In 1986, the band The Bangles sang about “all the old paintings on the tombs” of the figures depicted “walking like an Egyptian.” Though neither an art historian nor an Egyptologist, songwriter Liam Sternberg referred to one of the most striking characteristics of ancient egyptian Fine arts – the depiction of people, animals and objects on a flat, two-dimensional plane. Why did the ancient Egyptians do this? And is ancient Egypt the only culture that created art in this style?
Drawing any object in three dimensions requires a certain angle of view to create the illusion of perspective on a flat surface. To draw an object in two dimensions (height and width), the artist only needs to render one surface of that object. And it turns out that just highlighting one surface has its perks.
“In the pictorial representation, the outline contains most of the information,” John Baines, professor emeritus of Egyptology at the University of Oxford in the UK, told Live Science. “It’s easier to understand something when it’s defined by an outline.”
Related: What did the pharaohs of ancient Egypt hide in the pyramids?
When drawing on a flat surface, the outline becomes the most important feature, although many Egyptian drawings and paintings include detail from multiple sides of the object. “There is also a strong emphasis on clarity and understandability,” Baines said.
In many artistic traditions, according to Baines, “size is equally important”. In wall art, kings and tomb owners are often depicted much larger than the objects surrounding them. If an artist were to use three-dimensional perspective to represent human proportions in a realistic scene with foreground and background, it would contradict this principle.
The other reason for representing many objects on a flat, two-dimensional plane is that it helps create a visual narrative.
“You just have to think about it [a] comic strip as a parallel,” Baines said. There are widely accepted principles that organize how ancient Egyptian fine art was created and interpreted. “In the beginning, writing was in vertical columns and images were horizontal,” Baines said. The hieroglyphic captions “give you information , which are not so easy to put into a picture.” More often, these scenes do not represent actual events, “but a generalized and idealized representation of life”.
However, not every pictorial representation in ancient Egypt was purely two-dimensional. According to Baines, “Most pictorial art has been placed in an architectural setting.” Some compositions on the walls of tombs included relief modelling, also known as bas-reliefs, in which a sculpture, usually flat, is carved into or mounted on a wall. In the tomb of Akhethotep, a royal official who died around 2400 BC during the Fifth Dynasty. We can see two scribes (see below) whose bodies are carved on the flat surface of the wall. As Baines explained, “the relief also models the body’s surface, so you can’t say it’s a flat outline” because “in addition to their outlines, they have texture and surface detail.”
In many examples dating back to 2700 B.C. Dating back to the early dynasty, artists would paint on a relief to add even more detail, as can be seen in the image of the two scribes below.
Egyptian visual arts used “more or less universal human approaches to representation on a flat surface,” Baines said.
“It [Egyptian art] influenced art in the “ancient Near East”, such as Old Syriac (or Levantine) and Mesopotamia Art, said Baines. The same conventions can be seen in many other ancient art traditions. Maya Art also uses pictorial scenes and hieroglyphic writing. Although classical Greek and Roman Art is an exception, there are even examples of similar artistic conventions for two-dimensional drawing and painting from medieval Europe. As Baines explained, “It’s a system that works very well, so it doesn’t need to be changed.”
Originally published on Live Science.