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and methods of two different schools of art. Like the mosaic, the wall
scenes of the tomb formed, not a series of independent scenes, but an
ordinary composition, the unity of which is readily recognised by such as
are skilled to read the art-language of the period.


[Illustration: Fig. 178. - Sculptor's sketch from Ancient Empire tomb.]

[Illustration: Fig. 179. - Sculptor's sketch from Ancient Empire tomb.]

The preparation of the surface about to be decorated demanded much time and
care. Seeing how imperfect were the methods of construction, and how
impossible it was for the architect to ensure a perfectly level surface for
the facing stones of his temple-walls and pylons, the decorator had
perforce to accommodate himself to a surface slightly rounded in some
places and slightly hollowed in others. Even the blocks of which it was
formed were scarcely homogeneous in texture. The limestone strata in which
the Theban catacombs were excavated were almost always interspersed with
flint nodules, fossils, and petrified shells. These faults were variously
remedied according as the decoration was to be sculptured or painted. If
painted, the wall was first roughly levelled, and then overlaid with a coat
of black clay and chopped straw, similar to the mixture used for brick-
making. If sculptured, then the artist had to arrange his subject so as to
avoid the inequalities of the stone as much as possible. When these
occurred in the midst of the figure subjects, and if they did not offer too
stubborn a resistance to the chisel, they were simply worked over;
otherwise the piece was cut out and a new piece fitted in, or the hole was
filled up with white cement. This mending process was no trifling matter.
We could point to tomb-chambers where every wall is thus inlaid to the
extent of one quarter of its surface. The preliminary work being done, the
whole was covered with a thin coat of fine plaster mixed with white of
egg, which hid the mud-wash or the piecing, and prepared a level and
polished surface for the pencil of the artist. In chambers, or parts of
chambers, which have been left unfinished, and even in the quarries, we
constantly find sketches of intended bas-reliefs, outlined in red or black
ink. The copy was generally executed upon a small scale, then squared off,
and transferred to the wall by the pupils and assistants of the master. As
in certain scenes carefully copied by Prisse from the walls of Theban
tombs, the subject is occasionally indicated by only two or three rapid
strokes of the reed (fig. 178). Elsewhere, the outline is fully made out,
and the figures only await the arrival of the sculptor. Some designers took
pains to determine the position of the shoulders, and the centre of gravity
of the bodies, by vertical and horizontal lines, upon which, by means of a
dot, they noted the height of the knee, the hips, and other parts (fig.
179). Others again, more self-reliant, attacked their subject at once, and
drew in the figures without the aid of guiding points. Such were the
artists who decorated the catacomb of Seti I., and the southern walls of
the temple of Abydos. Their outlines are so firm, and their facility is so
surprising, that they have been suspected of stencilling; but no one who
has closely examined their figures, or who has taken the trouble to measure
them with a compass, can maintain that opinion. The forms of some are
slighter than the forms of others; while in some the contours of the chest
are more accentuated, and the legs farther apart, than in others. The
master had little to correct in the work of these subordinates. Here and
there he made a head more erect, accentuated or modified the outline of a
knee, or improved some detail of arrangement. In one instance, however, at
Kom Ombo, on the ceiling of a Graeco-Roman portico, some of the divinities
had been falsely oriented, their feet being placed where their arms should
have been. The master consequently outlined them afresh, and on the same
squared surface, without effacing the first drawing. Here, at all events,
the mistake was discovered in time. At Karnak, on the north wall of the
hypostyle hall, and again at Medinet Habu, the faults of the original
design were not noticed till the sculptor had finished his part of the
work. The figures of Seti I. and Rameses III. were thrown too far back, and
threatened to overbalance themselves; so they were smoothed over with
cement and cut anew. Now, the cement has flaked off, and the work of the
first chisel is exposed to view. Seti I. and Rameses III. have each two
profiles, the one very lightly marked, the other boldly cut into the
surface of the stone (fig. 180).

[Illustration: Fig. 180. - Sculptor's correction, Medinet Habû, Rameses

[Illustration: Fig. 181. - Bow drill.]

