Gaston Camille Charles Maspero.

Manual of Egyptian Archaeology and Guide to the Study of Antiquities in Egypt online

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episodes of daily life. The Egyptians, naturally laughter-loving and
satirical, were caricaturists from an early period. One of the Turin papyri
chronicles the courtship of a shaven priest and a songstress of Amen in a
series of spirited vignettes; while on the back of the same sheet are
sketched various serio-comic scenes, in which animals parody the pursuits
of civilised man. An ass, a lion, a crocodile, and an ape are represented
in the act of giving a vocal and instrumental concert; a lion and a gazelle
play at draughts; the Pharaoh of all the rats, in a chariot drawn by dogs,
gallops to the assault of a fortress garrisoned by cats; a cat of fashion,
with a flower on her head, has come to blows with a goose, and the hapless
fowl, powerless in so unequal a contest, topples over with terror. Cats, by
the way, were the favourite animals of Egyptian caricaturists. An ostrakon
in the New York Museum depicts a cat of rank _en grande toilette_, seated
in an easy chair, and a miserable Tom, with piteous mien and tail between
his legs, serving her with refreshments (fig. 161). Our catalogue of comic
sketches is brief; but the abundance of pen-drawings with which certain
religious works were illustrated compensates for our poverty in secular
subjects. These works are _The Book of the Dead_ and _The Book of Knowing
That which is in Hades_, which were reproduced by hundreds, according to
standard copies preserved in the temples, or handed down through families
whose hereditary profession it was to conduct the services for the dead.
When making these illustrations, the artist had no occasion to draw upon
his imagination. He had but to imitate the copy as skilfully as he could.
Of _The Book of Knowing That which is in Hades_ we have no examples earlier
than the time of the Twentieth Dynasty, and these are poor enough in point
of workmanship, the figures being little better than dot-and-line forms,
badly proportioned and hastily scrawled. The extant specimens of _The Book
of the Dead_ are so numerous that a history of the art of miniature
painting in ancient Egypt might be compiled from this source alone. The
earliest date from the Eighteenth Dynasty, the more recent being
contemporary with the first Caesars. The oldest copies are for the most
part remarkably fine in execution. Each chapter has its vignette
representing a god in human or animal form, a sacred emblem, or the
deceased in adoration before a divinity. These little subjects are
sometimes ranged horizontally at the top of the text, which is written in
vertical columns (fig. 162); sometimes, like the illuminated capitals in
our mediaeval manuscripts, they are scattered throughout the pages. At
certain points, large subjects fill the space from top to bottom of the
papyrus. The burial scene comes at the beginning; the judgment of the soul
about the middle; and the arrival of the deceased in the Fields of Aalû at
the end of the work. In these, the artist seized the opportunity to display
his skill, and show what he could do. We here see the mummy of Hûnefer
placed upright before his stela and his tomb (fig. 163). The women of his
family bewail him; the men and the priest present offerings. The papyri of
the princes and princesses of the family of Pinotem in the Museum of Gizeh
show that the best traditions of the art were yet in force at Thebes in the
time of the Twenty-first Dynasty. Under the succeeding dynasties, that art
fell into rapid decadence, and during some centuries the drawings continue
to be coarse and valueless. The collapse of the Persian rule produced a
period of Renaissance. Tombs of the Greek time have yielded papyri with
vignettes carefully executed in a dry and minute style which offers a
singular contrast to the breadth and boldness of the Pharaonic ages. The
broad-tipped reed-pen was thrown aside for the pen with a fine point, and
the scribes vied with each other as to which should trace the most
attenuated lines. The details with which they overloaded their figures, the
elaboration of the beard and the hair, and the folds of the garments, are
sometimes so minute that it is scarcely possible to distinguish them
without a magnifying glass. Precious as these documents are, they give a
very insufficient idea of the ability and technical methods of the artists
of ancient Egypt. It is to the walls of their temples and tombs that we
must turn, if we desire to study their principles of composition.

[Illustration: Figs. 164 and 165. - Scenes from the tomb of Khnûmhotep at
Beni Hasan, Twelfth Dynasty.]

[Illustration: Fig. 166. - From a tomb-painting in the British Museum,
Eighteenth Dynasty.]

