Art of Ancient Egypt: Predynastic (4210 BCE–2680 BCE) and Old Kingdom (2680 BCE–2258 BCE) periods – Part IV

The Pharaoh Menkaura flanked by the goddess Hathor (left) and a Bat nome* goddess (right), carved in basalt (Cairo Museum).

We must not forget that when the pyramids were built no country in Europe had even been organized in a civil society. Nowadays, we consider the temples* adjacent to the pyramids as religious monuments, which are in some ways the ancestors of the great Theban temples of successive dynasties. They consisted of a front yard, a room for private worship used by the priests who took care of the funerary temple, and another room reserved for the God itself whose access was forbidden for everyone except direct successors of the monarch. The temples for popular worship were in the valley far beyond the Pyramid, and also had a front yard sustained by columns. All the characteristic elements of the Egyptian temple that we will later see in the great Theban temples were already established in these sanctuaries of the first empire. The temples of the pyramids of Abusir had columns* resembling lotus stems with their capitals* consisting of a closed flower. Other columns resembled stems of papyrus and palms joined together, and the bases (or plinths*) of these columns were always small or nonexistent. With respect to civil architecture, private houses were made of wood and cane and covered with colored coconut matting.

Structure of a temple adjacent to a pyramid.
Types of Egyptian column and its structure. The Egyptian columns included different types, recognizable by the form of their capitals and shafts.

In the first dynasties, sculpture* developed such a high degree of perfection that there are figures which immediately can be recognized as portraits* of striking resemblance, beautifully expressive, sometimes even with excessive specification of personality. Most early Egyptian statues were carved in softer materials than those that were used in later periods; they were mainly made in wood or limestone and were painted or polychromed*. There are portraits of standing priests and officials from the royal council, and also scribes* meticulously taking notes, sitting or squatting, with the wax tablet and stylet they used to write. The funerary portraits of the IV Dynasty did not try to improve or to beautify the portrayed. The artists have tried to portray them as they were in an “eternal” form, that is, without showing anything temporal or actual. Thus, many portrait statues of the IV Dynasty have “false” eyes made of white limestone, with pupils of rock crystal and copper eyelashes. It is understood that this was a way to give more animation and life to the effigy of the deceased. This is shown in the famous Seated Scribe of the Louvre Museum.

The seated scribe (Louvre). The statue represents a figure of a seated scribe at work. The sculpture is dated to the period of the 4th Dynasty, ca. 2620–2500 BCE.

However, the most sensational discovery of Egyptian sculpture coming from this period is the group of Menkaure (Mycerinus) and his wife. The Pharaoh stands in hieratic* position, but the portrait must surely have a remarkable resemblance to the models (the term “hieratic” refers to styles in art that adhere to certain fixed types or methods). His wife leans on him familiarly as if she was proud of her husband’s protection. Both characters are dressed in minimal clothing, wearing no jewelry or complicated headdresses. The queen is dressed in a close-fitting linen robe almost transparent. Ancient Egyptian women shared with their husbands fatigues and hardships of life. Many of these laborious wives have been reproduced beside their husbands showing equal status and rights to be portrayed similar to the royal women. An impressive example of this is the famous double portrait of Prince Rahotep and Princess Nofrit of the IV Dynasty. Sitting in their white chairs, this couple from nearly 5,000 years ago is shown majestically hieratic, with eyes fixed, and their whole bodies exhibiting a strong polychromy. This couple is more alive than any other statue we have inherited from the art of the Old Kingdom. Lady Nofrit, with her pale complexion contrasting strongly with the dark color of her husband’s skin, with her provocative eyes framed in black makeup, is the oldest identified female portrait in the world.

Statue of Pharaoh Menkaura and his wife, carved in greywacke, ca 2548-2530 BCE – IV Dynasty (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston).
The prince Rahotep and his wife Nofret (Cairo Museum). The different skin color of both figures corresponds to an aesthetic level: the tanned skin warrior contrasts with the pale skin of the lady, who spends her leisure hours at home. This opposition between the two characters reflects the prototype created during the IV Dynasty in which man and woman were complementary.


Capital: (From the Latin word caput, meaning “head”) The topmost element of a column. It is located between the column’s shaft and the load thrusting of the construction down upon it, thus broadening the area of the column’s supporting surface. The capital is usually the most ornate element of a column. The three principal types on which all modern capitals are based are the Doric order, the Corinthian order and the Ionic order. The capital consists (in ascending order) of three parts: the necking, which is a continuation of the shaft but which is set off from it visually by one or more narrow grooves; the echinus, a circular block that bulges outward at its uppermost portion in order to better support the abacus; and the abacus itself, a square block that directly supports the entablature above.

Column: In architecture a structural element that transmits, through compression, the weight of the structure above to other structural elements below. They are large usually vertical, cylindrical structures composed of the plinth (or base), the shaft (or vertical support) and the capital (or top of the column, usually decorated).

Hieratic: Refers to the works of art extremely stylized, restrained or formal, and adhered to fixed types or methods.

Nome: (from Ancient Greek nomós meaning “district”). A territorial division in ancient Egypt.

Plinth: A block or slab upon which a column, pedestal, statue or other structure is based.

Polychrome: The practice of decorating architectural elements, sculpture, etc., in a variety of colors. The term is used to refer to certain styles of architecture, pottery or sculpture in multiple colors.

Portrait: A painting, photograph, sculpture, or other artistic representation of a person, in which the face and its expression is predominant. The intent is to display the likeness, personality, and even the mood of the person. For this reason, in photography a portrait is generally not a snapshot, but a composed image of a person in a still position. A portrait often shows a person looking directly at the painter or photographer, in order to most successfully engage the subject with the viewer.

Scribe: A person who serves as a professional copyist, especially one who made copies of manuscripts before the invention of automatic printing. The profession, previously widespread across cultures, lost most of its prominence and status with the advent of the printing press. The work of scribes can involve copying manuscripts and other texts as well as secretarial and administrative duties such as the taking of dictation and keeping of business, judicial, and historical records for kings, nobles, temples, and cities.

Sculpture: The branch of the visual arts that operates in three dimensions. It is one of the plastic arts. Durable sculptural processes originally used carving (the removal of material) and modeling (the addition of material, as clay), in stone, metal, ceramics, wood and other materials but, since Modernism, there has been an almost complete freedom of materials and process. The Western tradition of sculpture began in ancient Greece, and Greece is widely seen as producing great masterpieces in the classical period.

Temple: (from the Latin templum). A structure reserved for religious or spiritual rituals and activities such as prayer and sacrifice. It is typically used for such buildings belonging to all faiths (historical and modern). The form and function of temples is very variable, though they are often considered by believers to be in some sense the “house” of one or more deities. The usage of the word comes from Ancient Rome, where a templum constituted a sacred precinct as defined by a priest, or augur. It has the same root as the word “template”, a plan in preparation of the building that was marked out on the ground by the augur.