The Human Figure in Ancient Egyptian Art

I group together a few different Ancient Egyptian images into a lesson I call: The Human Figure in Ancient Egypt. I focus on the “ideal” in Ancient Egyptian art and how close (or far) some of these pieces follow the Egyptian Canon. The pieces in this lesson are Seated scribe, King Menkaure and queen, Kneeling statue of Hatshepsut, and Akhenaten and Nefertiti with three daughters.

The students have to fill out a chart that analyzes the form and related historical context while reading a section of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Educator Guide that explains the Canon of Egypt Art in general as well as on each of the pieces. They have to work as a team to accomplish this task and I sit them in groups of four to get this done. I will break down each piece according to the chart:

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Does this piece conform to the Egyptian Canon?

Seated Scribe

Certainly a NO for this answer. The Egyptian Canon emphasized idealized beauty, masculinity for males, perpetual youth, stiff musculature, lack of personality or flaws, upright pose, etc. The seated scribe with his pudgy features, thin wrinkles, and relaxed pose does not fit the bill.

King Menkaure and queen & Kneeling statue of Hatshepsut

Yes and Yes! Both figures are idealized, simplified yet realistic human figures with no emotion or imperfections shown.

Akhenaten and Nefertiti with three daughters

Not even close! Many of my students describe these figures as “alien” because of their pudgy bellies, elongated limbs and stretched out skulls. They are humanoid but extremely stylized.

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Describe the Form of the art piece.

Students are expected to look at the color images provided to describe simply what the looks like (this deep looking provides the framework to answer the other questions).

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Why does this piece look the way it does?

Seated Scribe

The Seated Scribe is not a pharaoh, not even royalty (although part of the literate upper class), so he is not expected to be as “perfect” as the god-kings of Ancient Egypt. However, he showcases his literate status because he is in the act of writing.

King Menkaure and queen & Kneeling statue of Hatshepsut

Both of these images are of pharaohs (and wife) so therefore they need to express the ideals of ruler-ship: stability, permanence, controlled actions and emotions, and the ability to bear the weight of ruler-ship. Also the statue of King Menkaure was made during the Old Kingdom, the height of the Egyptian Empire and a period of strong pharaohs (I mean the built the pyramids for goodness sake!).

On the other hand, Hatshepsut was a woman who was trying to establish her rule in the shadow of strong male leaders. Therefore it makes perfect sense that her art would look like theirs; she even went so far as to suppress her womanly shape (reduced breasts, added a false beard, little hips) to further support this image.

Akhenaten and Nefertiti with three daughters

Although Akhenaten was pharaoh like Menkaure and Hatshepsut, his historical context is what sets him apart. Akhenaten temporarily abandoned the pantheon of Egyptian gods to elevated the sun-disk Aten. This major religious changed was also political: the priests were no longer needed because all communication with the god(s) solely went through Akhenaten. Whenever there is a massive cultural shift, art transforms with it. Gone is the masculine and ridged forms of the past, say hello to curvy “soft” bodies.

JMF

seated scribe: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/42/Seated_Scribe_Full.jpg


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