Rigid Flexibility: Change & Continuity in Ancient Egyptian Art 

“Slide your feet up the street, bend your back/ Shift your arm then you pull it back/ Life is hard you know (oh way oh)/ So strike a pose on a Cadillac” – The Bangles (again)

I thought this week we’d look at an evergreen topic—Egyptian art. In part because I like doing art entries for the pretty pictures almost as much as I’m sure many of you like them because they tend to be my less verbose posts. But also because the subject of Egyptian art is far more complex than it might first appear. I mean, we all are pretty sure we know what Egyptian art looks like, right? I mean, it’s right there in the song…

[Or this]
[Or maybe this]

But what if we get a little further afield…

[What about this? (btw, it’s an elephant head)]
[What about this?]
[Or this?]

Anyway, what I think the average person is envisioning is from Egypt’s long squishy middle civilization, and that’s not a bad thing. There’s a reason it’s captivated artists and art lovers for literal millennia. But I thought we’d examine the edges of Egyptian art’s long ancient period—its prehistoric roots and its merger with the Greco-Roman world—to see a small glimpse of how we got to the middle and how it influenced the future. 

The earliest prehistoric groups in the Nile Valley produced similar tools and pottery to other cultural groups in the world’s river civilizations, and their earliest figures and drawings have an equally familiar feel. That’s why it seems like the clay figure of the goddess Bat above (Hathor’s earliest form—notice how her arms are curled up like cow’s horns?) could have come from any number of Neolithic groups. By 5000 BC, the Merimde culture in the western part of the Nile delta had begun to leave behind grave goods, including the earliest life-sized head sculpture. This expanded with the Bardarian culture in Upper Egypt that flourished alongside the Merimdes; the deserts of the Badarian lands helped preserve more of their artifacts. Said artifacts still hold a more “generic” prehistoric art style, but individualize tastes are starting emerge. The Badarian mortuary figures below (especially the first one) have started to eschew the broad-hipped Neolithic look of the earlier Bat figure for the slim profile that would dominate Egyptian art for the next three thousand years.

[Badarian mortuary figure (c. 4400-4000 BC)]
[Another Badarian mortuary figure]

The three Naqada periods (c. 4000-3000 BC) would continue this individualization, though it wouldn’t be until the third Naqada Period (c. 3200-3000 BC) that noticeably “Egyptian” art began to emerge.

[A Naqada III period baboon statue (c. 3100 BC)]
[Compare with a later baboon statue from the early New Kingdom (c. 1390-1350s BC)]
[A plaque from the end of Naqada III/Early Dynastic Period (c. 3100 BC)]

After this, we enter the long, high period of “Egyptian style” art, where the general structure is back to what we started with—what we contemporarily identify as “Egyptian-looking.” Even at arguably ancient Egyptian art’s most experimental phase, the so-called Amarna Period (c. 1350s BC), when Akhenaten’s Aten-centric court turned to a style that was both far more realistic and far more stylistic than the traditional arts, the old style was adapted but not entirely discarded. While the the proportions and overall look of the king’s portrait with his family below is a noticeable departure, the head sculpture of his eldest daughter, Meritaten, is not very dissimilar from the earlier statuary.

[Akhenaten, Nefertiti, and their daughters]
[Bust of Meritaten]
[Compare with this bust of a prince from c. 2450 BC, eleven hundred years earlier]

Similarly, we tend think of Egypt artistically swallowing the Ptolemies and later, the Caesars whole, but as usual, the truth is a little more complicated. Part of what fuels the passionate debate about Cleopatra’s ancestry is that this is a contemporary portrait of Cleopatra:

[Cleopatra and Caesarion making an offering to Hathor (Dendera)]

But so is this:

[Cleopatra committing suicide with Caesarion standing over her (Pompeii)]

Not to mention that this is a sculpture of the queen from the same period:

But so is this:

The answer is, like many things in ancient studies, impossible to settle definitively, and the brutal racist legacy of colonial Egyptology has likely irrevocably poisoned the well on the subject for the near future. While as the daughter of an infamously incestuous extended family of transplanted Macedonian Greeks makes Cleopatra’s native Egyptian ancestry less likely, it is not impossible. In my books, I address this by making her youngest siblings, the ones whose exact parentage we know even less about, Arsinoë IV and Ptolemy XIV, as the royal children with an Egyptian mother. But all of this is conjecture and my own artistic choices rather than archeological fact. However, aside from all of this, this choice of artistic representation is something many rulers of Egypt engaged with before Cleopatra, as well as after.