Their conventional system differed materially from our own. Man or beast,
the subject was never anything but a profile relieved against a flat
background. Their object, therefore, was to select forms which presented a
characteristic outline capable of being reproduced in pure line upon a
plane surface. As regarded animal life, the problem was in no wise
complicated. The profile of the back and body, the head and neck, carried
in undulating lines parallel with the ground, were outlined at one sweep of
the pencil. The legs also are well detached from the body. The animals
themselves are lifelike, each with the gait and action and flexion of the
limbs peculiar to its species. The slow and measured tread of the ox; the
short step, the meditative ear, the ironical mouth of the ass; the abrupt
little trot of the goat, the spring of the hunting greyhound, are all
rendered with invariable success of outline and expression. Turning from
domestic animals to wild beasts, the perfection of treatment is the same.
The calm strength of the lion in repose, the stealthy and sleepy tread of
the leopard, the grimace of the ape, the slender grace of the gazelle and
the antelope, have never been better expressed than in Egypt. But it was
not so easy to project man - the whole man - upon a plane surface without
some departure from nature. A man cannot be satisfactorily reproduced by
means of mere lines, and a profile outline necessarily excludes too much of
his person. The form of the forehead and the nose, the curvature of the
lips, the cut of the ear, disappear when the head is drawn full face; but,
on the other hand, it is necessary that the bust should be presented full
face, in order to give the full development of the shoulders, and that the
two arms may be visible to right and left of the body. The contours of the
trunk are best modelled in a three-quarters view, whereas the legs show to
most advantage when seen sidewise. The Egyptians did not hesitate to
combine these contradictory points of view in one single figure. The head
is almost always given in profile, but is provided with a full-face eye and
placed upon a full-face bust. The full-face bust adorns a trunk seen from a
three-quarters point of view, and this trunk is supported upon legs
depicted in profile. Very seldom do we meet with figures treated according
to our own rules of perspective. Most of the minor personages represented
in the tomb of Khnûmhotep seem, however, to have made an effort to
emancipate themselves from the law of malformation. Their bodies are given
in profile, as well as their heads and legs; but they thrust forward first
one shoulder and then the other, in order to show both arms (fig. 164), and
the effect is not happy. Yet, if we examine the treatment of the farm
servant who is cramming a goose, and, above all, the figure of the standing
man who throws his weight upon the neck of a gazelle to make it kneel down
(fig. 165), we shall see that the action of the arms and hips is correctly
rendered, that the form of the back is quite right, and that the prominence
of the chest - thrown forward in proportion as the shoulders and arms are
thrown back - is drawn without any exaggeration. The wrestlers of the Beni
Hasan tombs, the dancers and servants of the Theban catacombs, attack,
struggle, posture, and go about their work with perfect naturalness and
ease (fig. 166). These, however, are exceptions. Tradition, as a rule, was
stronger than nature, and to the end of the chapter, the Egyptian masters
continued to deform the human figure. Their men and women are actual
monsters from the point of view of the anatomist; and yet, after all, they
are neither so ugly nor so ridiculous as might be supposed by those who
have seen only the wretched copies so often made by our modern artists. The
wrong parts are joined to the right parts with so much skill that they seem
to have grown there. The natural lines and the fictitious lines follow and
complement each other so ingeniously, that the former appear to give rise
of necessity to the latter. The conventionalities of Egyptian art once
accepted, we cannot sufficiently admire the technical skill displayed by
the draughtsman. His line was pure, firm, boldly begun, and as boldly
prolonged. Ten or twelve strokes of the brush sufficed to outline a figure
the size of life. The whole head, from the nape of the neck to the rise of
the throat above the collar-bone, was executed at one sweep. Two long
undulating lines gave the external contour of the body from the armpits to
the ends of the feet. Two more determined the outlines of the legs, and two
the arms. The details of costume and ornaments, at first but summarily
indicated, were afterwards taken up one by one, and minutely finished. We
may almost count the locks of the hair, the plaits of the linen, the
inlayings of the girdles and bracelets. This mixture of artless science and
intentional awkwardness, of rapid execution and patient finish, excludes
neither elegance of form, nor grace of attitude, nor truth of movement.
These personages are of strange aspect, but they live; and to those who
will take the trouble to look at them without prejudice, their very
strangeness has a charm about it which is often lacking to works more
recent in date and more strictly true to nature.

