the Amarna princesses—there were six of them, as I have said—but it usually isn’t possible to tell one from another. Naturally,the reasons for the distortion are still being debated. The old theory, that the girls must have had their heads deliberately flattened, as was done in some other cultures, has now been abandoned, and since most of the sculptured skulls have been carefully carved, they can’t have been covered by crowns or wigs. Surely this was not a literal rendering of reality. It meant something, and you will find various theories mentioned in various books on Amarna art, but since nobody knows for certain, I will not trouble you with them.
In both painting and sculpture Amarna art went through several distinct stages of development even in its brief lifetime. In the first years of Akhenaton’s reign, this “candor,” if we want to call it that, could almost be termed caricature. The most striking examples are a group of colossal statues which Akhenaton had made for a temple at Thebes. His face is impossibly elongated, with a hanging chin and a disturbing smile; his body shows what seems to be a pathological condition, in extreme form. Perhaps the reason why they strike some Egyptologists as grotesque is that they are in Osirid form, and the contrast between the classic, sacred image of the god and the brutal violation of his traditional shape is almost painful to the trained eye. Yet there is a strange fascination about these statues; the more you look at them the more they “get” to you. Some scholars believe that these statues and the reliefs that show similar peculiarities depict a pathological condition from which the king suffered. I don’t. I can’t prove I’m right, any more than they can, since Akhenaton’s mummy is missing, but it seems more than likely that these representations are expressions of religious or philosophical concepts.
After the move to Amarna the exaggerated forms become modified and more realistic, and some of the statues of this later period are among the most famous known from Egypt. Tell el Amarna has been excavated by several groups, but it was Ludwig Borchardt, working under the auspices of the Deutsche Orient-Gesellschaft, who turned up the most exciting object found in the ruins of Akhenaton’s short-lived capital. He found it in the debris of what had been the workshop of a sculptor named Thutmose.
Thutmose lived and worked in the same house. It was one of the large, handsome Amarna villas, for he was a successful man, Chief of Works and master sculptor, with several apprentices. Within a few years after Akhenaton’s death, the exodus from the doomed city began. At first the inhabitants thought the removal back to Thebes was only temporary. They followed the court, locking up their houses and taking with them only personal possessions. Later it became evident that the city which had enshrined Akhenaton’s jealous god would never be tolerated by the followers of Amon-Re. Some of the house-owners returned to Amarna and cleared away all their possessions, even carrying off door frames and columns to use in the new houses they were building in Thebes. Scavengers may have finished the clearance; very little in the way of furniture, jewelry, or personal possessions has been found at the site. But for some reason or other Thutmose’s workshop was not completely cleared. The German excavators surmised that the sculptor gathered together all the unwanted or unfinished pieces he had on hand, walled up the door to the storage room, and then left.
One can’t help wondering how Thutmose felt about this. He must have known that the abandoned pieces included masterpices of sculpture. He may have worked on some of them himself. He had been personally acquainted with the royal family, who had honored and encouraged him. There’s something suggestive and sad about that blocked doorway. Did Thutmose hope he could one day retrieve his unfinished work, or was he only trying to protect something he cared about because of its beauty or its personal meaning?
Among these abandoned pieces of sculpture was an extraordinary collection of faces—plaster casts, death or life masks, or, more likely, casts made from works of sculpture in process—that show a degree of realism greater than is commonly found in Egypt, but the chef d’oeuvre was undoubtedly the bust of Queen Nefertiti, which has been reproduced in every medium from postcards to dress material. She really is beautiful, with her long, arched throat and faintly smiling face, tinted with the colors of life. When she made her first appearance in the Berlin Museum a loud shout of admiration arose from all the world. One voice in the general clamor, however, did not express admiration. It came from the Egyptian government, and it said, in essence: “How did she get there?”
Ever since Mariette’s time there have been laws in Egypt regarding the export of antiquities. Mariette and his successor Maspero were fairly lenient about sharing objects with excavators, but foreign archaeological expeditions were supposed to spread out their finds at the end of the working season for the inspection of an official from the Department of Antiquities. He made his selection for the Cairo Museum, and the expeditions got only what he chose to give them, unless other arrangements were made in advance. The general rule was that the Egyptian government kept the unique objects and shared the rest.
