The Egyptian Canon of Sculptural Proportion

The annual predictable flood of the Nile River ensured the fertility of Egyptian lands, and it also symbolizes rebirth, which is a very important concept in Ancient Egypt. Moreover, under these natural resources, Ancient Egypt was enabled to create a flourishing and astonishing civilization. At the same time, these ideas of flooding and rebirth can also be seen in Egyptian arts, that exhibited idealization of the rulers as deities, and the absolute authority of the pharaohs. Now its is clear that the Egyptian art followed a canonical pattern of creating artworks, especially in their reliefs, statuaries, and architectures, etc. Just as a trait continued along art development, the lower the social status is, the more relaxed it is—This perfectly illustrates the Egyptian arts, the higher the social status, such as the pharaohs or kings, would fell under the strict canons of proportion, that would become consistent at Egyptian arts for millenniums.

The common Egyptian canonical pattern approximately started with the Palette of King Narmer, which was an eye make-up mixture slate made of greywacke; The actual function of this slate might not for eye make-up, but instead, symbolized King Narmer’s enormous victory for unifying Upper and Lower Egypt. In fact, this slate has two sides, and each side provided a narrative story of King Narmer’s violent unification with divine authority, due to the fact two cow-like creatures on top of the slate resembled the goddess of sky. Furthermore, the compositional view of King Narmer wearing head decoration representing Upper and Lower Egypt became consistent in Egyptian arts; the hierarchical scales of figures, that the King Narmer was intentionally enlarged than the other figures; the use of strict and rigid lines, that we see every figure was meant to put in a strictly-bounded way. These three consisted the three most commonly seen characteristics (formulas) at Egyptian reliefs, or paintings.

However, other equally important features should also be noted, because the idealization of the Egyptian arts really became evident at sculptures. Let’s considering the statue of King Menkaura and the Queen, from the Old Kingdom, 4th Dynasty. This statue indicated the conventional sculpturing techniques of the pharaohs, that the king was placed in a static-bound way—his left leg advanced forwards for a bit; his hands were clenched; his arms were attached to the body closely; his face was idealized, with fake beard falling down in a carefully carved way. In fact, the whole sculpture was placed into an idealized state, the pharaoh’s different body parts were proportionated rationally, rigid arms by his side, and presented as unnatural, with his body idealized. All of these suggested the divine attributions of the pharaohs, and their enormous authority over their subjects.

The Egyptian canons were sustained over the millenniums, throughout the Old Kingdom to the New Kingdom. However, Egyptian arts changed drastically during the reign of Akhenaton, or the Amarna Period. The Amarna Period ended with the death of Akhenaton, although short-lived, brought a religious and cultural revolution to Egyptian arts. During Akhenaton’s reign, he replaced the traditional Egyptian polytheism with one single god—Aton, in which he himself was the only legitimate ruler over the Egypt. Not surprisingly, this idea of monotheism can be seen at the sunken relief of Akhenaton, Nefertiti, and three Daughters. With the sun ray on the top of the plate represents the sun god—Aton, while Akhenaton and Nefertiti seating in opposite with each other, receiving the ray from the sun, representing divine authority. One important thing to notice, is that the undulating lines were replacing the traditional rigid lines. For example, the lines were used to depict Akhenaton were more rounded than the lines were used to depict King Narmer; And Akhenaton had a prominent belly, which reflected the naturalistic feature of his body, compared to the idealized body form of King Menkaura; there’s also no use of registers, which were used at the Palette of King Narmer. One thing to notice is, this whole plate shows the audience a quite intimate environment, in which Akhenaton and Nefertiti were playing with their daughters, Akhenaton carefully held one of his daughters, and he kissed her—not like anything we seen before at royal Egyptian artworks. Thus, the Amarna Period is a period of vivid cultural transformation, and a break with traditional Egyptian canons.

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