For over three thousand years the Egyptians adhered to a prescribed set of rules as to how a work of art in three dimensions should be presented. Egyptian art was highly symbolic and a painting or sculpture was not meant to be a record of as the result of subtle changes, not an altered conception of art or its role in society.

The Tree of Life

On the Tree Of Life, the birds represent the various stages of human life. Starting in the lower right-hand corner and proceeding counter-clockwise:

  • The light gray bird symbolizes infancy.
  • The red bird symbolizes childhood.
  • The green bird symbolizes youth.
  • The blue bird symbolizes adulthood.
  • The orange bird symbolizes old age.

    In ancient Egypt, the direction east was considered the direction of life, because the sun rose in the east. West was considered the direction of death, of entering the underworld, because the sun set in the west. They believed that during the night, the sun traveled through the underworld to make its way back to the east so it could rise in the east again on the next day.

    On the tree of life, note that the birds representing the first four phases of life all face to the east, but the bird representing old age faces to the west, anticipating the approach of death.

    During Neolithic times, known to Egyptologists as the Predynastic period, the dead were buried in a contracted position in shallow pits dug in the sand and were surrounded by grave goods consisting of pots that probably contained food and drink, and personal items such as cosmetic palettes. These objects suggest that there was already a belief in the afterlife. The vessel illustrated here is typical of the Naqada II period, being decorated in red line on a light background. The elaborate motifs relate in part to life on the Nile, and show oared boats, water plants, standards, and birds. Other examples also include wild animals and male or female figures. Such vessels were probably made specifically for burial, rather than for everyday use.

    In ancient Egypt, both men and women wore eye makeup, and to manufacture it they ground up mineral pigments on a palette. Such palettes were often put into graves, perhaps to ensure that the deceased had the means to grind eye makeup in the next world.

    This palette is made from polished green slate, with two bird heads carved in profile at the top. Three holes have been drilled: a central one may be for hanging, whereas the other two, serving as eyes for the birds, may originally have been inlaid. The birds are possibly falcons, perhaps an early reference to the sky god Horus.

    This rectangular coffin was put together from local timber for a priestess of the goddess Hathor called Nebetit. The head end is identified by a pair of stylized eyes, known as wedjat eyes, painted in a panel on the side. The coffin would have been oriented in the tomb with the head end pointing north. This would have enabled the deceased, lying on her side, magically to look out through the wedjat eyes at the sun rising on the eastern horizon - a symbol of rebirth.

    The coffin has hieroglyphic inscriptions on the sides, end, and lid. The vertical inscriptions on the sides and ends identify the owner. The long horizontal inscriptions consist of "offering formulae" and ask for offerings for the ka (spirit) of Nebetit. These include beef, fowl, bread, and beer, and also a request for "a good burial in her tomb in the necropolis of the western desert."

    Clay funerary cones originally decorated the mudbrick facades of private tombs at Thebes. They were embedded in rows to form friezes and may have been intended to represent the ends of roof beams. The flattened base of each cone, which was all that remained visible, was stamped with the titles and name of the tomb owner. The cone shown here bears the name of Merymose, the viceroy of Nubia during the reign of Amenhotep III.

    The cone bears three columns of hieroglyphic text reading from left to right. The name of Merymose is found in the third column. The first column and the top of the second form the phrase "revered before Osiris." This is followed by "king's son of Kush," the title given to the viceroy of Nubia, a territory to the south of Egypt stretching into modern northern Sudan that was conquered and ruled by the Egyptians during the New Kingdom (1550 - 1070 B.C.).

    The goddess Isis, sister-consort of Osiris, god of the dead, is represented seated with her son placed at a right angle to her on her lap. She wears a tight-fitting dress and a vulture headdress surmounted by a sun disk enclosed by a pair of cow's horns, which are now broken. The horns and sun disk were originally associated with the goddess Hathor, but later they were used by Isis too. The child is supported by his mother's left arm, while her right hand offers her breast for suckling. Horus is given the attributes of a child, being shown naked, with a single lock of hair falling on the right side of his otherwise shaven head, and sucking his forefinger. However, he is also closely associated with the ideal of kingship - the living king being a manifestation of Horus - and so he wears a uraeus (cobra), a symbol of kingship, on his forehead.

    Isis was revered as an emblem of motherhood and protector of young children. Possibly due to the shift of political power to the Delta, where in myth Isis raised Horus in secret, the cult of Isis and the child Horus strengthened from the Third Intermediate period onward, and during the Greco-Roman period spread widely through the ancient world. After the Emperor Constantine had made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire, the mother-child image formerly attached to Isis and Horus reemerged in representations of the Virgin and Child.

    This wooden anthropoid coffin consists of a separate bottom and lid. It is plastered and painted on the outside, but the inside was left undecorated. It is made of irregular pieces of native Egyptian wood, and gaps between planks are filled in with mud. The underside of the base is decorated with a large figure of the goddess of the west, recognizable by the falcon emblem, the hieroglyph for west, that she wears on her head. Because the sun sets in the west, where it was believed to enter the underworld, the goddess was associated with the necropolis and helped the dead make the passage from this life to the next. As such, she often appears in tombs and on coffins.