In the case of Nefertiti, the Egyptian government maintained that it never would, never could, let such a unique treasure out of the country. This is probably true. I have heard several stories about the escape (or kidnapping) of Nefertiti, and it is hard to make out precisely what did happen. The archaeologists of the Deutsche Orient-Gesselschaft insisted that the whole thing had been open and aboveboard. By the terms of their agreement with the Antiquities Department they were entitled to all artworks recognized as models or pattern pieces. Nefertiti was there, on the table with all the rest of the objects; her unique beauty was obviously not recognized by the inspector, and she was passed on to the excavators with the other models.
Seeing Nefertiti as she is today, it is hard to believe that an inspector could have failed to recognize her as unique unless he was drunk, blind in both eyes, or—but we will not mention a word which might be actionable. However, we must bear in mind that she did not have all her elegant beauty when she was dredged out of the wreckage of Thutmose’s studio. Possibly—to be charitable about it—the government inspector was just not very alert. If he really did miss Nefertiti, one could hardly expect the excavators to take him aside and carefully point out that he had overlooked one of the masterpieces of Egyptian sculpture.
Or maybe one should expect that. The rights and wrongs of the case of Nefertiti are involved with the larger and rather touchy question of the division of antiquities. In most Near Eastern countries the host country claims the right of decision, and if it chooses to keep all the objects found, nobody can argue with it. The claims of the host country are indisputable; it owns the land. But what about the claims of the excavator, who contributes time, money, expertise, and elbow grease? Scientia gratia scientia is all very well, but the museums which sponsor archaeological expeditions want some return for their money. Another consideration is the availability of the material. For scholars there are certain advantages in a single great collection; they do not have to travel all over the world to see what they want to see. But not everyone can visit the Near East, and there are a lot of people who are interested in Near Eastern archaeology. Dispersal in one sense is a service, since it makes it possible for greater numbers of people to see and enjoy the masterpieces of ancient cultures. Oh, well, we could go on debating this issue forever. Let’s get back to Egyptian art.
A number of the objects found in Tutankhamon’s tomb were made at Amarna or influenced by its artistic canon. After the Amarna heresies were obliterated by the orthodox successors of Tutankhamon, art returned to its conventional forms. Many of the works from this period, especially sculpture and relief, continue the finest traditions of New Kingdom work; like their Eighteenth Dynasty predecessors, the nobles of the Nineteenth Dynasty commissioned statues of themselves for their tombs, and those that have survived are absolutely stunning, including several pair statues of husband and wife. Maybe the originals weren’t that handsome, but the sculptures themselves exemplify male and female beauty and aristocratic dignity.
However, to many of us the sculpture of the Ramesside Period is more notable for size and ubiquity than for beauty. The colossi of Ramses II at his rock-cut temple of Abu Simbel strike many observers as chunky and graceless.
Under the vigorous Cushite kings of the Twenty-Fifth Dynasty a new sculptural technique appears alongside the older one. A few heads of this period combine a smooth, polished surface with hard, precisely defined facial planes. The bodies are in the classic style, youthful and firm, but some of the faces are hard, almost grim. The following Saite dynasty produced some striking pieces of sculpture, but Saite art is, for the most part, a deliberate imitation of the great periods of the past. Entire tombs were reproduced, so accurately that it is sometimes difficult to tell the original from the copy.
Foreign contacts had little effect on art, except in decorative motifs, and the splendid Greek art, even after the conquest of Alexander, produced in Egypt only second-rate provincial Greek imitations or peculiar amalgamations of the two techniques. The decorative work of the Greco-Roman periods in Egypt becomes ornate and extravagant. The only new development of merit (i.e., the only one I like) was the so-called mummy portraits, sometimes referred to as the Fayum portraits, since the majority of them come from that area. These paintings, in wax on flat boards, replaced the mummy masks of earlier periods, covering the bandaged head of the mummy, after, perhaps, being displayed in the house during the lifetime of the subject. The best of them—all by anonymous artists—are as beautiful and evocative as anything in Renaissance Western art. Not even I would deny that these are true portraits; they look you straight in the eye and demand acknowledgment of their humanity. But the style is Greek, not Egyptian.