The sculptors of ancient Egypt were not so well equipped as those of our
own day. A kneeling scribe in limestone at the Gizeh Museum has been carved
with the chisel, the grooves left by the tool being visible on his skin. A
statue in grey serpentine, in the same collection, bears traces of the use
of two different tools, the body being spotted all over with point-marks,
and the unfinished head being blocked out splinter by splinter with a small
hammer. Similar observations, and the study of the monuments, show that the
drill (fig. 181), the toothed-chisel, and the gouge were also employed.
There have been endless discussions as to whether these tools were of iron
or of bronze. Iron, it is argued, was deemed impure. No one could make use
of it, even for the basest needs of daily life, without incurring a taint
prejudicial to the soul both in this world and the next. But the impurity
of any given object never sufficed to prevent the employment of it when
required. Pigs also were impure; yet the Egyptians bred them. They bred
them, indeed, so abundantly in certain districts, that our worthy Herodotus
tells us how the swine were turned into the fields after seed-sowing, in
order that they might tread in the grain. So also iron, like many other
things in Egypt, was pure or impure according to circumstances. If some
traditions held it up to odium as an evil thing, and stigmatised it as the
"bones of Typhon," other traditions equally venerable affirmed that it was
the very substance of the canopy of heaven. So authoritative was this view,
that iron was currently known as "_Ba-en-pet_," or the celestial metal.[35]
The only fragment of metal found in the great pyramid is a piece of plate-
iron;[36] and if ancient iron objects are nowadays of exceptional rarity as
compared with ancient bronze objects, it is because iron differs from
bronze, inasmuch as it is not protected from destruction by its oxide. Rust
speedily devours it, and it needs a rare combination of favourable
circumstances to preserve it intact. If, however, it is quite certain that
the Egyptians were acquainted with, and made use of, iron, it is no less
certain that they were wholly unacquainted with steel. This being the case,
one asks how they can possibly have dealt at will upon the hardest rocks,
even upon such as we ourselves hesitate to attack, namely, diorite, basalt,
and the granite of Syene. The manufacturers of antiquities who sculpture
granite for the benefit of tourists, have found a simple solution of this
problem. They work with some twenty common iron chisels at hand, which
after a very few turns are good for nothing. When one is blunted, they take
up another, and so on till the stock is exhausted. Then they go to the
forge, and put their tools into working order again. The process is neither
so long nor so difficult as might be supposed. In the Gizeh Museum is a
life-size head, produced from a block of black and red granite in less than
a fortnight by one of the best forgers in Luxor. I have no doubt that the
ancient Egyptians worked in precisely the same way, and mastered the
hardest stones by the use of iron. Practice soon taught them methods by
which their labour might be lightened, and their tools made to yield
results as delicate and subtle as those which we achieve with our own. As
soon as the learner knew how to manage the point and the mallet, his master
set him to copy a series of graduated models representing an animal in
various stages of completion, or a part of the human body, or the whole
human body, from the first rough sketch to the finished design (fig. 182).
Every year, these models are found in sufficient number to establish
examples of progressive series. Apart from isolated specimens which are
picked up everywhere, the Gizeh collection contains a set of fifteen from
Sakkarah, forty-one from Tanis, and a dozen from Thebes and Medinet Habû.
They were intended partly for the study of bas-reliefs, partly for the
study of sculpture proper; and they reveal the method in use for both.[37]

[Illustration: Fig. 182. - Sculptor's trial-piece, Eighteenth Dynasty.]

