The ancient Egyptians and the ancient Greeks: art

DISCLAIMER: I am no expert on ancient history, the ancient Greeks or the ancient Egyptians. I study Classics at University and read about Egyptology at home. This post is thoroughly researched, but if you spot any mistakes, feel free to tell me!

Allow me to start this post by saying that the Greeks were extremely competitive and that they copied a lot of things from other ancient civilizations. I’m pretty sure the only things they didn’t copy were ceramics, democracy and probably also philosophy.

As for the Egyptians, they were very traditional and spiritual. Where the Greeks were often divided, the Egyptians were often united.

You see, the Greeks lived in poleis; city states which each had their own culture and manner of governing. Honestly, many people think all the Greeks had democracy, but only the polis of Athens knew this form of governing, and only for a short period of time, since the Spartans and eventually Alexander the Great came along and decided democracy was not their way, so it shouldn’t be the way of Athens either.

As for Egypt, there was usually one Pharaoh to rule both Upper and Lower Egypt (respectively the South and the North of Egypt. They viewed things the other way around, but that’s not important right now). Unfortunately, sometimes there were two people or more claiming to be Pharaoh.  These doubles were caused by the priests, who held much power in Egypt because they controlled not just the temples and their religious practises, but also the temple grounds and the people who worked there.

Now let’s start by looking at ancient Egyptian and ancient Greek art. First, statues:

Afbeeldingsresultaat voor egyptian greek statues

On the left, we see an ancient Egyptian statue of what I assumed was a noble man of some sort. On the right, a Greek Kouros (man). At first sight, they are very similar; balled fists, static pose, left foot forward, textured hair, almond-shaped eyes, little supportive pieces between the hands and thighs, etc. Now, the Kouros used to be colored as well, but that color has faded. The Egyptian man adorns the typical wealthy wig, while the kouros has long coiled hair, as was popular among young man.

The biggest difference: the Kouros is naked. Trust me when I say that you’ll probably never see a naked ancient Egyptian man, unless you specifically go looking for one (I’m not judging you). Here’s the thing: ancient Egyptian art had religious purposes. If a statue was made of you, you were immortalised.

The Greeks? They just liked to show off, to be honest. Although they too made statues of their gods, with religious purposes, but that’s not the point. They wanted to show that they could capture a human body to it’s fullest; fully naked.

To answer another question: the reason why Greeks pictured their men with tiny dongs was because this was seen as chaste. On the other hand, big dingdongs were seen as humorous and erotic.

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, here’s another comparison of statues:

Gerelateerde afbeelding

Oh look, the Kouros suddenly looks a lot more human! But the Egyptian man is still very static. Another difference is the smile. The ancient Egyptians did make some of their statues smile, just not the ones I am showing here. The Greeks, however, started using what we Classicists call the ‘Achaic smile’ (or a creepy smile from Archaic Greek times). The reason why it’s called Archaic is because the Archaic period was the oldest period of art in ancient Greece (‘arche’ in ancient greek means old). So yeah, creepy smiles that give you nightmares. What else?

Well, the ancient Greeks didn’t stop here. They were competitive, after all. So they slowly perfected the art of making statues:

Afbeeldingsresultaat voor egyptian greek statues

What changed? Well, at first, the Greeks worked on the overal anatomy. They added muscle, made the body more round, the face less creepy. Then, they got bored of the same old stand. They moved the hands forward, played with the feet a little. Fashion changed, so they shortened the hair. And if you look at the very last statue in the above image, you can see a hint of contrapost. I can hear you thinking ‘what the heck is contrapost?’. Allow me to explain:

Afbeeldingsresultaat voor contrapost

This image, drawn by a person called Annika, shows that contrapost is when the line of the hips and the line of the shoulders are diagonal in opposite ways. The Greeks found out that contrapost made the statues far less static, and more natural.

You’re not going to see an Egyptian statue with contrapost. Ancient Egyptians were very traditional. Their art did change over time, but not as much as Greek art. After all, art was for the nobles; for Pharaoh, gods and priests. All that mattered was that the image of a person was eternalized. Why should they look so savvy?