Middle Kingdom royal head
Which brings us back to the subject of portraiture. I believe it is safe to say that portraiture in the modern sense, an exact likeness of the subject, is not found in ancient Egypt before the Greek period. To some extent that interpretation is subjective; but I cannot resist the opportunity of reproducing, for the reaction of the reader, two so-called portrait heads from two different cultures. The Egyptian head shown is that of a Middle Kingdom ruler, unidentified by inscriptional material. The other photograph is a bust of the Roman emperor Caracalla. To my eye there is a great deal of difference between these two “portraits” I have the feeling that if I met Caracalla’s bust attached to a body and strolling down the street I would recognize the fellow at once (and run fast in the opposite direction). Even the trunkless stone heads have unique identities as they balance on their necks on the shelves of Roman museums; the merest amateur soon learns to recognize the chill beauty of Augustus, the wide-eyed glare of Caracalla, and the pudgy, narrow-lipped face of Vespasian.
The Egyptians? Perhaps we might know some of them. I think I would recognize Akhenaton; for one thing, he doesn’t look like any other pharaoh. But what did he really look like? In the flesh? Like the strange Karnak colossus, with its elongated face and diabolic mouth, or like the sensitive, grave little statue in the Cairo Museum?
An exact likeness wasn’t what the Egyptian artist was after. The magical efficacy of the name identified a statue or a painting. A man’s name was more than a handy label; it was an integral part of himself, carrying a spark of his own essence. Inscribing a statue with this magic spell, the name, gave the stone form not only identity but a sort of animation. If a king wanted to “borrow” the statue of one of his predecessors he often didn’t bother remodeling the features, he simply cut his name over that of the original owner.
And yet, says the informed reader, there are genuine portrait sculptures from ancient Egypt. They look like portraits. Some, though uninscribed, have been identified beyond any reasonable doubt—Nefertiti, Queen Tiye, Amenemhat III….
It would be ridiculous to claim that Egypt never produced a single portrait statue; what ever the canon and its requirements, the talents and tastes of individual artists varied widely. From time to time a skillful sculptor did produce a work of art which suggests portraiture in the strictest sense of the word. The trouble is, we don’t always know whom the heads are portraits of. In the case of Queen Tiye, to take only one example, we can be fairly sure of the general period to which the wonderful wooden head should be dated. However, a few scholars think the lady in question is not Tiye, but her daughter, Sitamon. The features do bear a resemblance to other so-called portraits of Tiye which are identified by name; but then, Sitamon may have looked like her mother.
I think the reader would be surprised to learn how shaky many of the accepted identifications of sculptured heads really are. Unless they are inscribed, the ones that are “certain” ought to be labeled with a question mark, and the ones that have question marks probably should not have names at all. The question mark seems to be regarded as a magic sign which legitimizes a guess and turns it into a scholarly theory. The same magic sign is applied to many of the Amarna heads which were found in Thutmose’s abandoned workshop. Not a single piece bears a name or an inscription, yet some scholars believe they can recognize all the members of the royal family and many of the high officials. I admire their enthusiasm and respect their expertise; experience gives an expert a feeling for relationships and resemblances which may be valid even though it cannot always be made explicit. Yet this sort of scholarship can be treacherous; postulated resemblances have been used as the basis for elaborate theories of chronology and genealogy for which there is little or no textual evidence. The eye is easily misled by the unfortunate tendency to see, not what is actually there, but what it wishes or expects to see. Any parent of a newborn infant knows, for instance, that the poor child may be identified as the “spitting image” of half a dozen different, doting relatives. Even the experts often fail to agree on the identity of a particular head unless it is inscribed. No one could possibly mistake a bust of Tiberius for a portrait of Augustus; but the same head has been identified by different scholars as a portrait of Akhenaton, his successor Smenkhkare, and his wife Nefertiti.
I am willing to admit that the famous bust is Nefertiti, even though her name is not on it. Why? For one thing, there’s that long, elegant throat. Primarily, however, it’s the crown. She is the only queen known to have worn it. This is called an iconographical feature, and although “iconography” is a word I detest and a subject I had sworn to avoid, some reference to it is necessary if I am to be fair to the scholars who are specialists in Egyptian art and who identify works of art on that basis. I refuse to define it, however. Examples get the point across better. Nefertiti’s distinctive crown is such an example. Most other iconographical features are not so unique. Crowns, ornaments, elements of costume, the shape of a wig, the size of an earring, have been analyzed, classified, and attributed. Some of the arguments are very persuasive, but I still feel that identifications based solely on iconography are worrisome.
