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Artistic Style of Ancient Egypt


The art of ancient Egypt was both uniquely stylized and symbolic. In the same way that hieroglyphs were a visual language, the art of ancient Egypt followed specific rules in order to be read and understood. Artists were not so concerned with creating highly realistic images rather, they followed a system called the Canon of Proportions to represent an ideal and harmonious version of reality. In this lesson, students will analyze images of ancient Egyptian artwork to create a definition of the artistic style. Students will continue to explore the Canon of Proportions by designing their own contemporary image using this formula.

Canon of Proportions

  • Examine images of two-dimensional ancient Egyptian art containing figures with students using Explore Art with Your Students:
  • Analyze the images with students, focusing on specific stylistic characteristics. The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston offers a clear explanation of the differences in perspective in ancient Egyptian art.
    • What part of the face is visible? Describe the perspective.
    • How would you describe the proportions and perspective of the torso compared to the legs?
    • How do the perspectives of the face, torso and legs differ?
  • Introduce students to the Canon of Proportions, a system used in ancient Egypt to depict an idealized version of reality, by placing a grid with 19 units on an acetate sheet over one of the initial images. The canon is applicable to only the figures within an artwork and not the artwork as a whole. The key features are:
    • One unit is measured from the sole of the foot to the ankle.
    • The figure is divided into 18 equal units starting at the soles of the feet to the hairline. The 19th unit contains the area above the hairline, which is often obscured by a headdress.
    • The navel rests at the 11th unit.
    • The face and the legs are depicted in profile (side view) while the torso is depicted from the front view.
  • Divide students into small groups and provide each group with images of two-dimensional ancient Egyptian art containing figures to test for the Canon of Proportions. Provide each group with a few images to analyze and test for the Canon of Proportions. Have students mark the 18 units from the soles of the feet to the hairline.

Other Artistic Rules

  • Provide each small group with additional images of ancient Egyptian art, both two- and three-dimensional works, to analyze for other artistic rules. For each rule, use the guiding questions to help students understand the artistic rules of ancient Egyptian art.

    • Scale: The larger in scale a figure is, the more important. The proportions of children do not change; they are just shown smaller in scale. Children are depicted as having a finger in their mouth.

      • Who is the main figure in the image? How can you tell? Compare the main figure to other figures and describe the similarities and differences.
    • Colour: Ancient Eyptians believed colours had meanings.

      Red = Life and victory but also anger and fire
      Yellow/Gold = Gold is everlasting and indestructible, a protective colour
      Blue = The sky, water (Nile River) and primeval flood (creation); rebirth and fertility
      Black = Colour of the underworld and night; death but also rebirth (afterlife) like the fertile black soil that rejuvenated the land after the Nile overflowed annually
      White = Associated with omnipotence. The Upper Egypt crown was white.
      Green = New growth, good health, life and rejuventation

      • What does each colour mean in different cultures? Compare these meanings to the ancient Egyptian meanings for each colour.
    • Women and Men: Women are identified by their lighter skin tone and with both feet together, while men are identified by their darker skin tone and with their left foot stepped forward.

      • How are women depicted? How are men depicted? Describe the differences.
    • Roles and Gestures: Each figure had a specific role, whether they were royalty or common people. The role of each figure could be determined by what they were wearing, what they were doing, their position and posture, the other figures around them, and specific gestures. For example, a cross-legged seated figure is a scribe. A person with an open hand in front of their face is in mourning.

      • Who is shown in the work? What are they wearing? What are they doing? How would you describe their position and posture? How do the figures interact? What do you think their role might be? Why?
  • Many symbols appear repeatedly in ancient Egyptian art including the papyrus, the sun, the scarab beetle, feathers symbolizing truth, etc. Lead students through Lesson 2: Symbols of Power to help them identify, analyze and understand common symbols found in various images of ancient Egyptian art.
  • After students have thoroughly examined their images, have each group share their findings and as a class, establish a definition for the artistic style of ancient Egyptian.

Contemporary Mural

  • Students can apply their knowledge of the Canon of Proportions and other artistic rules from ancient Egyptian art to create their own contemporary work of art. Provide groups with a large piece of craft paper and crayons/markers/paint to design a mural illustrating each member in the group. Have students use the Canon of Proportions for each figure and include symbols of their own design such as the personal hieroglyphs they created in Lesson 1: Crack the Code: Hieroglyphs.  Display murals around the class and as students walk around their classroom gallery, they can read each mural to decode the story and reveal the identity of their classmates.

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