A History of Art in Ancient Egypt Volume II Part 34

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Wooden articles were often entirely gilt. A Hathoric capital in the Louvre (Fig. 336) is an instance of this. The outlines of the eyes and eyebrows stand out in black upon the dead gold which covers the rest of this little monument.

[Ill.u.s.tration: FIGS. 332-334.--Walking-stick handles. Boulak.]

The coffin-makers were large consumers of wood. Some mummy cases were of that material, others of a very thick board made up of many layers of linen glued together with such skill and firmness that the resulting substance had all the hardness and resonance of wood. Cases of both kinds were covered with a thin coat of plaster, varnished, and decorated with designs in colour. The thickness of the plaster coat may be easily seen in the numerous cracks which these coffins display.

All the decorative motives which we find traced by the brush or engraved by the chisel upon the walls of buildings and upon works in terra-cotta, in metal, and in wood, must have been repeated upon the woven stuffs of the country, and upon those needle embroideries with which they were ornamented. There is nothing in which the superiority of Egyptian manufactures is better shown than in linen cloth. Linen has been recovered from the tombs which is as fine as the best Indian muslin. Some has been found which feels like silk to the touch, and equals the best French _batiste_ in the perfection of its weaving. We know from the bas-reliefs and paintings that some Egyptian stuffs had the transparency of gauze. Body-linen was usually of a dazzling white, but in some instances it was dyed red, and in others it had borders made up of several bands of red and indigo blue. The designs were either woven in the stuff or applied to it by a process which gave effects not unlike those of our printed cottons. Golden threads were introduced into specially fine tissues. But the great excellence of Egypt in such matters as these was in her needle embroidery. Even during the epoch of Roman supremacy her productions of that kind were eagerly sought after.[400]

[400] MARTIAL, _Epigrammata_, xiv. 150. LUCAN, X. v. 141.

[Ill.u.s.tration: FIG. 335.--Wooden pin or peg. Boulak.]

[Ill.u.s.tration: FIG. 336.--Hathoric capital. Louvre.]

-- 5. _The Commerce of Egypt._

When, under the great Theban Pharaohs, Egypt found herself impelled, either by force or by inclination, to emerge from her long isolation, her vast internal commerce and her industrial development must have had a greater effect over the foreigners with whom she came into contact than her gigantic buildings, or the colossal statues, bas-reliefs, and paintings with which they were adorned. During the Middle Empire she opened her gates to some extent to certain tribes of Semites and Kus.h.i.tes, who dwelt close to her frontier. After her conquest by the Hyksos, and the establishment, some centuries later, of her own supremacy in Syria, she never ceased to hold intercourse with her neighbours.

Her foreign relations were, however, peculiar in character. During many centuries it never occurred to the worshipper of Osiris that it was possible to live and die out of the sacred valley of the Nile.

Thrown by some accident outside those limits which for him coincided with the frontiers of the habitable world, he would have felt as helpless as a Parisian stranded upon some cannibal island. In later years, after about the seventeenth century B.C. the separation between the Egyptians and the people of Western Asia became less complete. The time arrived when Babylon and Greece were in advance of Egypt; but even then the Egyptians shrank from changing their ancient habits.

Their well-being in the valley watered by their sacred river was too complete, their pride of race was too great, to allow of their mingling readily with those whom they looked upon as barbarians. Still more effectual was their unwillingness, their fear, to confide their mortal bodies to any other soil but that of Egypt. There alone could they count with certainty upon the care and skill which would preserve it from final destruction. Nowhere but in the _Western Mountain_ could they be sure of receiving the necessary offerings and homage. The G.o.ds who watched over the mummy, who guided the soul in its subterranean voyage and shielded it during the tests to which it was exposed after death, dwelt in Egypt alone. Military expeditions were pushed into Syria, and even as far as the Euphrates, but no Egyptian crossed the Isthmus of Suez without longing for the day of his return. He brought back the plunder of his successful combats to the crowded cities of his own country, with their countless monuments and their memories of a glorious past; he could enjoy life only where the tombs of his ancestors and his own _happy dwelling_ marked the spot where he should repose when that life had ceased.