We have been talking about painting and sculpture in the round exclusively, so that it may seem that we have neglected the elegant Egyptian relief sculpture. However, most of the general remarks we have made about painting apply equally well to relief, since it was also two-dimensional. Most Egyptian relief sculpture is low relief, and it was usually painted as well. When we admire the wall reliefs in the Old Kingdom tombs, with their delicate rendering of forms, we tend to forget that in many cases the relief sculptor’s skill was covered over by that of the artist painter.
Before the sculptor began carving a scene on the wall of a tomb or temple, the surface to be decorated was carefully smoothed, and any cracks or holes were filled with plaster. If the stone being used was of poor quality, the whole wall might be covered with a thin coating of plaster. When the plaster was dry, the outline draftsman—as we translate his title—made his appearance. His task was to draw the outlines of the scene upon the plastered wall. To insure accuracy, and to follow the canon of correct proportions, he used a grid, which was applied directly upon the wall surface before the actual drawing was begun. The intervals between the lines of the grid were measured by means of an instrument similar to a ruler or straight-edge, but the lines themselves were made by a string dipped in red ochre, held taut, and then plucked like a bowstring. With the same red ochre the artist then drew his figures, using the squares of the grid to guide him. Some of the grids have been found. They differ slightly in their relative proportions, but according to one, a human being was nineteen squares high from soles to crown. Specific parts of the body, such as the foot, forearm, and torso, also had their proper size in terms of grid squares. This was a practical and ingenious technique, for it could be used to draw figures of any magnitude; the artist merely decreased the size of the squares for small figures and enlarged them when an immense king or god was required. The faded lines of these grids can still be seen, by sharp-eyed tourists, on a few Egyptian monuments.
The outline draftsman’s sketches were corrected, presumably by his boss. On some wall surfaces the surer, darker lines are still visible.
When the draftsmen had packed up and gone home, the relief sculptor took over. His usual method was to cut away the background, leaving the figures raised, but in some cases the figures and hieroglyphs were sunk into the surface. Obviously this latter technique saved a lot of time and effort; one can only wonder why it wasn’t done more often. One explanation that has been proposed is that raised relief worked better on exterior walls, where sunlight could sharpen its outlines. Makes sense, I suppose.
Human figure and grid
After he had cut out the forms, the sculptor finished the interior surfaces, indicating details of clothing and musculature, but the real finishing detail was left to the third and last technician, the painter, who may or may not have been the same as the outline draftsman. His palette varied from age to age, but it was always relatively simple, and it was restricted by certain conventions. Clothing was painted white, hair black, human skin reddish brown for men or yellow for women. A few people were shown with black skin, and so was Osiris, Lord of the Dead, except when he was green. Both colors must indicate some special status, since other deified persons show the same feature, but I prefer not to be dogmatic about what they mean. Green for the new crops, rebirth? Black for the fertile soil that nurtures vegetation?
With the humble animals the artist was allowed a wider scope, and there his talents showed up best. The brilliant birds are among the most delightful characters in Egyptian reliefs; they have been so accurately drawn that the species can be identified, but the colors applied to them were not always those of nature. Attempts to indicate the texture of feathers or fur, and even the rounding of the body, have been discovered in certain animal paintings.
The painter’s brush was made out of a length of fibrous wood pounded at one end to separate the fibers into bristles. He used different brushes for different colors; these were almost always mineral-based pigments, which is one reason why so much ancient painting has survived so well. The black color was usually carbon; the other popular tints derived from green malachite and red and yellow ochre. The ground minerals were mixed with a vehicle, which was not an oil but an adhesive; Egyptian painting was tempera, not oil painting. The precise adhesive used is uncertain, not because of the mysterious lost art of the Egyptian painter, but because it is hard to analyze a minute proportion of a substance in a minute chunk of paint. One of the adhesives used was certainly beeswax, either mixed with the pigment as a binder or applied over the finished painting as a protective coating. Sometimes varnish was used for the latter purpose; it must have seemed like a good idea at the time, but it has usually turned yellow or brown, obscuring the original brilliant colors.
All sorts of things were painted—boxes, chairs, columns, floors of palaces, walls of temples—but the majority of great Egyptian paintings come from the tombs. So do many of the great works of sculpture.
