Art style

Why does the distinctive art style of ancient Egypt make everything look flat?

In 1986, the group “The Bangles” sang “all the old paintings on the tombs” where the characters they represent “walk like an Egyptian”. Although he is neither an art historian nor an Egyptologist, songwriter Liam Sternberg was referring to one of the most striking features of ancient egyptian visual art – the representation of people, animals and objects on a two-dimensional flat plane. Why did the ancient Egyptians do this? And is ancient Egypt the only culture to create art in this style?

Drawing any three-dimensional object requires a specific vantage point to create the illusion of perspective on a flat surface. Drawing an object in two dimensions (height and width) obliges the artist to represent only one surface of this object. And highlighting a single surface, it turns out, has its advantages.

“In pictorial representation, the outline contains the most information,” John Baines, Emeritus Professor of Egyptology at the University of Oxford in the UK, told Live Science. “It’s easier to understand something if it’s defined by a diagram.”

Related: What did the pharaohs of ancient Egypt hide inside the pyramids?

When drawing on a flat surface, the outline becomes the most important feature, although many Egyptian drawings and paintings include detail from multiple sides of the object. “There’s also a big emphasis on clarity and understandability,” Baines said.

In many artistic traditions, “size equals importance”, according to Baines. In wall art, royalty and tomb owners are often depicted much larger than the objects around them. If an artist were to use three-dimensional perspective to render human proportions in a realistic scene with a foreground and background, it would go against this principle.

A wall painting with Egyptian hieroglyphs from Tomb 24, Giza. (Image credit: Photo by © Historical Picture Archive/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

The other reason for depicting many objects on a flat, two-dimensional plane is that it helps create a visual narrative.

“Just think about [a] comic book as a parallel,” Baines said. There are widely accepted principles that organize the creation and interpretation of ancient Egyptian visual art. “Originally, the writing was in vertical columns and the images were horizontal,” Baines said. Hieroglyphic captions “give you information not so easily pictured.” More often than not, these scenes do not depict actual events “but a generalized and idealized representation of life.”

However, not all pictorial representations in ancient Egypt were purely two-dimensional. According to Baines, “most pictorial art has been placed within an architectural setting”. Some compositions on tomb walls included relief modelling, also known as bas-relief, in which a mostly flat sculpture is carved into a wall or mounted on a wall. In the tomb of Akhethotep, a royal official who lived during the Fifth Dynasty around 2400 BC. we can see two scribes (shown below) whose bodies are carved into the flat surface of the wall. As Baines explained, the “relief also models the surface of the body, so you can’t tell it’s a flat outline” because “they have textures and surface detail in addition to their outlines”.

In many examples dating as far back as 2700 BC to the Early Dynastic Period, artists painted over a relief to add even more detail, as seen in the image of the two scribes below.

A relief of two scribes from Mastaba of Akhethotep at Saqqara. Dated to the Old Kingdom, Fifth Dynasty, around 2494 BC. AD to 2345 BC. AD Found in the collection of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. (Image credit: Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Egyptian visual art used “more or less universal human approaches to representation on a flat surface”, said Baines.

“This [Egyptian art] influenced art in the ancient Near East”, such as ancient Syrian (or Levantine) and Mesopotamian art, says Baines. The same conventions can be observed in many other ancient artistic traditions. Maya the art also uses pictorial scenes and hieroglyphic writing. Although classical Greek and Roman art is an exception, there are even examples of similar artistic conventions for two-dimensional drawing and painting from medieval Europe. As Baines explained, “It’s a system that works very well, so there’s no need to change it.”

Originally posted on Live Science.