By taste, then, the Egyptian was no traveller. But in time the men of other nations came to seek him; they came to buy from him the countless wonders which had been created by his skilful and patient industry. The Phnician, especially after the beginning of the eighteenth dynasty, took upon himself the useful office of middle-man; in later days, under the Psemetheks and their successors, the Greek came to dispute that office with him. Like the Portuguese and the Dutch in China and j.a.pan, first the Phnicians and afterwards the Ionians had their _factories_ at Memphis and in the cities of the Delta. Thanks to these adroit and enterprising middle-men, Egypt had a large foreign trade without either ships, sailors, or merchant-adventurers. Upon this point much valuable information has been obtained from the texts, but the discoveries of modern archaeology have been still more efficient in enabling us to form a true and vivid conception of the trade carried on by the inhabitants of the Nile Valley.

Ever since attention was first drawn to the wide distribution of such objects, not a year has pa.s.sed without articles of Egyptian manufacture being discovered at some distant point. Syria and Phnicia are full of them; they have been found in Babylonia and in a.s.syria, upon the coasts of Asia Minor, in Cyprus, in the islands of the Grecian Archipelago, in Greece itself, in Etruria, in Latium, in Corsica and Sardinia, in the neighbourhood of Carthage; they are, in fact, spread over all Western Asia and the whole basin of the Mediterranean. At the moment when the Phnicians began to secure the monopoly of this trade the Egyptian workshops had no rivals in the world; and when, after many centuries, other nations began to pour their manufactures into the same markets, they had long to compete in vain against a prestige which had been built up by ages of good work and well earned notoriety.



In the study which we have now almost completed, we have made no attempt to reconst.i.tute the history of Egypt. We are without the qualifications necessary for such a task. We do not read the hieroglyphs, and are therefore without the key to that great library in stone and wood, in canvas and papyrus--a library which could afford material for thousands of volumes--which has been left to the world by the ancient Egyptians.

Our one object has been to make Egyptian art better known; to place its incomparable age and its originality in a clear light, and to show the value of the example set by the first-born of civilization to the peoples who came after them and began to experience the wants and tastes which had long been completely satisfied in the Valley of the Nile. The importance and absolute originality of the national forms of art were hardly suspected before the days of Champollion; he was something more than a philologist of genius; his intellect was too penetrating and his taste too active, to leave him blind to any of the forms taken by the thoughts and sentiments of that Egypt which was so dear to him. "I shall write to our friend Dubois from Thebes," he says in one of his letters, "after having thoroughly explored Egypt and Nubia. I can say beforehand, that our Egyptians will cut a more important figure in the future, in the history of art, than in the past. I shall bring back with me a series of drawings from things fine enough to convert the most obstinate."[401]

[401] CHAMPOLLION, _Lettres d'egypte et de Nubie_, p. 113.

The forecasts of Champollion and Nestor L'Hote have been confirmed by the excavations of Lepsius and Mariette. The conclusions deduced by the former from their examination of the remains in the Nile Valley have been indirectly corroborated by the discoveries which have successively revealed to us ancient Chaldaea, Syria, Phnicia, Asia Minor, primitive Greece and Etruria. No one contests the priority of Egypt. It is recognized that its origin dates from a period long antecedent to that of any other race which, in its turn, played the leading _role_ upon the stage of the ancient world. Justice has been rendered to the richness of its architecture, to the skill of its painters and sculptors, to the inventive fertility of its handicraftsmen and the refinement of their taste. And yet no one had attempted to do for Egypt what such men as Winckelmann and Ottfried Muller did for Greece, Etruria, and Rome. The methods of a.n.a.lysis and critical description which have long been employed with success upon another field, had never been applied to her art as a whole; no one had attempted to trace the steps of Egyptian genius during its long and slow evolution. The difficulties were great, especially when architecture was concerned. The ruins of the Pharaonic buildings had never been studied at first hand with such care as had been lavished upon the cla.s.sic monuments of Italy and the Eastern Mediterranean. The works to which we have had to turn for information have many plates which make a fine show, which are accompanied with a luxury of detail which is very rea.s.suring, but when we examine them closely we are amazed to find the most unforeseen omissions in their materials both for restorations, and for the reproduction of buildings in their actual condition.

