Anonymous artists invented ancient Egypt's iconic style

The painters who decorated Egyptian tombs and temples followed rigid guidelines for centuries—until a style revolution changed the rules.

Not all tomb art was for the high born. A detail from the tomb of a sculptor from Deir el Medina dates to the reign of Ramses II (ca 1279-1213 B.C.), and shows a painter decorating a coffin.
UIG/ALBUM

Painters in the Western tradition strive for “originality,” stamping a style on their work to ensure their name will be remembered forever. The painters of ancient Egypt could not have been more different: Creators of some of the world’s most iconic art, they worked anonymously, continuing a style whose precepts were laid down at the dawn of Egyptian culture in the third millennium B.C.

From its distant origins to the peak of its splendor in the grand tombs of the Valley of the Kings and Queens, Egyptian painting was not created to please a public, but for more transcendent needs. The ka, the vital essence of the deceased, needed nourishment in order to survive in the afterlife. To supply it, Egyptians looked to the magic (heka) of painting. By representing an object, they believed they could make it a reality, which is why growing wheat, hunting, and fishing were popular subjects.

This idea of art having a function beyond aesthetic pleasure is alien to classical and modern notions of painting. The Egyptian painter was striving to capture a subject not in one moment of happiness or sadness, but for all time, a nameless undertaking, carried out in praise of the cosmic order. (These are the sacred and secret rituals in the Book of the Dead.)

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