[Illustration: Fig. 167. - Funerary repast, tomb of Horemheb, Eighteenth
Dynasty.]

[Illustration: Fig. 168. - From a wall-painting, Thebes, Ramesside period.]

We admit, then, that the Egyptians could draw. Were they, as it has been
ofttimes asserted, ignorant of the art of composition? We will take a scene
at hazard from a Theban tomb - that scene which represents the funerary
repast offered to Prince Horemheb by the members of his family (fig. 167).
The subject is half ideal, half real. The dead man, and those belonging to
him who are no longer of this world, are depicted in the society of the
living. They are present, yet aloof. They assist at the banquet, but they
do not actually take part in it. Horemheb sits on a folding stool to the
left of the spectator. He dandles on his knee a little princess, daughter
of Amenhotep III., whose foster-father he was, and who died before him. His
mother, Sûit, sits at his right hand a little way behind, enthroned in a
large chair. She holds his arm with her left hand, and with the right she
offers him a lotus blossom and bud. A tiny gazelle which was probably
buried with her, like the pet gazelle discovered beside Queen Isiemkheb in
the hiding-place at Deir el Baharî, is tied to one of the legs of the
chair. This ghostly group is of heroic size, the rule being that gods are
bigger than men, kings bigger than their subjects, and the dead bigger than
the living. Horemheb, his mother, and the women standing before them,
occupy the front level, or foreground. The relations and friends are ranged
in line facing their deceased ancestors, and appear to be talking one with
another. The feast has begun. The jars of wine and beer, placed in rows
upon wooden stands, are already unsealed. Two young slaves rub the hands
and necks of the living guests with perfumes taken from an alabaster vase.
Two women dressed in robes of ceremony present offerings to the group of
dead, consisting of vases filled with flowers, perfumes, and grain. These
they place in turn upon a square table. Three others dance, sing, and play
upon the lute, by way of accompaniment to those acts of homage. In the
picture, as in fact, the tomb is the place of entertainment. There is no
other background to the scene than the wall covered with hieroglyphs, along
which the guests were seated during the ceremony. Elsewhere, the scene of
action, if in the open country, is distinctly indicated by trees and tufts
of grass; by red sand, if in the desert; and by a maze of reeds and lotus
plants, if in the marshes. A lady of quality comes in from a walk (fig.
168). One of her daughters, being athirst, takes a long draught from a
"gûllah"; two little naked children with shaven heads, a boy and a girl,
who ran to meet their mother at the gate, are made happy with toys
brought home and handed to them by a servant. A trellised enclosure covered
with vines, and trees laden with fruit, are shown above; yonder, therefore,
is the garden, but the lady and her daughters have passed through it
without stopping, and are now indoors. The front of the house is half put
in and half left out, so that we may observe what is going on inside. We
accordingly see three attendants hastening to serve their mistresses with
refreshments. The picture is not badly composed, and it would need but
little alteration if transferred to a modern canvas. The same old
awkwardness, or rather the same old obstinate custom, which compelled the
Egyptian artist to put a profile head upon a full-face bust, has, however,
prevented him from placing his middle distance and background behind his
foreground. He has, therefore, been reduced to adopt certain more or less
ingenious contrivances, in order to make up for an almost complete absence
of perspective.

[Illustration: Fig. 169. - From wall-scene in tomb of Horemheb.]

[Illustration: Fig. 170. - From wall-scene, Ramesseum.]

[Illustration: Fig. 171. - Archers, as represented on walls of Medinet
Habû.]

