Pharaonic Art and the Modern Imagination

By Fazzini, Richard A. | UNESCO Courier, September 1988 | Go to article overview

Pharaonic Art and the Modern Imagination


Fazzini, Richard A., UNESCO Courier


THE sense of identity underlying Egypt's nationalist movement was enhanced by the archaeological rediscovery of ancient Egypt, a fact reflected in such works as Cairo's partially pharaonicizing sculpture The Awakening of Egypt by Mahmoud Mokhtar (1891-1934), and in the use of ancient Egyptian history in the early allegorical novels of the modern writer Najib Mahfuz.

These uses of elements of ancient Egyptian history and art might have seemed familiar to the Pharaohs of the early New Kingdom (sixteenth century BC) who expelled the Hyksos-the so-called "shepherd kings from the East"-and reunited the country. Viewing themselves as heirs to the kings of the carly Middle Kingdom (late twenty-first to carly twentieth century BC) when Egypt was reunited after the collapse of the Old Kingdom, they established close religious and archaizing artistic links between themselves and their early Middle Kingdom "ancestors". In fact, ancient Egyptian civilization, while sufficiently evolutionary to permit incredible artistic change, was also sufficiently resistant to change to ensure amazing artistic continuity, and encompassed concepts that could allow the past to be a viable model for the present.

This also helps to explain how Egyptian art of the fourth century BC and later, which included the native Twenty-ninth and Thirtieth Dynasties (399-343 BC), was a blend of the traditional and the innovative. Among the features of that era's art was a greater fullness in figural style, a greater penchant for animal figures, a plethora of figures of gods and of religious symbols, and more complex forms and decoration in general. It was this later Egyptian art especially that spread throughout the Hellenistic and Roman world, via the diffusion of Egyptian cults. In Italy and Rome in particular, objects imported from Egypt were supplemented by new Egyptianizing works made to serve cults that also partook of non-Egyptian elements, to reflect imperial glory, or simply to decorate houses and gardens.

With the fall of Rome and the rise of Christianity and Islam, ancient Egypt entered the realm of the unknown, mysterious and fabulous. It remained there even when Egypt's rediscovery was begun in the Renaissance, because the rediscoverers were concerned, for example, with ideas of links between Christian doctrine and the wisdom or magic of ancient Egypt. Further, the Renaissance's main sources for the study of ancient Egypt were the Egyptian and Egyptianizing objects from Italy and Rome. The former were hardly representative of ancient Egypt in general, and the latter varied greatly in thc degree of adherence to Egyptian norms.

One especially important discovery was the Roman Period Mensa Isiaca, so called because it resembles the top of a table (mensa in Italian) and because its iconography relates it to the cult of Isis. Made of bronze and silver it is decorated with images of Egyptian deities and symbols, as well as hieroglyphs which are imperfectly understood. Like sculptures similar to the second century AD Egypto-classical figure of the Emperor Hadrian's favourite, Antinous, found at Tivoli in 1740, the Mensa Isiaca became a source for Egyptianizing elements in the art of the Renaissance. In part because they went on being presented as fine sources for such endeavours, they and other Egyptian and Roman Egyptianizing works continued to play a role in Egyptian studies and Egyptianizing art in the Western world, despite increased interest in, and firsthand knowledge of, Egypt in the seventeenth and, especially, in the eighteenth centuries. Nevertheless, in the eighteenth century several non-scientific developments also led to greater interest in ancient Egypt, and also increased its influence on Western arts. These developments included the growing importance of Freemasonry, the concept of the Sublime (the ability of art and architecture to induce emotional reactions such as amazement and dread) and emerging Neoclassicism's concern for grandeur, simplicity and massiveness. …

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