Art Historical Background
This image from the 250 has three distinct photos that go with it: aerial view, hypostyle hall, and a temple plan. So I figured the easiest way to tackle this behemoth piece is to break it down according to the images provided by College Board.
FUN FACT: The temple complex at Karnak is one of the largest religious complexes in the world!
Aerial View & Temple Plan
The first and most striking thing you see on the aerial view are the pylon gates (seen above). This gateway leads to the first court, an open outdoor space, which then confronts you with the second (and taller) pylon gate which brings you to the hypostyle hall (this is discussed in the next section of the post). Behind the hypostyle hall are various temples and sacred spaces for private ceremonies. At the very heart of the temple complex was a sanctuary for the statue of the god Amun-Ra and where his daily rituals took place. Most of these sacred areas would have been open only to temple priests (so this is similar to the function of the White Temple and its zigguart).
Although we do not know many of these secret rituals, on special occasions the statue of the god would leave the shrine and travel to other important temples, Deir el-Bahri being one of them (where the mortuary temple of Hatshepsut is located). Certainly the pharaohs, as the link between the gods and mankind, would want to connect their personal sacred sites with “The Most Select of Places” (Ipet-isut), as Karnak was known.
This entire complex is meant to represent physically the creation of the world: the pylons = the horizon, the roof = the night sky and the columns were decorated with various plants & animals of creation. The temple was even located near the banks of the Nile with its annual flooding symbolizing rebirth and renewal of the earth (Interesting connection to the Sistine Chapel with the Genesis story, does anyone else see it????)
This is a vocabulary word that will appear again when we discuss architecture throughout art history. A hypostyle hall is essentially a hall with many columns (think like a stone forest). The hall at Karnak has 134 massive sandstone columns with the center columns 69 feet tall (you don’t need to memorize these numbers but it is impressive!) Like most things of antiquity, these columns would have been brightly painted – what a different feeling that would have been right!?
This particular hall also has a clerestory (another super useful vocab word). A clerestory is a set of upper story windows that allow light in; extremely useful before electric light. A clerestory can be built if you have the center hall (a.k.a. the nave) taller than the side aisles, allowing the center hall to have a row of unobstructed windows along the side. See the image below of a medieval Gothic example of a clerestory from Cologne Cathedral.
- Khan Academy: Temple of Amun-Re and the Hypostyle Hall, Karnak
- UCLA, Digital Karnak: Introduction to the Temple of Karnak
- Gardner’s Art Through the Ages: A Global History, 15th edition, pgs. 71-73
- Gateways to Art: Understanding the Visual Arts, pg. 278
- Ecyclopedia of Ancient Egypt, pgs. 112-115, 324-327
- 100 Landmarks of the World: A Journey to the most Fascinating Landmarks around the Globe by Jollands & Fisher, pgs. 180-181
- Archaeology Magazine (May/June 2015): “The Cult of Amun,” pg.48-51
- Wonders of the Ancient World by Walker, pgs. 24-27
Next Time: #21 Mortuary temple of Hatshepsut. Near Luxor, Egypt. New Kingdom, 18th Dynasty. c. 1473-1459 BCE. Sandstone, partially carved into a rock cliff, and red granite.