4 Important Types of Ancient Egyptian Art to Know

The Great Sphinx of Giza in front of the Great Pyramid of Giza 2 The Great Sphinx of Giza in front of the Great Pyramid of Giza. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Spanning a range of materials and religious meanings, ancient Egyptian art was created between the 31st century (3001-3100) BC and the 4th century (301-400) AD.

The art of Dynastic Egypt is typically broken down into the ancient Egyptian art history timeline:

  • Early Dynastic Period (3100–2685 BC)
  • Old Kingdom Period (2686–2181 BC)
  • Middle Kingdom Period (c. 2055–1650 BC)
  • Second Intermediate Period (c. 1650–1550 BC)
  • New Kingdom Period (c. 1550–1069 BC)
  • The Late Period (c. 664–332 BC)
  • Ptolemaic period (305–30 BC)
  • Roman period (30 BC–619 AD)

Ancient Egyptian art includes papyrus drawings, faience, ivory works, architecture, sculptures, paintings, jewelry, and more. While it covers an enormous timeframe in history, the style of art did not change much over the centuries.

Common materials used include:

  • faience (a sintered-quartz ceramic material),
  • Glass,
  • Egyptian blue (made from quartz, alkali, lime, and coloring agents),
  • lapus lazuli,
  • wood, and,
  • metals including gold, silver, bronze.
William the Faience Hippopotamus; 1961–1878 BC; faience

William the Faience Hippopotamus, 1961–1878 BC, faience, Metropolitan Museum of Art
(New York City). Image: Wikimedia Commons.


Amphora, an example of so-called “Egyptian blue” ceramic ware, 1380–1300 BC,
Walters Art Museum (Baltimore, US). Image: Wikimedia Commons.

While impossible to fully cover several centuries worth of Egyptian art, we’ll hone in on some of the most common types and associated symbolism.

So, for those of us who are especially eager to travel, let’s take a quick trip across the world to northeast Africa — and back a few thousand years.

Ancient Egyptian Afterlife Art

For the ancient Egyptians, who didn’t have a specific word for ‘art’, the purpose of creating artwork directly linked to religious and ideologic beliefs. Today, some of the most famous ancient Egpytian art pieces that still survive were originally found in tombs and monuments, providing scholars with insight into the link between art and society’s beliefs in the journey after death.

The ancient Egyptians believed that portraying people, animals, or overall society in art was giving it a sense of permanence. That’s why their artwork was often idealized, showing unrealistic perspectives of the world. Ancient Egyptian art did not serve to express individual artists; rather, its purpose was to maintain cosmic order.

Ancient Egyptian art was typically created to be important pieces of tombs and temples, so the deceased – especially important pharaohs or other noblepeople – could carry on in the afterlife. For example, small sculptures of slaves, animals, buildings, and other objects like boats were considered necessary in tombs for kings to continue their lifestyle and hold these important possessions beyond death.

Anubis Ancient Egyptian Art

Anubis, or Anpu in ancient Egyptian, is the Greek name for the god of death, mummification, embalming, the afterlife, cemeteries, tombs, and the Underworld. The god is depicted in Egpytian art as a canine or a man with a canine’s head, whose sacred animal is the African golden wolf.

The Anubis Shrine; 1336–1327 BC; painted wood and gold; 1.1 × 2.7 × 0.52 m; from the Valley of the Kings

The Anubis Shrine, 1336–1327 BC, painted wood and gold, from the Valley of the Kings, Egyptian Museum (Cairo). Image: Wikimedia Commons.

In the First Dynasty, Anubis was considered the protector of the graves as well as an embalmer. In the Middle Kingdom, the god Osiris replaced Anubis in his role as ruler of the underworld, but he remained prominent as the leader of souls into the afterlife. He also operated the weighing scale during the “Weighing of the Heart,” which determined whether or not a soul would be able to enter the underworld.

Anubis ancient Egyptian art often portrayed him in black, symbolizing regeneration, life, and the discoloration of the corpse after it was embalmed (as well as the soil of the Nile River).

Ancient Egyptian Wall Art

Ancient Egyptian wall art encompasses both relief sculptures (when sculpted elements remain attached to the background of the same material) as well as wall frescoes and paintings. Prestigious reliefs were painted, while those less-prestigious, as part of tombs or temples, were painted on a flat surface like stone or plaster. As protective coatings were often applied after painting, many ancient Egyptian wall paintings have survived well, particularly in tombs, and even further preserved due to Egypt’s dry climate.


Block from a relief depicting a battle, c. 1427–1400 BC, painted sandstone, Metropolitan Museum of Art (US). Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Egyptians painted on the walls of temples, palaces, and tombs to render a pleasant afterlife for those who have died. Themes depicted in paintings included the important journey to the afterworld, where the deceased would be introduced to gods of the underworld. Sometimes, the deceased were depicted performing the activities they’d perform while alive, which they hoped to continue doing for eternity.

