Late Egyptian Art

The last period of Egyptian history, the Late Period, starts with the Nubian government and ends during the Ptolemaic rule. In between these two terms was the subsequent invasion of Egypt by Assyrians and Persians.

Relief of the XXII Dynasty representing Osorkon II (Louvre), a polychromed relief that this Pharaoh ordered for his temple in Bubastis, the new capital.

The XXI and XXII Dynasties ruled during three centuries and initially established the capital at Tanis and later in Bubastis (two cities located in the Nile’s delta). The reliefs of the temples of the XXI and XXII Dynasties represent the same style of those of the time of the Ramessides. These reliefs initiated a tendency that was accentuated in works of later times: the return to the technique of “sunken relief” which has been described as one of the contributions of the Middle Kingdom: as in all later periods of many cultures, there was a tendency to draw inspiration from the works of earlier times.

A new architectural idea that appeared at this time, and that would be adopted later especially during the Ptolemaic period, originated in the small temple of El-Hibe initiated by Sheshonk I, a pharaoh of the XXII Dynasty: the courtyard is enclosed by walls built between columns surrounding them, these columns reach half the height of these walls.

But the most remarkable feature of the art of these Dynasties was the discovery of new technical procedures that led to the production of bronze statues of great size. In order to enliven the surface of these statues with all kinds of details, several techniques were widely used such as chiseling, the embedding of elements and other metals into the bronze, and the application of gold laminas into bronze (see the bronze statue of Queen Karomama, wife of Takelot II, one of the Nubian pharaohs of the XXII Dynasty dated around 800 BC).

Bronze, gold and silver damascened statuette of Queen Karomama (Louvre), wife of Takelot II of the XXII Dynasty.

Meanwhile, a threatening danger to the Egyptian Empire was represented by the Assyrians who were then at the height of their power. In the year 670 BC the Assyrian king Assarhadon conquered Lower Egypt and turned it into a province of his kingdom. Shortly after, in 663, Ashurbanipal sacked Thebes. These facts brought the introduction of a new Egyptian Dynasty, that of the princes of Sais, and the beginning of an artistic period known under the name of Saitic period. Sais was an ancient city of the delta. Psamtik II secured the Dynasty of Sais (the number XXVI) and reigned little more than half a century until the conquest of Egypt by the Persians in 525 BC. Saitic period has always been considered as the time when Greek influence appeared in Egypt: Psamtik II allowed settlers and Greek traders to live and stay in the delta. It was then when Thales of Miletus and Herodotus traveled to Egypt.

Bronze Cats statuettes, an evidence of the great popular devotion Egyptians had for animalistic representations (Louvre).

The Greek influence is seen in the characteristics of Saitic sculpture: a freer ordination in the distribution of space and animation that gave life to human images. During this period many bronze images of real beings, gods and sacred animals were also produced, such as The Falcon-Headed Horus advancing with his arms extended forward and palms upturned. Finally, there are numerous statues of cats, hawks, baboons, ibis and dogs that reveal a great power to capture the essence of these animals: the proud and sarcastic expression of the baboons, the royal dignity of the hawk, and the suggestive delicacy of cats all form a hallucinating zoo.

Bronze statue of the Falcon-God Horus (Louvre).

This refinement and sensuality were accompanied by a longing for the most archaic forms of Ancient Egyptian art. This phenomenon is characteristic of the last periods of all cultures. This trend to archaic forms also occurred in Greece and Rome, and is happening in present times. This archaic trend is observed in the kneeling statues of Nekt-Heru-Hebt (Louvre) and Va-Al-Ra (British Museum).

Kneeling statue of the prince Nekt-Heru-hebt, XXX Dynasty (Louvre).
Portrait of a priest (Fine Arts Museum, Boston), fourth century BC.