Afbeeldingsresultaat voor contrapost joke

(I had to share this, because it’s so funny).

Next up is paintings. Egyptians loved painting their walls full of depictions of the current Pharaoh, his Queen, gods, priests, animals, Pharaoh slaying enemies, Pharaoh hunting, etc.

The Greeks didn’t really paint their walls, unless you count the Minoans and the Myceneans, although we usually don’t call these people Greeks. But let’s share their artwork anyway:

Afbeeldingsresultaat voor greek wall paintings

Afbeeldingsresultaat voor greek wall paintings

The above is Minoan art, murals. These guys loved their bulls very much. Below it, you can see Mycenean women from the palace of Knossos. Quite lovely, if I may say so.

Now for Egyptian murals:

Afbeeldingsresultaat voor egyptian early mural

(Can’t avoid Ramesses the Great when talking about Egypt, unfortunately. He had an ego the size of the tallest piramid of Gisa)

Afbeeldingsresultaat voor egyptian early mural

Religious depictions; on the left, we have Horus standing before Osiris. On the right, Anubis does the same.

Afbeeldingsresultaat voor egyptian early mural

This guy is hunting, while his wife is watching in the back. Look at those birds!

Afbeeldingsresultaat voor egyptian early mural

Lastly, some of these servants are naked. Noble women will at the max have their breasts exposed, but they won’t dress like these girls.

The images I chose don’t really show the changes Egyptian mural art went through. You see, at first, murals were a lot more static and the colors were very vibrant. Women were depicted with yellow skin, because they stayed inside, and men with red skin from working in the sun.

Afbeeldingsresultaat voor egyptian early mural

The Minoans gave their women pure white skin. But of course, the Egyptians had darker skin than the Greeks. (You may notice that Osiris has green/blue skin. This is because Osiris died and was resurrected by Isis. So his body had time to decompose a little).

The Greeks didn’t have murals, but they did have vases, ceramics! Palaces were a thing of the past. Painting vases was fashion now (which the Minoans and Myceneans did as well, but still), and other civilizations loved these vases, so the Greeks started producing them in masses. Here’s a few of the vases:

Afbeeldingsresultaat voor greek vase

Above: Achilles slaying Penthesilea. A red figure vase.

Below: Greek warriors standing over the body of Patroklos/Patroclus. A black figure vase.

Gerelateerde afbeelding

 

What’s funny is that both Egyptian and Greek paintings used more movement over time.

Afbeeldingsresultaat voor greek vase

Afbeeldingsresultaat voor egyptian mural painting

From the above scenes, which are somewhat similar, to the ones like below:

Gerelateerde afbeelding

Gerelateerde afbeelding

Of course, the ancient Egyptians also painted on papyrus. But the Greeks used papyrus for writing purposes only (for which the Egyptians used it as well). For some reason many people are surprised to hear that the Greeks used papyrus as well, but what else could they write on? (besides pottery, which they also wrote on)

Below you can see that the Egyptians liked combining writing (hieroglyphics) and pictures.

(Side note: Egyptians used hieroglyphics for religious affairs and affairs of the state. They had a seperate alphabet for basic things.)

Gerelateerde afbeelding

Just for the fun of it, I’ll include some Greek writing as well:

Afbeeldingsresultaat voor greek papyrus

Afbeeldingsresultaat voor greek pottery writing

(Greeks often used pieces of pottery to practise writing and for voting).

Afbeeldingsresultaat voor greek pottery writing

(You have to look very carefully to see the names on the last one)

That’s all I have to say about art, for now. I hope you enjoyed this post!

Cheers,

Rachel

The images used for this blog post were found using google images. Copyright goes to those who shared these images with the internet.

The information used for this post came from my own memory, from reading and from ancient history classes.

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5 comments

  1. Wouw Rachel, you write like you talk! Full of humor, and so interesting that even i Read IT all. Thanxxxx we were so Lucky to go on a holiday to Egypt with you, we had our private Guide😉😉. Please go on with this Passion of you, we love IT! Greetings Viv

    Like

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