When we attempt to make use of two separate works for the restoration of a temple, we are met with an embarra.s.sment of another kind.

Differences, and even actual contradictions, between one author and another are frequent, and that without any new excavations having taken place between-times to account for the inconsistency. Both observers had the same facts under their eyes, and it is often difficult to decide which of the two has observed badly. For one who does not wish to admit pure fancy into his work, all this causes doubts and hesitations which add greatly to the difficulty of his task.

The deeper we penetrate into such studies, the more we regret the insufficiency of the materials, and yet we have thought it imperative that we should fill in the framework of our history. It has one peculiar aspect which distinguishes it from all others: the Egyptians gave much to their neighbours and received nothing from them, at least, during that period during which the character of their art as a whole was established. The features which are distinctive of Egyptian sculpture and architecture were determined at a time when there were no races in her neighbourhood sufficiently advanced to have influence upon them. This was not the case with Chaldaea and a.s.syria, at least, to anything like the same extent. Their work, moreover, has come down to us in a very fragmentary condition. Egypt is, then, the only country in which a complete development, begun and carried on solely by the energy and apt.i.tude of one gifted race, can be followed through all its stages. Everywhere else the examples of predecessors or of neighbours have had an influence upon the march of art. They may have accelerated its progress, but at the same time they diverted it in some degree from its natural channel; they may have helped men to do better, it is certain that they led them to do what they would not otherwise have done. The goal may have been reached more quickly by those who had a guide, but it was reached by a path different from that they would have taken had they been left to their own devices. In the Valley of the Nile there was no guide, no precedent to follow.

There, and there alone, did the evolution of the plastic faculty preserve a normal organic character from the commencement of its activity almost to its final decease.

From all this it follows that the art history of Egypt may be reviewed in terms more definite, and that the conclusions drawn from it are more certain or, at least, more probable, than that of any other nation. It is, if we may be allowed such a phrase, more transparent.

Elsewhere, when we find a new decorative form introduced, or a new style become prevalent, it is always open to us to ask whether they may not have been foreign importations. When such borrowing is suspected we have to trace it to its original source, and often the search is both slow and painful. In the case of the Egyptians such problems have to be solved differently. There is no need to extend one's inquiries beyond the happy valley where, as in an inaccessible island surrounded by a vast ocean of barbarians, they lived for ages whose number can never be guessed. Other civilizations are to be partly explained by those of their predecessors and their neighbours; that of Egypt is only to be explained by itself, by the inherent apt.i.tudes of its people and their physical surroundings. Every element of which the national genius made use was indigenous; nowhere else can the fruit be so easily traced to the seed, and the natural forces observed which developed the one from the other.

Another point of attraction in the study of Egyptian art is that extreme antiquity which carries us back, without losing the thread of the story, to a period when other races are still in the impenetrable darkness of prehistoric times. A glance into so remote a past affords us a pleasure not unmingled with fright and bewilderment. Our feelings are like those of the Alpine traveller, who, standing upon some lofty summit, leans over the abyss at his feet and lets his eye wander for a moment over the immeasurable depths, in which forests and mountain streams can be dimly made out through mist and shadow.

Long before the earliest centuries of which other nations have preserved any tradition, Egypt, as she appears to us in her first creations, already possesses an art so advanced that it seems the end rather than the beginning of a long development. The bas-reliefs and statues which have been found in the tombs and pyramids of Meidoum, of Sakkarah and of Gizeh, are perhaps the masterpieces of Egyptian sculpture, and, as Ampere says, "the pyramid of Cheops is of all human monuments the oldest, the simplest, and the greatest."

The work of the First Theban Empire is no less astonishing.

"Twenty-five centuries before our era, the kings of Egypt carried out works of public utility, which can only be compared, for scale and ability, to the Suez Ca.n.a.l and the Mont Cenis Tunnel. In the thirteenth century B.C., towards the presumed epoch of the Exodus and the Trojan war, while Greece was still in a condition similar to that of modern Albania, namely, divided up into many small hostile clans, five centuries before Rome existed even in name, Egypt had arrived at the point reached by the Romans under Caesar and the Antonines; she carried on a continual struggle against the barbarians who, after being beaten and driven back for centuries, were at last endeavouring to cross all her frontiers at once."[402]

[402] RHONe, _L'egypte Antique_, extract from _L'Art Ancien a l'Exposition de 1878_.

