Why does the ancient Egyptian style make all artwork look flat?

In 1986, the band “The Bangles” sang about “All the ancient paintings on the tombs” in which the characters depicted were “like Egyptians” from ancient Egypt.

Although he was neither an art historian nor an Egyptologist, composer Liam Sternberg has noted one of the most striking features of ancient Egyptian visual art – the representation of people, animals, and things on a flat, two-dimensional plane. Why did the ancient Egyptians do this? Is ancient Egypt the only culture that created art in this style?

Drawing any 3D object requires a specific point of view to create the illusion of perspective on a flat surface. Drawing an object in two dimensions – height and width – requires the artist to depict only one surface of that object. Live Science says that highlighting a single surface has its advantages.

“In the drawing, the chart contains the most information,” said John Baines, professor emeritus of Egyptology at Oxford University in the UK. “It is easier to understand something if it is defined by a contour.”

The special style of the Egyptians

When you draw on a flat surface, the outline becomes the most important feature, although many Egyptian drawings and paintings include details from many aspects of the object. “There is also a strong emphasis on clarity and comprehensiveness,” Baines said.

According to Bynes, in many artistic traditions, “size equals importance.” In wall art, royalty and tomb owners are often represented much larger than the objects around them. If an artist used a 3D perspective to render human dimensions in a realistic scene with a foreground and background, it would be against this principle.

The other reason to describe many things on a flat 2D plane is that it helps create a visual narrative. “We just have to think of comics as parallels,” Baines said. There are widely accepted principles governing how ancient Egyptian visual art was created and interpreted. “Originally, the writing was in vertical columns, and the images were horizontal,” Baines said. “Hieroglyphic myths provide information that is not easy to put into the picture.” Often, these scenes are not real events “but rather a generalized, idealized representation of life.”

hidden meanings

However, not all representation in ancient Egypt was only two-dimensional. “Most of the art of painting was set in an architectural setting,” says Baines. Some compositions on tomb walls include bas-relief, also known as bas-relief, in which a largely flat relief is carved into a wall or fixed to a wall.

In the tomb of Akhthotep, a royal official who lived during the Fifth Dynasty around 2400 BC, we can see two worlds whose bodies were carved on the flat surface of the wall. “The relief also shapes the surface of the body, so you can’t say it’s a flat perimeter,” Bennes explains, “because they have the surface texture and surface detail in addition to their contours.”

In many examples dating back to 2700 BC, in the early dynastic period, artists painted relief to add more detail.

Egyptian visual art and flat shape

Bynes said that Egyptian visual art used “fairly universal human approaches to depicting on a flat surface”.

Baines said that “Egyptian art influenced the art of the ancient Near East” such as ancient Syrian art or oriental art and Mesopotamian art. The same conventions can be seen in many other ancient art traditions. Maya art also uses figurative scenes and hieroglyphic scriptures.

Although classical Greek and Roman art is an exception, there are examples of similar artistic conventions of two-dimensional painting and drawing in medieval Europe. “It’s a system that works very well, so there’s no need to change it,” Baines explains.

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