The Egyptians treated bas-relief in three ways: either as a simple
engraving executed by means of incised lines; or by cutting away the
surface of the stone round the figure, and so causing it to stand out in
relief upon the wall; or by sinking the design below the wall-surface and
cutting it in relief at the bottom of the hollow. The first method has the
advantage of being expeditious, and the disadvantage of not being
sufficiently decorative. Rameses III. made use of it in certain parts of
his temple at Medinet Habû; but, as a rule, it was preferred for stelae and
small monuments. The last-named method lessened not only the danger of
damage to the work, but the labour of the workman. It evaded the dressing
down of the background, which was a distinct economy of time, and it left
no projecting work on the surface of the walls, the design being thus
sheltered from accidental blows. The intermediate process was, however,
generally adopted, and appears to have been taught in the schools by
preference. The models were little rectangular tablets, squared off in
order that the scholar might enlarge or reduce the scale of his subject
without departing from the traditional proportions. Some of these models
are wrought on both sides; but the greater number are sculptured on one
side only. Sometimes the design represents a bull; sometimes the head of a
cynocephalous ape, of a ram, of a lion, of a divinity. Occasionally, we
find the subject in duplicate, side by side, being roughly blocked out to
the left, and highly finished to the right. In no instance does the relief
exceed a quarter of an inch, and it is generally even less. Not but that
the Egyptians sometimes cut boldly into the stone. At Medinet Habû and
Karnak - on the higher parts of these temples, where the work is in granite
or sandstone, and exposed to full daylight - the bas-relief decoration
projects full 6-3/8 inches above the surface. Had it been lower, the
tableaux would have been, as it were, absorbed by the flood of light poured
upon them, and to the eye of the spectator would have presented only a
confused network of lines. The models designed for the study of the round
are even more instructive than the rest. Some which have come down to us
are plaster casts of familiar subjects. The head, the arms, the legs, the
trunk, each part of the body, in short, was separately cast. If a complete
figure were wanted, the _disjecta membra_ were put together, and the result
was a statue of a man, or of a woman, kneeling, standing, seated,
squatting, the arms extended or falling passively by the sides. This
curious collection was discovered at Tanis, and dates probably from
Ptolemaic times.[38] Models of the Pharaonic ages are in soft limestone,
and nearly all represent portraits of reigning sovereigns. These are best
described as cubes measuring about ten inches each way. The work was begun
by covering one face of a cube with a network of lines crossing each other
at right angles; these regulated the relative position of the features.
Then the opposite side was attacked, the distances being taken from the
scale on the reverse face. A mere oval was designed on this first block; a
projection in the middle and a depression to right and left, vaguely
indicating the whereabouts of nose and eyes. The forms become more definite
as we pass from cube to cube, and the face emerges by degrees. The limit of
the contours is marked off by parallel lines cut vertically from top to
bottom. The angles were next cut away and smoothed down, so as to bring out
the forms. Gradually the features become disengaged from the block, the eye
looks out, the nose gains refinement, the mouth is developed. When the
last cube is reached, there remains nothing to finish save the details of
the head-dress and the basilisk on the brow. No scholar's model in basalt
has yet been found;[39] but the Egyptians, like our monumental masons,
always kept a stock of half-finished statues in hard stone, which could be
turned out complete in a few hours. The hands, feet, and bust needed only a
few last touches; but the heads were merely blocked out, and the clothing
left in the rough. Half a day's work then sufficed to transform the face
into a portrait of the purchaser, and to give the last new fashion to the
kilt. The discovery of some two or three statues of this kind has shown us
as much of the process as a series of teacher's models might have done.
Volcanic rocks could not be cut with the continuity and regularity of
limestone. The point only could make any impression upon these obdurate
materials. When, by force of time and patience, the work had thus been
finished to the degree required, there would often remain some little
irregularities of surface, due, for example, to the presence of nodules and
heterogeneous substances, which the sculptor had not ventured to attack,
for fear of splintering away part of the surrounding surface. In order to
remove these irregularities, another tool was employed; namely, a stone cut
in the form of an axe. Applying the sharp edge of this instrument to the
projecting nodule, the artist struck it with a round stone in place of a
mallet. A succession of carefully calculated blows with these rude tools
pulverised the obtrusive knob, which disappeared in dust. All minor
defects being corrected, the monument still looked dull and unfinished. It
was necessary to polish it, in order to efface the scars of point and
mallet. This was a most delicate operation, one slip of the hand, or a
moment's forgetfulness, being enough to ruin the labour of many weeks. The
dexterity of the Egyptian craftsman was, however, so great that accidents
rarely happened. The Sebekemsaf of Gizeh, the colossal Rameses II. of
Luxor, challenge the closest examination. The play of light upon the
surface may at first prevent the eye from apprehending the fineness of the
work; but, seen under favourable circumstances, the details of knee and
chest, of shoulder and face, prove to be no less subtly rendered in granite
than in limestone. Excess of polish has no more spoiled the statues of
Ancient Egypt than it spoiled those of the sculptors of the Italian

A sandstone or limestone statue would have been deemed imperfect if left to
show the colour of the stone in which it was cut, and was painted from head
to foot. In bas-relief, the background was left untouched and only the
figures were coloured. The Egyptians had more pigments at their disposal
than is commonly supposed. The more ancient painters' palettes - and we have
some which date from the Fifth Dynasty - have compartments for yellow, red,
blue, brown, white, black, and green.[40] Others, of the time of the
Eighteenth Dynasty, provide for three varieties of yellow, three of brown,
two of red, two of blue, and two of green; making in all some fourteen or
sixteen different tints.

