The Anonymity of Art in Ancient Egypt.

Egyptian artist working as a team in the manufacturing of statues. Relief from the tomb of Rekhmire in Luxor. Photo Mª Rosa Valdesogo. Art in Ancient Egypt.

How many great works of art in Ancient Egypt do we know? thousands!!!

and yet … how many names of Egyptian artists (sculptors, draftsmen, painters …) do we know? I am sure you have to think….


Who made the Triads of Mycerinus?

We refer to Michelangelo’s David, if we think of La Gioconda (Mona Lisa) the person that comes to mind is Leonardo da Vinci, we also talk about the Sunflowers of Van Gogh, Las Meninas by Velázquez…

La Gioconda (Mona Lisa) of Leonardo da Vinci. Photo: wikipedia.org

However, when we visit the step pyramid in Saqqara… do we remember Imhotep, its architect, or Dyoser, the king who was buried there?

Step Pyramid of King Dyoser in Saqqara. Dynasty III. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo

Alike, when we observe the reliefs of the well-known “botanical garden” in the Karnak temple, do we mention the artisans who carved them or Tutmosis III, the pharaoh of the Dynasty XVIII who ordered the construction of the Akhmenu (this is the Egyptian name of this chapel) and its decoration?

The answer is easy: we talk about the Gioconda of Leonardo da Vinci (its creator), but of the step pyramid of Dyoser (his beneficiary).

"Botanical Garden" of Tutmosis III in Karnak. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo
“Botanical Garden” of Tutmosis III in Karnak. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo

No artist signed a work of art in Ancient Egypt. We rarely know who did a job. In fact, Egyptian sculptures, reliefs, paintings… did not belong to the author, but to the one who commissioned them. That is why we refer to the “Triads of Mycerinus”, the “mastaba of Mereruka”, the “Colossi of Amenhotep III” …

The Colossi of Amenhotep III. Photo Mª Rosa Valdesogo. Art in Ancient Egypt
The Colossi of Amenhotep III. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo.

The executors of those works were anonymous because the art in Ancient Egypt had a magical purpose for the benefit of someone (usually his or her resurrection). For that reason the manufacturer was no important, but the goal.

The owner of the Art in Ancien Egypt.

It is very easy to understand when we think of the objective of many famous works of art in Ancient Egypt.

For instance, the reliefs on the walls of the mastaba of Ti intended to ensure a Beyond to Ti, the reliefs on the walls of a temple were carved to ensure their deities a constant ritual, the statue of Dyoser in his funerary temple in Saqqara was the support of his ka, which received the daily funeral service, guarantor of his eternal maintenance

Relief of making bread from the Mastaba of Ti. This provided eternal food to the dead. Photo Mª Rosa Valdesogo Art in Ancient Egypt.
Relief of making bread from the Mastaba of Ti. This provided eternal food to the dead. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo

The people who manufactured those “pieces of art” were a group of workers who carried out their work following the orders of their superiors, and these ones had to follow the guidelines of the Egyptian tradition. Everyone had a role and there was no place for individualities.

As we have said before, the works belonged to those ones who represented and were made for their benefit, for that reason it was necessary that images were always identified with the name of its owner (the recipient).

Statue of Ramses II. Temple of Luxor. Photo Mª Rosa Valdesogo. Art in Ancient Egypt.
Statue of Ramses II. We can see clearly his name inscribed on the skirt. Temple of Luxor. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo.

If nowadays we can talk about the statues of Ramses II in the temple of Luxor it is because the name of this sovereign appears inscribed in them.

The proper name was part of the work and was a guarantee of the effectiveness of the image in favor of its owner. A royal statue with no cartouche of the pharaoh was incomplete; and for us it is just an anonymous statue of a sovereign, because we do not know to whom it belongs.

No creativity in Egyptian art.

Becasue the work of art in Ancient Egypt had a magical and functional purpose (it was a way to reach the Hereafter, to receive a daily cult …) and was produced following predetermined canons, the concept of creativity (or personal expression) disappeared.

The art in Ancient Egypt had no artistic or creative personality. Becasue the Egyptian artist did not express himself through his work. Why? We can find five basic reasons:

• The artist had to follow certain guidelines based on magical-religious needs. They had to work acording to canons.

• The artists worked for a need of a social group (The Court, the civil servants, tha aristicracy, the clergy..)

• There was no concept of contemplation or expression. The figure of the observer as we know it in our culture did not exist in Ancient Egypt.

• The Egyptian artist did not work by inspiration, but on request. Every statue, coffin, relief, stele…was like an “order”.

• In the manufacture of reliefs, painting, statues…worked several people. A work of art in Ancient Egypt was a team effort in which many people were involved from the master to the operator of lower rank.

Egyptian artist working as a team in the manufacturing of statues. Relief from the tomb of Rekhmire in Luxor. Photo Mª Rosa Valdesogo. Art in Ancient Egypt.
Egyptian artist working as a team in the manufacturing of statues. Relief from the tomb of Rekhmire in Luxor. TT100. Dynasty XVIII. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo.

This means that, from the methodological point of view, we cannot classify the works of art in ancient Egypt by their manufacturer. Sometimes the art historians find the explanation of the work in the personality or in the biography of the artist who made it. But in the case of the art in ancient Egypt this is unfeasible, because there are no people, no artistic movements, no generations of artists, just works (reliefs, paintings, sculptures) made by a perfectly organized and hierarchical collective.

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