[Darius the Great (c. 550-486 BC) in Persia]
[Darius the Great in Egypt]
[Trajan (53-117 AD) in Rome]
[Trajan in Egypt]

But it wasn’t always one or the other. One of things I like about the Egyptian sculpture of Octavius below is that it is obviously very idealized in the Egyptian style (sorry, Oct, we all know you weren’t Captain America’s body double), but at the same time, it is Hellenized/Latinized enough that it is so obviously supposed to be him. It’s an idealized facial portrait as much as the rest of the sculpture’s body, but it is idealized in a way consistent with Octavius’ idealized portraiture in Roman art.

[Egyptian Octavius]
[Roman Octavius]

Compare this below to the style it’s cribbing from, where it isn’t impossible to tell New Kingdom pharaohs Thutmose III and Ramses II apart, but it’s certainly less clear-cut.

[Thutmose III]
[Ramses II]

By the time the Ptolemies arrived, and certainly by the time Egypt became an Roman province, Egyptian art entered into an acquisitive phase and its artists became as nearly influenced by Roman art as the Romans imitated the Egyptians. The most famous example of this are the hundreds of mummy portraits from late Egyptian antiquity, especially those found in the necropolis at Faiyum. As you can see below, these are largely portraits of native Egyptians (rather than transplanted Greeks or Italians), but as the subjects were of a social class wealthy enough to afford these highly-individualistic paintings, they were also invested in portraying themselves as cosmopolitan members of the larger empire. Especially since as the centuries passed, the rest of the Roman empire grew to see Egypt as hopelessly foreign and backwards. So, you can also see that many rich Egyptians chose to have themselves dressed as Romans with Latin hairstyles.

[An Egyptian lady from Faiyum with Roman ringlets]
[Octavius’ granddaughter, Agrippina the Elder with a similar hairstyle]
[A young Egyptian man in a striped toga]

But also found in Faiyum from the early 1st century AD are plaster funerary masks that show a sort of missing link between the stylized earlier Egyptian masks and the more realistic Greco-Roman portraits. Incidentally, much as you can track women’s hairstyles to judge a basic timeframe for these portraits, for the men, you watch for the appearance or disappearance of voguish beards.

[Gilded plaster funerary mask of Sitdjehuti, a princess of the Seventeenth Dynasty (c. 1500 BC]
[Gilded plaster funerary mask from Faiyum (c. 1st century AD)]
[Plaster funerary masks from Faiyum (c. 1st century AD)]
[An Egyptian man from Faiyum (c. 1st century AD)]

However, it wasn’t just the people of Egypt who adapted into their new globalized world. We’ve already talked about how Osiris became Serapis, but even the less metamorphosed Egyptian gods changed across borders in a bid to stay relevant. The mainland Romans began their relationship with the gods of Egypt uneasily, but within a few centuries it became relatively common for Roman homes to display Egyptian gods in their animal forms. Albeit, dressed like good Roman citizens.

[A Hellenistic papyrus of Osiris in his OG form—but Greek influence can be seen in him being shown front-facing, and that the god’s usually enigmatic closed-lipped smile has become a beaming grin 😀]
[A statue of Anubis in a toga from Tivoli, Italy (c. 2nd century AD)—notice how he carries Hermes/Mercury’s caduceus to show that the jackal god is also a psychopomp.]
[A bronze of Horus in the traditional cuirass of a Roman general (c. 2nd century)]
[Horus as a Roman cavalryman trampling a crocodile (Set)]

As we’ve also discussed, no Egyptian deity was more successful at this game than Isis. But that didn’t mean Egypt’s most famous divine export was immune to this cultural cross-pollination. Isis was arguably at her most understandable and potent in her role as a divine mother, which is why in ancient Egyptian art, one of her most recognizable forms is as Isis Lactans: a crowned queen nursing an infant Horus. And this would continue even as Isis changed her appearance to conform with her new Greco-Roman world and beyond. Which encapsulates all of this in a nutshell—“Egyptian art” has always been more than Tut’s mask and Ramses’ monuments. Rather than a static stylization, it has always been secretly been open to dynamic change, and it’s this unexpected innovating heart that has made it and the ancient culture it sprung from an undying source of inspiration to others.

[Traditional Egyptian depiction of Isis as Divine Mother]
[Isis Lactans in a stola (c. 1st century AD)]
[Isis Lactans c. 4th century AD]
[Mary as Divine Mother in an Egyptian Coptic ikon]
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