In 1986, The Bangles sang about “all the old tomb paintings” where the figures they depict “walk like Egyptians”. Although he was neither an art historian nor an Egyptologist, lyricist Liam Sternberg had in mind one of the most notable features of ancient egyptian visual art — depicting people, animals, and objects on a flat, two-dimensional plane. Why did the ancient Egyptians do this? And was ancient Egypt the only culture to create art in this style?
Drawing any object in three dimensions 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 render only one surface of that object. And highlighting just one surface, it turns out, has its advantages.
“In pictorial representation, outlines carry the most information,” John Baines, professor emeritus of Egyptology at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, told Live Science. “It is easier to understand something if it is defined by a scheme.”
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When painting on a flat surface, the outline becomes the most important feature, although many Egyptian drawings and paintings include details from several sides of the subject. “There’s also a big focus on clarity and comprehensibility,” Bains said.
In many artistic traditions, “size equals importance,” according to Baines. In wall art, royalty and tomb owners are often depicted much larger than the objects around them. If an artist were to use three-dimensional perspective to depict human proportions in a realistic scene with foreground and background, it would be against this principle.
The other reason for rendering many objects on a flat, two-dimensional plane is that it helps create a visual narrative.
“One only has to think [a] comic book as a parallel,” Baines said. There are widely accepted principles that organize how ancient Egyptian visual art was created and interpreted. “Originally writing was in vertical columns and paintings were horizontal,” Baines said. The hieroglyphic inscriptions “give you information that cannot be so easily put into a picture.” More often than not, these scenes do not represent actual events, “but a generalized and idealized representation of life.”
However, not all images in ancient Egypt were purely two-dimensional. According to Baines, “Most fine art is placed in an architectural setting.” Some compositions on tomb walls include relief modeling, also known as bas-relief, where a mostly flat sculpture is carved into a wall or mounted on a wall. In the tomb of Akhethotep, a royal official who lived during the Fifth Dynasty around 2400 BC, we can see two scribes (shown below) whose bodies are sculpted into the flat surface of the wall. As Baines explained, “the relief also models the surface of the body, so you can’t tell it’s a flat contour” because “they have texture and surface detail in addition to their contours.”
In many examples dating back to 2700 BCE in the Early Dynastic period, artists painted over the relief to add even more detail, as seen in the image of the two scribes below.
Egyptian visual art used “more or less universal human approaches to representation on a flat surface,” Bains said.
“It [Egyptian art] influenced art in the ancient Near East,” such as ancient Syrian (or Levantine) and Mesopotamian art, Bains said. The same conventions can be seen in many other ancient art traditions. Maya the 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 there’s no need to change it.”
Originally published on Live Science.