However, the biggest accomplishment of this period was a new style of very realistic portrait. The individual characterization of personality started under the XXV Dynasty with the famous bust of Mentuemhat (Cairo Museum) and continued until the end of the Ptolemaic period. These busts or heads, whose masterpieces are the Green Head (Berlin Museum) and the portrait of a priest in blue basalt (Boston Museum) are works of almost miraculous technique. They were carved in very hard stones. The Saitic and Ptolemaic sculptors used compact volcanic rocks as they were used in Pre-Dynastic times and the Old Empire. The hardiness of these stones imposed smooth and geometric shapes. The late Egyptian head-portraits are pure, stunning in their simplicity. The light slides on their surfaces that seem to be polished metals: the protruded parts shine with reflections, while the shadowy sunken gaps are covered in black. Under these conditions the details are to be treated to perfection. Behind the surface we can appreciate the details of the skeleton, the brow ridges, and the structure of the skull. The wrinkles appeared like a faint calligraphy on the faces, the details of the ears, the eyelid edges, the corners of the lips, the eyes half closed, all give to these portraits an intense spirituality.

Green head (Neues Museum, Berlin), XXX Dynasty, around 350 BC.

In the year 525 BC the Persian army of Cambyses defeated the Egyptians at the battle of Pelusium in the Nile Delta. Psamtik III was executed and Egypt became a satrapy of the Achaemenid Persian Empire. All the attempts made in order to defeat their conquerors failed along the next two centuries.  Egypt remained under Persian rule until it was occupied in the year 332 BC by the Greeks of Alexander the Great. The then founded city of Alexandria quickly became a center of Mediterranean trade and one of the creative centers of Greek culture, although the successors of Ptolemy (the general whom Alexander granted the rule of Egypt) permitted a final autonomous period of Egyptian art that lasted until the Roman conquest. It is the era called Ptolemaic which ended the year 30 BC with Cleopatra’s suicide after her defeat against the roman Octavian at the Battle of Actium.

Great pylon of the temple of Edfu.

The Ptolemaic rulers, because of political prudence, declared themselves legitimate successors of the ancient pharaohs and had a scrupulous respect for the religious beliefs, customs, and usages of the Egyptian people. The Ptolemaic period was characterized by an increase in construction activity. The most notable example of the interest of these pharaohs of Greek origin for Egyptian culture is the temple of Horus in Edfu in Upper Egypt. This temple, preserved in excellent condition, was started by Ptolemy III Euergetes in the year 237 BC and is a gigantic monument of fidelity to Egyptian traditions.  Its design reflects with great fidelity the typical structure of a temple from the New Kingdom: after an impressive pylon follows the courtyard which is separated from the vestibule by walls surrounded by colonnades, this is the architectural novelty that was introduced during the XXII Dynasty that by this times became a norm, the hypostyle hall had only twelve columns all the same height and the light had to come through a hole in the ceiling.

Colonnade at the temple of Edfu.

Analogous to Edfu by its appearance and dimensions, is the temple of Hathor which was built by the last Ptolemaic pharaohs in Denderah. The capitals that crown its columns are gigantic heads of the goddess Hathor with the hairstyle worn by the queens of the XII Dynasty, here there is another proof of the love for archaic forms in Late Egyptian art.

Temple of Hathor in the Dendera Temple complex.
Columns with palm-shaped capitals at the Temple of Isis in the complex of the Island of Philae.

In the border of Nubia, on an island in the lake formed by the Nile on the first cataract, there are magnificent constructions from the Ptolemaic era: it is the island of Philae, which includes the ruins of the Temple of Isis and other important buildings. In the lonely, uninhabited island of Philae, the Priests claimed Isis gave birth to the posthumous son of Osiris, Horus the Avenger.  Given the ever increasing veneration for Isis, even in Roman times, the temples on Philae multiplied, and the island then became a place of pilgrimage. The largest temple of this island was dedicated to Isis. At each end of the island stood two very elegant buildings, one of them called the Pavilion of Nectanebo, which were no more than uncovered kiosks with beautifully proportioned colonnades. The reliefs present in these Ptolemaic temples only represented sacred scenes. Mundane scenes, hunts and battles that abounded in the Temples of the New Kingdom, were here forbidden. However, this endless representation of liturgical acts had a new attraction for the modeling of human bodies, more plastic and lively that never were in Egyptian art.

Pavilion of Nectanebo I on the island of Philae. It was an annex of the Temple of Isis, and was built as a landing place for terrestrial and nautical processions.
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