Most Egyptian statues are made of stone, a material which admirably suits the stiff angularity of the style. Unfinished pieces show that the outline of the statue was drawn on all four sides of the block, and the whole figure was roughed out before final details were done. The sculptor’s tools were of copper; he used chisels and drills and saws. After the statue was finished it was polished with an abrasive stone or sand, and then painted. Limestone and other soft-stone statues were painted all over, with the usual white for clothing and red or yellow for skin. Statues of hard stone such as granite or basalt, which were prized for the beauty of the texture, were only picked out in paint—eyebrows might be painted black, or the details of a headdress or crown indicated. Sometimes details were added by insets of other materials. The eyes were often inlaid, so well that a certain number of Egyptian statues have quite an unnerving stare.
Composite statues, with different parts of the body made of different materials, were especially popular during the Amarna Period. They have survived only as bits and pieces, but some of the splendid Amarna heads were meant to be used in such composite statues—the face and hands carved of a polished stone such as quartzite, the clothed body of fine white limestone, the ornaments and crowns of gold and semiprecious stones or glass. None has survived intact, but a number of sculptured heads were intended to be a part of such composite statues. They have long protrusions, or tenons, on the top of the head, which would have been inserted into cavities in a crown or wig. Another tenon at the base of the neck fit into a hole in the torso of the statue.
There is one fragment of yellow jasper, polished to a mirror sheen, which depicts the lower part of a face—the face of a woman, because of the color. The material was so valuable and hard to work that the lady must have been a queen, and an Amarna queen at that; the provenance is unknown, but the style is distinctive. She’s been identified as Tiye, Nefertiti, and a secondary wife of Akhenaton’s. Never mind who she was, the completed statue must have been stunning, if somewhat baroque: the shimmering surface of her golden yellow face, the alabasterlike white of her linen robe, with perhaps a wig of carved lapis lazuli curls and a crown of gold, gold earrings, a broad collar of genuine gemstones set in gold.
Other materials were also used for sculpture. Some of the handsomest statues we have from Egypt are of wood; the head of Queen Tiye (?) and the Sheikh el Beled are outstanding examples. The metal statues are perhaps less well known than those of wood or stone, and they deserve mention because they show impressive craftmanship. As early as the Sixth Dynasty, Egyptian metalworkers produced a greater-than-life-size statue of Pepi I in copper. It was not cast, but hammered over a wooden core. By the Late Period statues of bronze, and even gold, are found, and these were certainly cast by the well-known ciré perdue method, in which a wax model is covered with a mold and heated. The wax melts and runs out through a hole left for that purpose, and the metal is poured into the resultant vacant space. Hollow or solid statues can be cast by this method, the former employing a core of some material under the wax; hollow statues, naturally, were cheaper than solid ones. One of the best of the Egyptian bronze statues is that of the lady Takushet of the Twenty-Fifth Dynasty; the designs with which she appears to be tattooed represent the decorations of her elegant robe, and they are inlaid in silver into the copper.
Having discussed the works of art, we ought to say a few words about the artists. The praise that is their due must be given them as a group citation and anonymously, for few names of individual painters and sculptors have come down to us, and even those few can rarely be connected with a given painting or statue. There is not a single signed work of art from ancient Egypt, unless we view the rough figures of Senenmut, hidden behind the sanctuary doors of the temple he is thought to have designed, as equivalents of “Senenmut fecit.” Tradition, or the circumstances of discovery, sometimes allow us to ascribe names to particular pieces; perhaps Thutmose of el Amarna can claim the beautiful head of Nefertiti as his chef-d’oeuvre, but we cannot be sure. Names of other artists have survived, though not in connection with specific objects. Bak, the sculptor of Akhenaton, “whom His Majesty himself taught,” gives us a tantalizing hint about the heretic king; was Akhenaton a dilettante sculptor as well as a religious fanatic? Then there was Iritsen, who lived during the Middle Kingdom and who was, if we can believe his own words, a sculptor of no mean talent:
I am a craftsman successful in his craft, one who comes out on top through that which he knows…. I know the movement of a figure, the stride of a woman…the cringing of the solitary captive, how one eye looks at another, how to make frightened the face of the outlaw, the pose of the arm of him who harpoons the hippopotamus, the pace of the runner.
The word “craftsman,” which Iritsen uses, is important because it describes the status of sculptors and painters. Their trade lacked the semimystical sanctity of the “fine arts” it was not even a profession, but a craft, on a level with carpentry and jewelrymaking. Within the general category of art there were specializations: the painter, the outline draftsman, the relief sculptor, and the sculptor in the round. In the workshops connected with the palace and the temples these craftsmen worked together under the supervision of the chief sculptor and the overseer of craftsmen. There was division of labor; one man might carve a statue and another man paint it. But perhaps there was no strict “union” separation of jobs. A single individual might learn all the aspects of his craft and be outline draftsman, painter, and sculptor in turn, with the hope of working up at last to the supervisory position of overseer of craftsmen. There are several indications that sculptors were regarded as superior to painters; for one thing, the tombs, stelae, and other monuments left by successful sculptors far outnumber those left by painters, which implies that they were richer and more prominent.