Again, when a number of persons engaged in the simultaneous performance of
any given act were represented on the same level, they were isolated as
much as possible, so that each man's profile might not cover that of his
neighbour. When this was not done, they were arranged to overlap each
other, and this, despite the fact that all stood on the one level; so that
they have actually but two dimensions and no thickness. A herdsman walking
in the midst of his oxen plants his feet upon precisely the same ground-
line as the beast which interposes between his body and the spectator. The
most distant soldier of a company which advances in good marching order to
the sound of the trumpet, has his head and feet on exactly the same level;
as the head and feet of the foremost among his comrades (fig. 169). When a
squadron of chariots defiles before Pharaoh, one would declare that their
wheels all ran in the self-same ruts, were it not that the body of the
first chariot partly hides the horse by which the second chariot is drawn
(fig. 170). In these examples the people and objects are, either
accidentally or naturally, placed so near together, that the anomaly does
not strike one as too glaring. In taking these liberties, the Egyptian
artist but anticipated a contrivance adopted by the Greek sculptor of a
later age. Elsewhere, the Egyptian has occasionally approached nearer to
truth of treatment. The archers of Rameses III. at Medinet Habû make an
effort, which is almost successful, to present themselves in perspective.
The row of helmets slopes downwards, and the row of bows slopes upwards,
with praiseworthy regularity; but the men's feet are all on the same level,
and do not, therefore, follow the direction of the other lines (fig. 171).
This mode of representation is not uncommon during the Theban period. It
was generally adopted when men or animals, ranged in line, had to be shown
in the act of doing the same thing; but it was subject to the grave
drawback (or what was in Egyptian eyes the grave drawback) of showing the
body of the first man only, and of almost entirely hiding the rest of the
figures. When, therefore, it was found impossible to range all upon the
same level without hiding some of their number, the artist frequently broke
his masses up into groups, and placed one above the other on the same
vertical plane. Their height in no wise depends on the place they occupy in
the perspective of the tableau, but only upon the number of rows required
by the artist to carry out his idea. If two rows of figures are sufficient,
he divides his space horizontally into equal parts; if he requires three
rows, he divides it into three parts; and so on. When, however, it is a
question of mere accessories, they are made out upon a smaller scale.
Secondary scenes are generally separated by a horizontal line, but this
line is not indispensable. When masses of figures formed in regular order
had to be shown, the vertical planes lapped over, so to speak, according to
the caprice of the limner. At the battle of Kadesh, the files of Egyptian
infantry rise man above man, waist high, from top to bottom of the phalanx
(fig. 172); while those of the Kheta, or Hittite battalions, show but one
head above another (fig. 173).

[Illustration: Fig. 172. - Phalanx of Egyptian infantry, Ramesseum.]

[Illustration: Fig. 173. - Hittite battalion, Ramesseum.]

It was not only in their treatment of men and animals that the
Egyptians allowed themselves this latitude. Houses, trees, land and
water, were as freely misrepresented. An oblong rectangle placed upright,
or on its side, and covered with regular zigzags, represents a canal. Lest
one should be in doubt as to its meaning, fishes and crocodiles are put in,
to show that it is water, and nothing but water. Boats are seen floating
upright upon this edgewise surface; the flocks ford it where it is shallow;
and the angler with his line marks the spot where the water ends and the
bank begins. Sometimes the rectangle is seen suspended like a framed
picture, at about half way of the height of several palm trees (fig. 174);
whereby we are given to understand a tank bordered on both sides by trees.
Sometimes, again, as in the tomb of Rekhmara, the trees are laid down in
rows round the four sides of a square pond, while a profile boat conveying
a dead man in his shrine, hauled by slaves also shown in profile, floats on
the vertical surface of the water (fig. 175). The Theban catacombs of the
Ramesside period supply abundant examples of contrivances of this kind;
and, having noted them, we end by not knowing which most to wonder at - the
obstinacy of the Egyptians in not seeking to discover the natural laws of
perspective, or the inexhaustible wealth of resource which enabled them to
invent so many false relations between the various parts of their subjects.

[Illustration: Fig. 174. - Pond and palm-trees, from wall painting in tomb
of Rekhmara, Eighteenth Dynasty.]

When employed upon a very large scale, their methods of composition shock
the eye less than when applied to small subjects. We instinctively feel
that even the ablest artist must sometimes have played fast and loose with
the laws of perspective, if tasked to cover the enormous surfaces of
Egyptian pylons.

[Illustration: Fig. 175. - Scene from tomb of Rekhmara, Eighteenth Dynasty.]

[Illustration: Fig. 176. - Scene from Mastaba of Ptahhotep, Fifth Dynasty.]

[Illustration: Fig. 177. - Palestrina mosaic.]

