By Carrol, Colleen
Arts & Activities , Vol. 140, No. 5
ABOUT SYMBOLISM IN EGYPTIAN ART
No series devoted to symbolism in art would be complete without a selection from ancient Egypt. Perhaps no other civilization in history has relied more heavily on symbolic imagery to depict nearly every aspect of their culture than that of the ancient Egyptians, a grand and powerful civilization that prospered for over 3,000 years beginning around 3100 B.C. and ending approximately 30 B.C.
In that period, Egyptian artisans and scribes produced thousands of objects that today are seen mainly as works of art, but to the Egyptians were integral parts of both daily life and religious worship. From the smallest item of jewelry to the massive pyramids, symbols adorn nearly every object that exists from ancient Egypt. Students may be familiar with many of these symbols, such as the "ankh," the hieroglyphic symbol meaning life, or the "udjat" eye, also known as "the Horus eye," a symbol with multiple meanings, and the focus of this month's Art Print.
One very important thing to remember when looking at Egyptian art is that its symbols, like the udjat eye, often have more than one meaning. For example, the eye is a symbol of the god Horus (often depicted as a hawk; Horus is also a god of the sun). Egyptians also believed that the udjat eye was able to ward off illness, so it is often depicted in tomb paintings to give the dead the promise of good health in the afterlife.
The concept of the afterlife was of utmost importance to the people of ancient Egypt, and their use of symbolic imagery inside the tombs of the dead was driven more by religion and superstition than by aesthetic valuing: "What we call Egyptian art was originally created for religious and magical purposes. Its symbols and functions reveal the Egyptians' beliefs about the world and their attempts to understand and relate to it. In the Egyptian social and religious context, works of art played a practical role, whose straightforward physicality is not easy for the modern viewer to realize" (from "The Art of Ancient Egypt: A Resource for Educators," www.metmuseum.org/explore).
Symbolism was a practical way for the Egyptians to construct meaning of the world around them during life and also as a way to make sense of what was to come in the afterlife. In addition to the udjat eye and other symbolic images inspired by actual living things or objects, students will notice hieroglyphics on the back wall and covering the upper section of the barrel-vaulted ceiling.
The word hieroglyphic comes from the Greek language: "hiero" meaning "sacred," and "gluphikos" meaning "carving." When found in tombs, this picture language was used to record the events of a person's life and passages from the Book of the Dead. These written symbols also have multiple meanings: a symbol seen alone may mean one thing, but while used in combination with other hieroglyphic symbols, can mean something different. In this month's selection, students will see a detail of a wall painting from a tomb found in the Valley of the Kings, the area on the west bank of the Nile River where the ancient Egyptians built tombs for their pharaohs and high-ranking noblemen. …