Most artists, and certainly the best of them, worked for the state. Sometimes the king might order a statue or even a whole tomb to be made for a friend or good servant, as a mark of favor, but there were also artists whose services could be obtained by the private citizen. Were these the state artists “moonlighting,” or was there a class of privately employed artists? We don’t know. The same mystery surrounds the training of artists. Since workshops existed, it is not unreasonable to suppose that “likely” boys were sent to them for training. I imagine that the boys were chosen because of family connections rather than special talent. In many cases known to us, son followed father in the trade, as he did in other trades and professions. It is the apprentice system in operation once again, with the father as the master. Yet some artists obviously took pride in their trade and enjoyed using their talents. Although the canon of art was limiting, there was room for the exercise of both skill and imagination; the great works of art surviving from Egypt show that although genius may not have been recognized as such, some ancient Michelangelos did find their way into the trade which was, for them, a genuine calling.
The monumental achievements of Egyptian architects are still dramatically visible along the Nile; of all the aspects of Egyptian culture, the temples and tombs make the greatest impression, and live longest in the memories of visiting tourists.
Evidently building temples was considered a more respectable occupation than carving statues. At any rate, the men who built them mentioned these achievements in their tomb biographies. We can thus attach names to specific structures, which is not the case with statues. The tomb of Thutmose I was constructed by a man named Ineni; the Karnak obelisks of Thutmose III were erected by his official Puemre. Of all the names that have survived, three stand out above the rest; no account of Egyptian architecture would be complete without them.
The first, and perhaps the foremost, was Imhotep, Vizier and Overseer of Works for King Djoser of the remote Third Dynasty. To this man probably belongs the credit for the Step Pyramid, Djoser’s massive tomb, which still dominates the site of Sakkara. Not only was the Step Pyramid a major engineering work, it was, so far as we know, a creative original—the first pyramid, and the first attempt to build on a grandiose scale in stone. Imhotep’s talents were not limited to architecture. Later generations of Egyptians honored him as a sage and master physician, and eventually he was worshiped, in this latter capacity, as a veritable god.
So fabulous were Imhotep’s achievements, and so remote the time in which he lived, that some scholars used to doubt his existence. A few years ago a statue base with Imhotep’s name, found in the Step Pyramid enclosure, not only solidified him historically but tied him specifically to the great monument which tradition had long ascribed to him. And for a while it was hoped we were on the brink of a discovery which would give the long-dead genius real identity as a historical personage.
The story begins over fifty years ago, when Walter B. Emery, the excavator of the early dynastic tombs of Sakkara, had a little time left over at the end of his digging season. He had long been interested in a particular part of the site, the westernmost section of the archaic cemetery of North Sakkara. This cemetery contains tombs of the very ancient First to Third Dynasties, and yet, in one place, the surface of the ground was covered with broken bits of pottery which dated from the Greco-Roman period. As we know, the worship of Imhotep was very popular in Greco-Roman times; and scholars have long believed that if a tomb of Imhotep existed, it would be in this archaic cemetery, where the other nobles of his period were buried. So, just before closing down his dig in 1956, Emery sunk two test pits in the area. The pits showed Third Dynasty brickwork. They also held the remains of sacrificed bulls, and ibis mummies.
The ibis, the long-legged bird sacred to Thoth, was one of the attributes of this god taken over by Imhotep when he attained divine rank. The evidence, then, looked promising. But it was not until 1964 that Professor Emery was able to pursue his investigations. What he found was both unexpected and significant.
The whole area was covered with tombs dating from the Archaic Period and the Old Kingdom. In Ptolemaic times their walls had been leveled, and the spaces between the tombs filled in, to form a huge flat surface. Why was this done? A reasonable explanation is that the leveled site was the platform for a big building, perhaps a temple. The sacrificed bulls, although they could have been tomb offerings, might have been foundation deposits for such a building.