Black was obtained by calcining the bones of animals. The other substances
employed in painting were indigenous to the country. The white is made of
gypsum, mixed with albumen or honey; the yellows are ochre, or sulphuret of
arsenic, the orpiment of our modern artists; the reds are ochre, cinnabar,
or vermilion; the blues are pulverised lapis-lazuli, or silicate of copper.
If the substance was rare or costly, a substitute drawn from the products
of native industry was found. Lapis-lazuli, for instance, was replaced by
blue frit made with an admixture of silicate of copper, and this was
reduced to an impalpable powder. The painters kept their colours in tiny
bags, and, as required, mixed them with water containing a little gum
tragacanth. They laid them on by means of a reed, or a more or less fine
hair brush. When well prepared, these pigments are remarkably solid, and
have changed but little during the lapse of ages. The reds have darkened,
the greens have faded, the blues have turned somewhat green or grey; but
this is only on the surface. If that surface is scraped off, the colour
underneath is brilliant and unchanged. Before the Theban period, no
precautions were taken to protect the painter's work from the action of air
and light. About the time of the Twentieth Dynasty, however, it became
customary to coat painted surfaces with a transparent varnish which was
soluble in water, and which was probably made from the gum of some kind of
acacia. It was not always used in the same manner. Some painters varnished
the whole surface, while others merely glazed the ornaments and
accessories, without touching the flesh-tints or the clothing. This varnish
has cracked from the effects of age, or has become so dark as to spoil the
work it was intended to preserve. Doubtless, the Egyptians discovered the
bad effects produced by it, as we no longer meet with it after the close of
the Twentieth Dynasty.

Egyptian painters laid on broad, flat, uniform washes of colour; they did
not paint in our sense of the term; they illuminated. Just as in drawing
they reduced everything to lines, and almost wholly suppressed the internal
modelling, so in adding colour they still further simplified their subject
by merging all varieties of tone, and all play of light and shadow, in one
uniform tint. Egyptian painting is never quite true, and never quite false.
Without pretending to the faithful imitation of nature, it approaches
nature as nearly as it may; sometimes understating, sometimes exaggerating,
sometimes substituting ideal or conventional renderings for strict
realities. Water, for instance, is always represented by a flat tint of
blue, or by blue covered with zigzag lines in black. The buff and bluish
hues of the vulture are translated into bright red and vivid blue. The
flesh-tints of men are of a dark reddish brown, and the flesh-tints of
women are pale yellow. The colours conventionally assigned to each animate
and inanimate object were taught in the schools, and their use handed on
unchanged from generation to generation. Now and then it happened that a
painter more daring than his contemporaries ventured to break with
tradition. In the Sixth Dynasty tombs at Deir el Gebrawî, there are
instances where the flesh tint of the women is that conventionally devoted
to the depiction of men. At Sakkarah, under the Fifth Dynasty, and at Abû
Simbel, under the Nineteenth Dynasty, we find men with skins as yellow as
those of the women; while in the tombs of Thebes and Abydos, about the time
of Thothmes IV. and Horemheb, there occur figures with flesh-tints of rose-

It must not, however, be supposed that the effect produced by this
artificial system was grating or discordant. Even in works of small size,
such as illuminated MSS. of _The Book of the Dead_, or the decoration of
mummy-cases and funerary coffers, there is both sweetness and harmony of
colour. The most brilliant hues are boldly placed side by side, yet with
full knowledge of the relations subsisting between these hues, and of the
phenomena which must necessarily result from such relations. They neither
jar together, nor war with each other, nor extinguish each other. On the
contrary, each maintains its own value, and all, by mere juxtaposition,
give rise to the half-tones which harmonise them.