    Below an elaborate collar, a winged goddess with a sun disk on her head kneels with arms outstretched to protect the deceased. Beneath her, the mummy of the deceased lies on the lion bed that was used in the ritual embalming. Under the bed are four canopic jars to hold the viscera, with stoppers carved in the form of the four sons of Horus. These beings appear again on the lower part of the lid with mummiform bodies. Between them are five columns of text. The outer two identify the figures, and the three middle ones contain the traditional offering formula asking for a series of benefits for the deceased in the next life. The name of the owner would have been included at the end of this text but is now lost through damage. Figures of Anubis, the god of embalming, in the form of two black jackals lying on pedestals decorate the foot of the coffin.

    This fragment of temple relief comes from a scene that would have shown the king offering to a standing or seated deity drawn on the same scale. The roundly modeled high relief used here began to appear during the Late period and reached its peak under the Ptolemies. Unfortunately, the royal cartouche is too damaged for the name of the king to be identifihe lid depicts the deceased as a mummy wearing a divine, tripartite wig and the long, braided beard associated with Osiris, god of the underworld, with whom the deceased is identified.

    The Book of the Dead is a funerary text that emerged in the New Kingdom as a descendant of the Pyramid Texts and tCoffin Texts of the Old and Middle Kingdoms respectively. Its function was to secure a successful passage into the afterlife for the deceased through the spells and images it contained. The fragment illustrated here was cut from a larger roll. The text is from chapters 1 and 72 of the Book of the Dead and is written in cursive hieroglyphs drawn in black ink within vertical columns reading from right to left.

    Depicted above is part of a painted scene or vignette showing the funeral procession to the tomb. The procession moves to the left. On the left of the scene is Anubis, the jackal god of embalming, on a shrine. In the middle, a priest drags the canopic chest containing the viscera of the deceased. On the right is a line of women mourners. Two of them, facing one another, display the characteristic gesture of mourning, which consists of raised arms and backward-facing palms, as though beating the forehead or casting dust over the body. Between the two women stands a small male figure who may be Paheby, the owner of the papyrus. If the fragmentary scene had been complete, Paheby's sarcophagus would have been seen at the head of the procession.

    In order to enter the afterlife, it was important that the deceased have a proper burial with all the correct rituals and traditional funerary equipment. First, the body had to be preserved through mummification, a process by which it was artificially dehydrated and then wrapped in linen bandages. The invention of mummification may have stemmed from the initial practice during predynastic times of burying bodies directly in the ground. The preservative properties of the hot, desiccating sand may have suggested to the Egyptians that survival of the body was necessary for continued existence in the afterlife. Later, in the Early Dynastic period, when the body was no longer directly surrounded by sand but was placed in a specially constructed burial chamber, the natural processes of decay set in. When they discovered this, the Egyptians over the course of centuries developed a way of keeping the body intact using resins and the naturally occurring salt, natron.

    The mummy here has been shown by X-rays and CAT scans to be that of a middle-aged man. His name is not known. The body, wrapped in bandages with arms at the side, is enveloped in a linen shroud, over which are placed trappings of cartonnage, consisting of layers of linen stiffened with plaster that could then be painted. A mask with a gilded face, identifying the deceased with the sun god, covers the head. Below it, a chest panel is decorated with a broad collar, and below that another panel carries a winged scarab beetle and a kneeling figure of the sky goddess with outstretched wings surmounted by the hieroglyphic sign for "sky" painted in blue. A third panel, covering the legs, contains a scene showing the mummy on a lion bed mourned by the sister-goddesses Isis and Nephthys, below which are a series of mummiform figures representing the different forms of the sun god in the underworld. Figures of the jackal god Anubis appear on the foot covering, and the toes are depicted in the form of rearing cobras, with sun disks on their heads representing toenails.

    Seated Scribe

    Of the materials used by the Egyptian sculptor - clay, wood, metal, ivory, and stone - stone was the most plentiful and permanent, available in a wide variety of colors and hardness. Sculpture was often painted in vivid hues as well. Egyptian sculpture has two qualities that are distinctive; it can be characterized as cubic and frontal. It nearly always echoes in its form the shape of the stone cube or block from which it was fashioned, partly because it was an image conceived from four viewpoints. The front of almost every statue is the most important part and the figure sits or stands facing strictly to the front. This suggests to the modern viewer that the ancient artist was unable to create a naturalistic representation, but it is clear that this was not the intention.

    Art was used as a medium to decorate religious shrines. It was very idealistic and rigid.

    Painting and sculpture was main means of expression. Art usually reflected the Pharoahs and their life.

    Egyptians, like many ancient people, used bright colors to decorate their tombs and temples.


    During Akhnaton's reign, he led a remarkable artistic revolution to go along with his religious turnover. The style he used has been called both naturalistic and expressionistic, among other things, but how one classifies it really depends on what part of his reign you are looking example: a realistic portrayal of life develop. Akhnaton believed that art should reflect everyday life. Up until that time art was very focused on scenes showing topics related to death and the afterlife.

    Dancers and Musicians


    Akhenaten is shown as a sphinx holding up an offering to the Sun God Aton.

    MUSEUM TOUR David Robert's Art of Ancient Egypt