The excavators proceeded to clear some of the tombs. In the burial shaft of one, thirty-five feet below the ground, they literally fell through into a fantastic underground structure—a vast stonecut labyrinth, like the Serapeum of Sakkara where the mummies of the sacred bulls were buried. The chambers of Emery’s structure also contained mummies—thousands upon thousands of ibis birds, embalmed and placed in pottery jars.
A later season of excavation uncovered galleries of mummified baboons—like the ibis, sacred to Thoth and his godson Imhotep. The baboon burials were those of sacred temple animals; the chests containing the mummies bore short demotic inscriptions giving the animal’s name and the date of its burial. Also found were plaster casts of parts of the human body—feet, hands, heads, and so on—which remind us of the votive thank-offerings left by pilgrims who had been cured at shrines of healing—a practice which has continued into the present century.
Regrettably, Emery did not live to complete the Sakkara excavations, but other archaeologists uncovered still more catacombs containing animal mummies, including the burials of the sacred cows who were the mothers of the holy Apis bulls buried in the Serapeum. The restrained scholarly prose of the preliminary excavation reports still manages to convey an astonishing image of a honeycomb of dark, convoluted galleries riddling the subterrane of this much-excavated area. In Ptolemaic times there was not one but a large complex of temples here, and one of the gods worshiped was certainly Imhotep, whose name has been found on dedicatory stelae. The excavations yielded rich finds of archaeological material, including fragments of the temple archives, which were written in Aramaic and Greek as well as Egyptian.
Yet the burning question remains unanswered. Was one of the battered, vandalized Third Dynasty tombs that of the master architect? Among the largest was a mastaba designated only as number 3517, since no name or other identification was found. The superstructure had been leveled to a height of about a meter, and the burial shafts and chambers had been filled with sand. At the head of each shaft Emery found the remains of sacrificed bulls. Were they foundation deposits for a temple built over the tomb, or offerings to the unknown occupant of the tomb? Another mastaba, number 3518, has been dated to the reign of Djoser by means of a jar sealing found nearby. Unlike other tombs in the vicinity, it has precisely the same orientation as the Step Pyramid, and anatomical models—votive offerings—were found outside its entrance.
We will probably never know the answer. Even if the tomb had been found, it is unlikely that it would have given us any useful information. Tombs of this period are poor in inscriptional material, and it is unlikely that Imhotep’s tomb would have escaped the depredations of tomb robbers and other vandals. It would have been a thrilling discovery, though, surpassing, in certain ways, the gold of Tutankhamon. Monuments to the triumph of the human intellect are rare.
The second great architect, who, like Imhotep, was worshiped as a god long after his death, was born a thousand years or more after his predecessor. He was Amenhotep, son of Hapu, and he served the king whose namesake he was—Amenhotep III of the Eighteenth Dynasty. He was the son of unimportant parents in the Delta town of Athribis, and he started his career as a humble military scribe in charge of recruiting. It was evidently his superior talents which led to the recognition he eventually achieved from the king; not only were statues of him erected in the temple of Karnak, but he had the unprecedented honor of a mortuary temple on the west bank of Thebes near that of the king who thought so highly of him. His titles have the “Lord High Everything Else” quality of many officials, including King’s Scribe and Overseer of Recruits—and Overseer of the Works of the King. But was he actually an architect? Some scholars credit him with the design for the Temple of Luxor, which is one of the most harmonious structures in Egypt. His own inscriptions claim that he was responsible for the two most prominent surviving remains of Amenhotep III’s mortuary temple, the Colossi of Memnon.
The career of the third member of our trio contrasts ironically with the honor and respect, culminating in actual divinity, which was granted the other two. Senenmut, the friend of Queen Hatshepsut, is usually supposed to have constructed her beautiful funerary temple at Deir el Bahri. He was not a popular man. After his royal mistress died, enemies attacked certain of his monuments and left his sarcophagus in fragments. Within a few generations of his death, probably his very name was forgotten. William Stevenson Smith has pointed out the most ironic touch of all—in later times a shrine with the names of the deified Amenhotep and the deified Imhotep was erected at the site of Deir el Bahri. There the two were worshiped, while against the very same cliffs stood the building which many people consider the most beautiful temple in all Egypt, with the desecrated, empty tomb of its builder beneath. Senenmut built two tombs, one on the hillside where nobles of the period were buried, and the other under the temple of the queen. His mummy has never been found, but in remote corners of the temple small, hastily cut figures of him survived the revengeful destruction of his enemies.
