Saturday, August 27, 2011

Ancient Egypt (pt. 14)

In time, the Ancient Egyptians stop constructing pyramids for burial sites.  Why?  The huge size of the pyramids often acted as a humongous sign to grave robbers that treasures could be found there.  The tombs were moved to cliffs like those in the Valley of the Kings.  The pyramids were also too expensive and took too long to build, so they were decommissioned.
In 332B.C., Egypt fell to Alexander the Great.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Ancient Egypt (pt. 13)

Except for the Amarna Period, Ancient Egyptian art maintained the same style for thousands of years (…and that's a long time, considering that art styles later on—like in the 19th and 20th centuries—would change every few decades).  Why did the style not change over time?
Archaeologists discovered, painted on a wall on an Ancient Egyptian temple site, red lines that formed a grid.  Researchers took that grid and applied it to other Ancient Egyptian murals, finding that the proportions matched each figure identically.  The Egyptian artists had been using a grid system to dictate their design of the human body.  Like the law-driven society itself, the art was forged through order and consistency.  Other grids were found on even more Ancient Egyptian finds, showing that all the drawings had been carefully made with exact measurements and specifications.  The grid system was an essential part of Egyptian culture that lasted throughout all three major kingdoms in the civilization's history.  It's really quite extraordinary: if you look at images from the Old Kingdom, they will look exactly like the art from the New Kingdom, some three thousand years later—no change.  Compared to other civilizations, Ancient Egypt was one of the most static empires in history, and the grid system is one of the evidences for it.  Talk about sticking to tradition!  (Because artists in the future will come to mock traditional styles and will invent new ones).  The Egyptians kept the same style for thousands of years.  I marvel at how that could be so, but it's not that easy to look up more about.  Sources are few.  A good one that I recommend, for more info on the Ancient Egyptian grid system, is the PBS documentary How Art Made the World.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Ancient Egypt (pt. 12)

After Akhenaton's death, the art changed back to the way it was before; the prior polytheistic religion was reinstituted; and the capital was moved back to Thebes—the end of the Amarna Period.  The god Aton was forgotten, as exemplified with Akhenaton's son, Tutankhaton ("living image of Aton"), whose name was changed to Tutankhamen ("living image of Amun").
King Tutankhamen, successor of Akhenaton, is most famous for his extravagant tomb, which contained more gold treasures than any other Egyptian tomb.  The pharaoh alone was buried in seven sarcophagi.  The tomb was discovered in 1922 by English archaeologist Howard Carter, who later wrote about the exciting moment of the discovery:
"At first I could see nothing; the hot air escaping from the chamber, causing the candle flame to flicker, but presently, as my eyes grew accustomed to the light, details of the room within emerged slowly from the mist, strange animals, statues and gold—everywhere the glint of gold…  I was struck dumb with amazement, and when Lord Carnarvon, unable to stand the suspense any longer, inquired anxiously, 'Can you see anything?' it was all I could do to get out the words: 'Yes, wonderful things.'" – Howard Carter, 1933

Friday, August 19, 2011

Ancient Egypt (pt. 11)

…Ah, is Nefertiti's bust really Realism.  I have reason to think it is.  Going with the trend of the Amarna Period, it would be, and plus a bust carries the connotation of Realism to begin with (it's the face of the person we're looking at—you know, "the eyes are windows to the soul"; a bust is perhaps the closest we can come artistically to "viewing" someone's soul…I guess until we get to Expressionism, but we're a long way's away from that!)  The sculptor certainly does show her as a beautiful queen, and so it could be a Romanticized image of her.  It could be, but we don't know, because this is the only image we have of Nefertiti.  Her tomb was raided after her death, and her mummified face was smashed to keep her from going to the afterlife.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Ancient Egypt (pt. 10)

Another is this very famous work of art, the bust of Nefertiti.
The first shocking quality: it is a statue of just a woman, and no man.  Womankind, made from man, the weaker vessel, "the serpent's prey," submissive to her husband, and in every way lower than men during that time, is here elevated to such a level of importance that a statue is made solely of her—alone, independent.  The next thing to shock me is: the statue is a bust (which is the name for a statue of only the shoulders up on a person).  Remember the Venus of Willendorf—that supposedly, women in ancient times were only good for childbearing and keeping the race alive (or, in the case of the Egyptian pharaohs, providing heirs to keep the dynasty enthroned).  Well, here there is no attention whatsoever given to female reproductive organs; it is just a bust of her face.  And a proud-looking face it is, furthermore, is it not?  Her head is held up high, not quite like a submissive wife's.  (And the name Nefertiti means "the perfect one").  It is the face of a person that most expresses his/her character, personality, emotions, etc.  Here, although she is the queen of an empire and the wife of a pharaoh, the sculptor just shows us Nefertiti's face—Nefertiti as she is, as a person.  Enter Realism.  Now say goodbye, because we won't see this again until the Romans.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Ancient Egypt (pt. 9)