While paintings of hunting or fishing scenes could incorporate realistic depictions of natural elements like water, Egyptian painting didn’t include a sense of depth or visual perspective. Figures vary in size due to differences in importance, not because of where they are located in the painting.


Wall painting from Tutankhamun’s tomb depicting Ay performing the Opening of the Mouth ceremony. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Ancient Egyptian Papyrus Art

Papyrus is thick paper-like material used by ancient peoples as a writing surface. It’s made from the pith of the papyrus plant found in wetlands. Once abundant across the Nile Delta, papyrus was first used in Egypt as far back as the First Dynasty (around the 31st century BC, coinciding with the beginnings of ancient Egyptian art).

Papyrus was both a practical and symbolic material – ancient Egyptians used it to write and draw on, and to construct artifacts like reed boats, mats, sandals, and baskets.


Pair of sandals, 1390–1352 BC, grass, reed, and papyrus, Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York City). Image: Wikimedia Commons.

But, as part of ancient Egyptian papyrus art, it was also the heraldic plant of Lower, or northern, Egypt, while the lotus plant represented Upper, or southern, Egypt. When drawn around the ancient Egyptian hieroglyph meaning “unite,” the two plants represented the unification of the Two Lands of Egypt.

Ancient Egyptians also believed that the world was created when the first god stood on a mound of darkness and water – a representation of when the land reappeared from floodwaters each year. Papyrus marshes thus represented a fertile region that led to the world’s creation. They were therefore important symbols in Egyptian art, as ceilings in tombs were often supported by columns in the form of papyrus plants.

In addition, papyrus marshes were depicted in hunting scenes, as they were filled with wildlife. Dangerous hippopotami and crocodiles that lived in these marshlands represented chaos, and Egypt’s enemies. Kings and noblemen were shown defeating them on the walls of tombs and temples to represent, according to The Metropolitan Museum of Art, “maintenance of the ordered cosmos” against disorder.


The Book of the Dead of Hunefer, c. 1275 BC, ink and pigments on papyrus, British Museum (London). Image: Wikimedia Commons.

While symbolically, the papyrus plant had great importance in ancient Egyptian art, we return to its practical, and perhaps most important use: as paper for writing. Thanks to Egypt’s dry climate, many papyrus documents complete with ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics and drawings were preserved and recovered. These include household documents, letters, legal texts, narratives with illustrations, religious texts, and more.

Ancient Egyptian Cat Art

The ancient Egyptians were certainly cat people.

While dogs often represented the god of death, feline creatures separately served as important symbols in Egyptian art. Cats represented a sacred connection to the gods and had characteristics that Egyptian people admired. Cats were widely respected for their intelligence, for example, as well as their fertility.

Sometimes, in ancient Egyptian cat art, these felines were portrayed themselves to be demi-gods, or as alternative forms of some gods, or even as representing characteristics of some gods (i.e. the fierceness of goddess Mafdet). Cats are the subjects of many ancient Egyptian statues, mosaics, paintings, reliefs, and beyond.


Four cats, 664–332 BC, wood, Louvre (Paris). Image: Wikimedia Commons.

And of course, there was a practical use for feline friends within Egyptian societies, too – they controlled mice populations, which often destroyed important crops.

The Egyptians’ ability to domesticate the cat also became a symbolic representation of the relationship between man and feline. Later, cats were even mummified, honorably placed at the burial sites of their families, and showing their status and importance.

Where to See Examples of Famous Ancient Egyptian Art

Today, tourists continue to flock to museums, exhibits, and Egyptian archaeological sites that serve as a gateway of sorts into a fascinating ancient history and its peoples. Some of the most iconic pieces of surviving Egyptian art today include:

  • The Throne of Tutankhamun (National Museum of Cairo, Egypt)
  • The Egyptian Book of the Dead, a papyrus funerary text (British Museum, London)
  • The Bust of Nefertiti (Neues Museum, Berlin)
  • The Statue of Khufu (National Museum of Cairo, Egypt)
  • Statue of Cleopatra VII Philopator (Royal Ontario Museum, Ontario, Canada)
  • Tomb of Senenmut’s Astronomical Ceiling (site of Deir el-Bahri, Egypt)
  • Thutmose III Statue (Luxor Museum, Luxor, Egypt)

In addition, The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, the Louvre Museum in Paris, the British Museum in London, the Egyptian Museum in Berlin, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Oriental Institute Museum in Chicago, and the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology in London hold some of the greatest collections of ancient Egyptian art on display today.

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