Ancient Egypt, Relief sculpture and painting
For Egyptians the decoration of tomb walls with reliefs or painted scenes provided some certainty of the perpetuation of life; in a temple, similarly, it was believed that mural decoration magically ensured the performance of important ceremonies and reinforced the memory of royal deeds.
The beginnings of the dynastic tradition can be found in tombs of the 3rd dynasty, such as that of Hesire at Saqqarah; it contained mural paintings of funerary equipment and wooden panels carrying figures of Hesire in the finest low relief (Egyptian Museum). Generally speaking, mural decorations were in paint when the ground was mud brick or stone of poor quality, and in relief when the walls were in good stone. Painting and drawing formed the basis of what was to be carved in relief, and the finished carving was itself commonly painted.
In tombs the mural decorations might be left unfinished, being only partly sketched or partly carved by the time of the burial. Uncompleted scenes reveal clearly the methods of laying out walls for decoration. The prepared wall was marked out with red guidelines, the grid described earlier being used for major human figures and sometimes for minor ones. Preliminary outlines were corrected and paint was applied usually in tempera, pigments being mostly mineral-based.
In the Old Kingdom pure painting of the highest quality is found as early as the 4th dynasty in the scene of geese from the tomb of Nefermaat and Atet at Maydum. But the glory of Old Kingdom mural decoration is the low-relief work in the royal funerary monuments of the 5th dynasty and in the private tombs of the 5th and 6th dynasties in the Memphite necropolis. Outstanding are the reliefs from the sun temple of King Neuserre at Abu Jirab (Ägyptisches Museum, East and West Berlin) and the scenes of daily life in the tombs of Ptahhotep and Ti at Saqqarah.The tradition of fine painting was continued in the Middle Kingdom. At Beni Hasan the funerary chambers are crowded with paintings exhibiting fine draftsmanship and use of color. The best relief work of the period, reviving the Memphite tradition, is found at Thebes in the tomb of Mentuhotep II at Dayr al-Bahri and in the little shrine of Sesostris I at Karnak, where the fine carving is greatly enhanced by a masterly use of space in the disposition of figures and text.
In the early 18th dynasty the relief tradition was revived at Thebes and can best be observed in the carvings in Hatshepsut's temple at Dayr al-Bahri. Later royal reliefs of Amenhotep III and of the post-Amarna kings show a stylistic refinement that was carried to its best in the reign of Seti I, at Karnak, at Abydos, and in his tomb at Thebes.
The 18th dynasty also saw Egyptian painting reach its highest achievement in the tombs of the nobles at Thebes. The medium of decoration and an apparently greater artistic freedom led to the introduction of small, often entertaining details into standard scenes. The tiny tombs of Menna and Nakht are full of such playful vignettes. The paintings in great tombs, such as that of Rekhmire, are more formal but still crammed with unusual detail. Fragments of mural and floor paintings from palaces and houses at Thebes and Tell el-Amarna provide tantalizing glimpses of the marsh and garden settings of everyday upper-class life.
The fine royal reliefs of the late 18th dynasty were matched by those in private tombs at Thebes (Ramose and Kheruef) and Saqqarah (Horemheb); these are breathtaking in execution and, in the case of Horemheb, both moving and original. Interest in relief subsequently passed to the work in the temples of the 19th and 20th dynasties. The most dramatic subject was war, whether the so-called triumph of Ramses II at Kadesh (Thebes and Abu Simbel), or the more genuine successes of Ramses III against the Libyans and the Sea Peoples (Madinat Habu). The size and vitality of these ostentatious scenes are stupendous, even if their execution tends to be slapdash.
The artistic renaissance of the 25th and 26th dynasties is less evident in painting and relief than in sculpture. Although the fine work in the tomb of Montemhat at Thebes is distinctly archaizing, it is, nevertheless, exceptional in quality. The skills of the Egyptian draftsman, nurtured by centuries of exercise at large and small scale, remained highly professional. This skill is seen at its most consistent level in the illumination of papyruses. The practice of including drawings, often painted, in religious papyruses flourished from the time of the 18th dynasty and reached a high point around 1300 BC. The peak of achievement is probably represented by the Book of the Dead of the scribe Ani (British Museum), in the vignettes of which both technique and the use of color are outstanding. Subsequently, and especially in the Late Period, pure line drawing was increasingly employed.