The High Rank of Artist in Ancient Egypt

The artist in Ancient Egypt was part of the elite and worked very close to the Court.

But his importance did not come from his proximity to the Royal House. Let’s see more about it…

1. The Egyptian artists were specialised workers.

Very early in history in Ancient Egypt there were a specialised collective of artisans, and this group of workers was maintained with a production surplus. They existed already in the Guerzeh culture (3.500-3.200 BC) and in that period, they produced prestige objects made mainly of hard stone, forming part of the funeral trousseaux of the elite.

Gebel el-Arak Knife. ca.3.200 BC. Louvre Museum. Inv. E11517. Photo: wikipedia.org

This shows the existence of a group of workers in the community, with the knowledge of some techniques and with an exclusive dedication.

But it also proofs the existence of a spirituality on that work, because these objects had a funerary and/or a votive purpose, so they had a strong sacred character. That means that the artist did a kind of sacred job in Ancient Egypt.

The number of specialized artisans grouped in the same workshop increased progressively. Moreover, these workshops were soon attached to temples, and the sacred repertoire (sculptures, reliefs, paintings, etc) arose from a “sacred place“. So, the artist in Ancient Egypt moved in a prestigious environment.

2. The Egyptian artists were close to the Court.

The existence of real artists buried next to the king‘s sepulchre is documented already in Thinite period (ca. 3.000 BC). Because the artist in Ancient Egypt who had served the Pharaoh in life also did it in the Hereafter.

That proximity to the Royal House meant that the artist in Ancient Egypt had high positions in the Egyptian administration. That is why stelae and false doors of the Dynasty III tell us that more and more artists had the privileges of high officials.

Statue of Pehernefer. Chief of the Royal Works. Dynasty IV. Louvre Museum. Inv. E14131. Photo: www.commons.wikimedia.org

And from the Dynasty IV we find titles belonging to artists indicating positions of responsibility: “Master Sculptor of the Two Administrations“, “Overseer of all the Works of the King“, “Director of the Artisans of the Funeral Workshop“, “Inspector of the Artisans of the Workshop “,” Great of the Directors of the Artisans “,” Head of the Production Workshop “, etc.

3. The Egyptian artists became elite.

Over time, the artist in Ancient Egypt was part of recognized elite and some positions became hereditary. They were, in short, responsible, directors and teachers. Its functions ranged from the choice of decorative motifs, through the inspection and direction of work, to the control of the supply of raw materials.

The high rank of artist in Ancient Egypt allowed him to have his own tomb, statues and stelae. And even sometimes he was attributed a superhuman nature. Therefore, some great artists, architects very close to the court and with high positions, were very renowned in later times and even became divinized.

Statuette of Imhotep dating from Ptolemaic period.. Louvre Museum. Inv. E 4216. Photo: www.commons.wikimedia.org

The most emblematic case is the one of Imhotep, chief architect of King Dyoser in the Dynasty III. According to an inscription on the base of the statue of Dyoser, Imhotep was vizier, high priest of Heliopolis, architect and sculptor. Imhotep also had medical and astronomy knowledge, and he was the first official to appear mentioned next to the effigy of the Pharaoh.

Due to this wisdom, from the Late Period (664 – 332 BBC) Imhotep was worshiped as the god of medicine and healing. Then the production of bronze statuettes with his image proliferated all over Egypt. Imhotep was depicted seated with the scroll of papyrus spread on his knees, symbolizing his wisdom. The main places of worship of Imhotep were located in Memphis, Thebes and the island of Philae, and to these sites were common the pilgrimages of sick people who were going to pray to recover their health.

4. The Egyptian Artist was a “Creator”.

Nevertheless, the prestige of the artist in Ancient Egypt was not just due to his proximity to the Court. The recognition also came from the fact that the artist could create images.

We have already commented on the importance of the image in the Egyptian mentality Image for ancient Egyptians had power in itself. It evoked a reality but also those images “were a reality“.

The artist designed effigies that were people and gods, scenes that were usual activities and situations that happened, that is, the artist was able to create realities.

Serdab with the statue of Ti. Mastaba of Ti in Saqqara. VI Dynasty. Photo Mª Rosa Valdesogo. Ancient Egypt.
Serdab with the statue of Ti. Thanks to this statue created by an artist, Ti could have an eternal life. Mastaba of Ti in Saqqara. VI Dynasty. Photo: Mª Rosa Valdesogo.

The artist in Ancient Egypt, in short, was a creator, and not anyone had the ability to create. That is the clue point: he was a kind of “demiurge“. For that reason he was so powerful; becasue he could grant existence and eternity.

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