Now that we have waxed poetical over the names of Imhotep, Amenhotep, and Senenmut, it is only fair to state that we don’t know whether they were architects at all, in our sense of the word. We do not consider the head of the firm of Jones, Smith, and Brown the architect of a skyscraper if he orders Jones Junior to draw up the actual plans. We cannot be sure that the Egyptians made the same distinction. There is no Egyptian word for “architecture” there is not even a title which can be read “architect” with any certainty. Some Egyptologists have used the word to translate a title which means “overseer of works,” and we still describe men as architects if they say, in their biographical inscriptions, that they erected an obelisk or built a shrine.
Unlike the artist or the sculptor, the overseer of works was not a craftsman. He was a high official, and he usually had other important titles which gave him noble rank. He must have been the equivalent of the head of the ministry of public works, and he was responsible for building operations, from the quarrying of the stone up to the dedication of the finished building. Obviously his subordinates did most of the actual work. Scribes calculated the amount of stone necessary and the loaves of bread per day which would be eaten by the workmen. Foremen managed the gangs of stoneworkers in the quarry, and ships’ captains were in charge of the barges on which the stones were loaded. Painters and sculptors did the decorative work, and masons fitted the stones. But who drew up the plans?
I wish I knew. I would also like to know how they drew up the plans, and whether they did. There are a few tattered drawings now in museums which may be architects’ sketches. None of them are detailed enough to rank as blueprints, or even as reliable plans. Most are drawings of small elements—a doorway, a courtyard planted with trees. One such plan, more comprehensive than the majority, is reproduced in our illustration, together with the plan drawn by a modern scholar, S. P. K. Glanville, on the basis of the measurements given by the Egyptian scribe in the short inscriptions written on his drawing. Obviously the Egyptian version was not a scale drawing; the proportions are all wrong.
Plan of a temple
Another sketch gives the plan of a tomb. The drawing is accurate enough to enable us to identify the tomb as that of Ramses IV. However, either the architect changed his mind while the work was under way or the plan does not attempt to be precise, since there are several important discrepancies in the measurements. In any case, a rock-cut tomb is a fairly simple structure compared with a temple. It is no more than a series of regularly shaped holes in the rock, the sort of thing an amateur could design without straining his mental equipment: “All right, men, make that room a little longer so the sarcophagus can fit in, and cut a door over there so we can have a storeroom.”
Obviously this lighthearted technique would not work with a temple like that of Deir el Bahri, or with any other temple. Deir el Bahri is so lovely, so perfectly proportioned, so harmonious, that it almost demands the existence of a model. Although the Egyptians made model buildings for funerary purposes, no architect’s aid has ever been found, with the possible exception of one miniature building. It is an uninspired, rather crude structure, though, and certainly no model, or plan, of any known temple has been discovered.
There are references to an archive of master plans, kept by certain temples. This is not solid proof, but it does support the assumption which the very existence of the architectural masterpieces forces us to make—that either plans or models or both were used to build them. Of course, there were full-size models all over Egypt, the temples of earlier kings. Senenmut had such an inspiration close at hand, for there was an Eleventh Dynasty temple at Deir el Bahri itself, and Hatshepsut’s structure has some elements in common with the older building. But if Senenmut started out by imitating the Eleventh Dynasty temple, he ended by surpassing it.
We still have not answered the essential question: who actually designed Deir el Bahri and the other gems of Egyptian architecture? There are two tenuous types of argument which may support the assumption, made by many archaeologists, that the overseer of works designed the temples himself. In the first place, there is no known candidate for the position of royal architect per se—no man whose name is connected with a given temple in such a manner as to suggest that he, not the overseer of works, drew up the plans for it. Secondly, the design and appearance of a temple were of major importance; they would logically be decided upon by the man who was responsible for the whole operation. That’s about the best we can do; it is admittedly unsatisfactory. But until the Egyptian equivalent of Jones Junior appears, claiming to have planned the “beautiful temple of Djeser Djeseru,” I am content to give Senenmut the credit.
In conclusion, perhaps the best advice I can give anyone who wants to learn to enjoy Egyptian art is to go out and look at it. The best place to go is Egypt, of course; the second-best is a museum. The bookstores and libraries teem these days with picture books on Egypt. Increased photographic skill and new reproductive techniques make some of these books joys to behold. However, there is absolutely no substitute for viewing the real thing.