Turning from small things to large ones, from the page of papyrus, or the
panel of sycamore wood, to the walls of tombs and temples, we find the
skilful employment of flat tints equally soothing and agreeable to the eye.
Each wall is treated as a whole, the harmony of colour being carried out
from bottom to top throughout the various superimposed stages into which
the surface was divided. Sometimes the colours are distributed according to
a scale of rhythm, or symmetry, balancing and counterbalancing each other.
Sometimes one special tint predominates, thus determining the general tone
and subordinating every other hue. The vividness of the final effect is
always calculated according to the quality and quantity of light by which
the picture is destined to be seen. In very dark halls the force of colour
is carried as far as it will go, because it would not otherwise have been
visible by the flickering light of lamps and torches. On outer wall-
surfaces and on pylon-fronts, it was as vivid as in the darkest depths of
excavated catacombs; and this because, no matter how extreme it might be,
the sun would subdue its splendour. But in half-lighted places, such as the
porticoes of temples and the ante-chambers of tombs, colour is so dealt
with as to be soft and discreet. In a word, painting was in Egypt the mere
humble servant of architecture and sculpture. We must not dream of
comparing it with our own, or even with that of the Greeks; but if we take
it simply for what it is, accepting it in the secondary place assigned to
it, we cannot fail to recognise its unusual merits. Egyptian painting
excelled in the sense of monumental decoration, and if we ever revert to
the fashion of colouring the _façades_ of our houses and our public
edifices, we shall lose nothing by studying Egyptian methods or reproducing
Egyptian processes.

[35] The late T. Deveria ingeniously conjectured that "Ba-en-pet" (iron of
heaven) might mean the ferruginous substance of meteoric stones. See
_Mélanges d'Archéologie Egyptienne et Assyrienne_, vol. i. -

[36] The traces of tools upon the masonry show the use of bronze and
jewel-points. - A.B.E.

[37] Many such trial-pieces were found by Petrie in the ruins of a
sculptor's house at Tell el Amarna.

[38] A similar collection was found by Mr. F. Ll. Griffith at Tell
Gemayemi, in 1886, during his excavations for the Egypt Exploration
Fund. See Mr. Petrie's _Tanis_. Part II., Egypt Exploration
Fund. - A.B.E.

[39] Mr. Loftie's collection contains, however, an interesting piece of
trial-work consisting of the head of a Ptolemaic queen in red
granite. - A.B.E.

[40] For pigments used at the beginning of the Fourth Dynasty, see Petrie's

[41] The rose-coloured, or rather crimson, flesh-tints are also to be seen
at El Kab, and in the famous speos at Beit el Wally, both _tempo_
Nineteenth Dynasty. - A.B.E.


[Illustration: Fig. 183. - The Great Sphinx of Gizeh.]

To this day, the most ancient statue known is a colossus - namely, the Great
Sphinx of Gizeh. It was already in existence in the time of Khûfû (Cheops),
and perhaps we should not be far wrong if we ventured to ascribe it to the
generations before Mena, called in the priestly chronicles "the Servants
of Horus." Hewn in the living rock at the extreme verge of the Libyan
plateau, it seems, as the representative of Horus, to uprear its head in
order to be the first to catch sight of his father, Ra, the rising sun,
across the valley (fig. 183). For centuries the sands have buried it to the
chin, yet without protecting it from ruin. Its battered body preserves but
the general form of a lion's body. The paws and breast, restored by the
Ptolemies and the Caesars, retain but a part of the stone facing with which
they were then clothed in order to mask the ravages of time. The lower part
of the head-dress has fallen, and the diminished neck looks too slender to
sustain the enormous weight of the head. The nose and beard have been
broken off by fanatics, and the red hue which formerly enlivened the
features is almost wholly effaced. And yet, notwithstanding its fallen
fortunes, the monster preserves an expression of sovereign strength and
greatness. The eyes gaze out afar with a look of intense and profound
thoughtfulness; the mouth still wears a smile; the whole countenance is
informed with power and repose. The art which conceived and carved this

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Online LibraryGaston Camille Charles MasperoManual of Egyptian Archaeology and Guide to the Study of Antiquities in Egypt → online text (page 12 of 21)