Hence the unities of the subject are never strictly observed in these
enormous bas-reliefs. The main object being to perpetuate the memory of a
victorious Pharaoh, that Pharaoh necessarily plays the leading part; but
instead of selecting from among his striking deeds some one leading episode
pre-eminently calculated to illustrate his greatness, the Egyptian artist
delighted to present the successive incidents of his campaigns at a single
_coup d'oeil_. Thus treated, the pylons of Luxor and the Ramesseum show a
Syrian night attack upon the Egyptian camp; a seizure of spies sent by the
prince of the Kheta for the express purpose of being caught and giving
false intelligence of his movements; the king's household troops surprised
and broken by the Khetan chariots; the battle of Kadesh and its various
incidents, so furnishing us, as it were, with a series of illustrated
despatches of the Syrian campaign undertaken by Rameses II. in the fifth
year of his reign. After this fashion precisely did the painters of the
earliest Italian schools depict within the one field, and in one
uninterrupted sequence, the several episodes of a single narrative. The
scenes are irregularly dispersed over the surface of the wall, without any
marked lines of separation, and, as with the bas-reliefs upon the column of
Trajan, one is often in danger of dividing the groups in the wrong place,
and of confusing the characters. This method is reserved almost exclusively
for official art. In the interior decoration of temples and tombs, the
various parts of the one subject are distributed in rows ranged one above
the other, from the ground line to the cornice. Thus another difficulty is
added to the number of those which prevent us from understanding the style
and intention of Egyptian design. We often imagine that we are looking at a
series of isolated scenes, when in fact we have before our eyes the
_disjecta membra_ of a single composition. Take, for example, one wall-side
of the tomb of Ptahhotep at Sakkarah (fig. 176). If we would discover the
link which divides these separate scenes, we shall do well to compare this
wall-subject with the mosaic at Palestrina (fig. 177), a monument of
Graeco-Roman time which represents almost the same scenes, grouped,
however, after a style more familiar to our ways of seeing and thinking.
The Nile occupies the immediate foreground of the picture, and extends as
far as the foot of the mountains in the distance. Towns rise from the
water's edge; and not only towns, but obelisks, farm-houses, and towers of
Graeco-Italian style, more like the buildings depicted in Pompeian
landscapes than the monuments of the Pharaohs. Of these buildings, only the
large temple in the middle distance to the right of the picture, with its
pylon gateway and its four Osirian colossi, recalls the general arrangement
of Egyptian architecture. To the left, a party of sportsmen in a large boat
are seen in the act of harpooning the hippopotamus and crocodile. To the
right, a group of legionaries, drawn up in front of a temple and preceded
by a priest, salute a passing galley. Towards the middle of the foreground,
in the shade of an arched trellis thrown across a small branch of the
Nile, some half-clad men and women are singing and carousing. Little
papyrus skiffs, each rowed by a single boatman, and other vessels fill the
vacant spaces of the composition. Behind the buildings we see the
commencement of the desert. The water forms large pools at the base of
overhanging hills, and various animals, real or imaginary, are pursued by
shaven-headed hunters in the upper part of the picture. Now, precisely
after the manner of the Roman mosaicist, the old Egyptian artist placed
himself, as it were, on the Nile, and reproduced all that lay between his
own standpoint and the horizon. In the wall-painting (fig. 176) the river
flows along the line next the floor, boats come and go, and boatmen fall to
blows with punting poles and gaffs. In the division next above, we see the
river bank and the adjoining flats, where a party of slaves, hidden in the
long grasses, trap and catch birds. Higher still, boat-making, rope-making,
and fish-curing are going on. Finally, in the highest register of all, next
the ceiling, are depicted the barren hills and undulating plains of the
desert, where greyhounds chase the gazelle, and hunters trammel big game
with the lasso. Each longitudinal section corresponds, in fact, with a
plane of the landscape; but the artist, instead of placing his planes in
perspective, has treated them separately, and placed them one above the
other. We find the same disposition of the parts in all Egyptian tomb
paintings. Scenes of inundation and civil life are ranged along the base of
the wall, mountain subjects and hunting scenes being invariably placed high
up. Sometimes, interposed between these two extremes, the artist has
introduced subjects dealing with the pursuits of the herdsman, the field
labourer, and the craftsman. Elsewhere, he suppresses these intermediary
episodes, and passes abruptly from the watery to the sandy region. Thus,
the mosaic of Palestrina and the tomb-paintings of Pharaonic Egypt
reproduce the same group of subjects, treated after the conventional styles


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Online LibraryGaston Camille Charles MasperoManual of Egyptian Archaeology and Guide to the Study of Antiquities in Egypt → online text (page 11 of 21)