The reign of Amenhotep IV (during the New Kingdom) is known as the Amarna Period, and it brought huge changes to art.  Amenhotep IV succeeded his father and then broke from the previous traditions.  Along with the help of his wife, the queen Nefertiti, he changed the national religion (polytheism) and proclaimed Aton, the sun god (represented by a gold disc), to be the one, true God.  The pharaoh changed his name to Akhen-aton, which meant "spirit of Aton") and moved the capital to Tell el-Amarna.  Everywhere, the royal family advocated for monotheistic worship of Aton.  Here is Nefertiti worshipping the sun god, the symbol of whom, remember, is a gold disc propelling several downward lines with a tiny hand on the end of each.
Here is an image of the entire royal family underneath the god Aton (both literally and figuratively).
Notice the stark difference from the sculptures of the other pharaohs?  No clenched right fist to demonstrate authoritarian domination.  Akhenaton is shown playing with his children (not exactly a kingly, superior thing to be doing).  This is a personal, almost private family experience being depicted—no great war being shown here, no victorious trampling over of enemies, no massive construction of some great monument, no judgment of criminals.  This is one of the many ways in which art during the Amarna Period is different from that of the rest of Ancient Egyptian history.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Ancient Egypt (pt. 8)

Hieroglyphics means "sacred writing."  This was the written language of Ancient Egypt.  Thanks to the Rosetta Stone, found by Napoleon's men in 1799, we can understand and translate hieroglyphics.
Along with hieroglyphics we see images—murals, sculptures, etc.—all a part of the Ancient Egyptian afterlife-obsessed culture.  Portraits from Ancient Egypt are usually stiff and idealistic, showing the body from only the best views so that the Ka would have a good body to indwell in the afterlife.  If an arm was hidden or forgotten by the artist, the Ka would inhabit a body without an arm.  So, the strict code of Egyptian portraiture was: profile-frontal-profile.  (This means, from top to bottom: side view of the face; front view of the chest and torso; then side view again of the legs and feet).
Profile-frontal-profile.  All Ancient Egyptian drawings of people were done this way.  As for sculpture, those images were equally rigid and stiff.  In the following statues (of pharaohs Khafre and Menkaure—the latter is seen with his wife), notice that each pharaoh has his right hand clenched (the right hand of power).
The style stayed this way and never changed, except during one pharaoh's reign…

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Ancient Egypt (pt. 7)

For a brief look into the religion of the Ancient Egyptians, here are some of the gods these people worshipped.
Osiris was the god of the dead and ruler of the underworld.  His image was that of a mummified man wearing a white, cone-like headdress with feathers.  The brother/husband of Isis and the brother of Nephthys and Seth, he was also the father of Horus.  Ancient Egyptians believed Osiris was a god of resurrection and fertility; in fact, they believed he was the giver of the gift of barley, one of their most important crops.
Isis, the sister/wife of Osiris was a protective goddess who wore a headdress in the shape of a throne with a pair of cow horns and a disk.  She used powerful magic spells to help people in need.  Since each pharaoh was considered to be the "living Horus," Isis (the mother of Horus) was very important.
Horus (meaning "the one far above"), was the god of the sky—a man with the head of a hawk.  He is probably most well-known as the protector of the Egyptian ruler.  Each pharaoh was considered as his living representative.
Seth was the god of chaos—a man with the head of a "seth animal" (some unidentifiable beast).  He was Osiris' and Isis' brother as well as the husband of Nephthys.  Seth murdered Osiris and then battled with his nephew Horus to be the ruler of the living.  Seth represented everything that threatened harmony in Egypt.
Nephthys was the protective goddess of the dead who wore a headdress showing her name.  She was the sister of Isis and Osiris and the sister/wife of Seth as well as the mother of Anubis.  She is usually shown on coffins or in funerary scenes.
Anubis was the god of the dead and of embalming.  He was also considered as the guardian of the underworld.  Since jackals were often seen in cemeteries, the Ancient Egyptians gave Anubis the head of a jackal and believed he was the one who watched over the dead.  Anubis was the god who helped to embalm Osiris after he was killed by Seth; thus, he was the one who watched over the process of mummifying people when they died.  Priests often wore Anubis masks during mummification ceremonies.
Ra (meaning "sun") was the sun god—a man with a hawk head and headdress with a sun disk.  He was the most important god of the Ancient Egyptians, who believed that Ra was swallowed every night by the sky goddess Nut and was reborn every morning.
Amun was one of the most powerful gods in Ancient Egypt.  At the height of Egyptian civilization he was called the "King of the gods."  He was a man with a ram's head, wearing an ostrich plumed hat.  Eventually he was combined with the sun god Ra and became even more powerful.  He was then called Amun-Ra.
Lastly, Aton: a form of the sun god Ra made popular during the reign of Akhenaton (which we'll get to)…

Monday, August 1, 2011

Ancient Egypt (pt. 6)

The Ancient Egyptians believed the pharaohs were gods, and that these pharaohs would reunite with the gods in the afterlife.  Just as "it is appointed for a man to die once, and then comes judgment," the Ancient Egyptians believed judgment came next after death.  Anubis (a jackal-headed dog) was the guard of the underworld and would weigh the dead person's heart against the "golden feather of truth."  If the two matched the same weight, Anubis would escort the person's soul to the afterlife; however, if they failed to measure up, the dead person's soul was eaten up.  Here is a depiction of the weighing of the heart being performed in front of the god of the dead and ruler of the underworld, Osiris (seated on the right).  The pharaoh being judged is on the left, and you can see the scale weighing his heart.