The princes, whose achievements were sung by Pentaour, the Egyptian Homer, had artists in their service as great as those of the early dynasties, artists who raised and decorated the Great Hall of Karnak, one of the wonders of architecture.

It is not only by its originality and age that the art of Egypt deserves the attention of the historian and the artist; it is conspicuous for power, and, we may say, for beauty. In studying each of the great branches of art separately we have endeavoured to make clear the various qualities displayed by the Egyptian artist, either in the decoration of the national monuments or in the interpretation of living form by sculpture and painting. We have also endeavoured to show how closely allied the handicrafts of Egypt were to its arts.

Our aim has been to embrace Egyptian art as a whole and to form a judgment upon it, but, by force of circ.u.mstances, architecture has received the lion's share of our attention. Some of our readers may ask why an equilibrium was not better kept between that art whose secrets are the most difficult to penetrate and whose beauties are least attractive, not only to the crowd but even to cultivated intellects, and its rivals.

The apparent disproportion is justified by the place held by architecture in the Egyptian social system. We have proved that the architect was socially superior to the painter and even to the sculptor. His uncontested pre-eminence is to be explained by the secondary _role_ which sculpture and painting had to fill. Those arts were cultivated in Egypt with sustained persistence; rare abilities were lavished upon them, and we may even say that masterpieces were produced. But plastic images were less admired in themselves, their intrinsic beauty was less keenly appreciated, in consequence of the practical religious or funerary office which they had to fulfil.

Statues and pictures were always means to an end; neither of them ever became ends in themselves, as they were in Greece,--works whose final object was to elevate the mind and to afford to the intellectual side of man that peculiar enjoyment which we call aesthetic pleasure.

Such conditions being given, it is easy to understand how painters and sculptors were subordinated to architects. It was to the latter that the most pious and, at the same time, the most magnificent of kings, confided all his resources, and his example was followed by his wealthy subjects; it was to him that every one employed had to look as the final disposer; the other artists were no more than agents and translators of a thought which was grasped in its entirety by the architect alone. His work, embellished with all the graces of a decoration which reckoned neither time nor materials, formed a h.o.m.ogeneous and well-balanced whole. It was in inventing, in bringing to perfection, and in contemplating such a work that the Egyptian mind gave itself up most completely to love for beauty. If we take an Egyptian building in its unity, as the product of a combined effort on the part of a crowd of artists labouring under the directing will of the architect, we shall no longer feel surprise at the s.p.a.ce demanded by our study of his art.

The Egyptian temple of the Theban period, as we know it by our examination of Karnak and Luxor, the Ramesseum and Medinet-Abou, gives us the best and highest idea of the national genius. We have had nothing more at heart than the restoration of these edifices by the comparison of all available materials; we have endeavoured to re-establish their general arrangements, to describe their distinctive features, and to grasp their original physiognomies as a whole. But while making this effort we could never succeed in banishing the Greek temple from our minds. In vain we may try to judge the art of each people entirely on its own merits; such comparisons are inevitable, and without dwelling upon the question we shall devote a few words to it.

The differences are considerable and are all to the advantage of the Greek creation. Its n.o.bility is more intimate and smiling; the genius of man has there succeeded better in giving to his work that unity which nature imprints on its highest productions, an unity which results from the complete alliance between different organs, and allows neither the subtraction of any part nor the addition of any novel element.

These contrasts may be explained to a certain extent by the religion of Greece and its social system. At present it is enough to point out their existence.

This superiority of the Greek temple will hardly be contested, but after it that of Egypt is certainly the most imposing and majestic product of ancient art. The religious buildings of Chaldaea, a.s.syria, Persia, Phnicia, and Judaea, have left but slight remains behind them, and the information which we possess as to their proportions and general arrangements is obscure and incomplete. But we at least know enough to sketch out a parallel which is all to the honour of Egypt.

Some of these eastern temples, being entirely composed of inferior materials, never had the richness and variety presented by the monuments of Memphis and Thebes. Others were but more or less free imitations of Egyptian types. Suppose that temple of Bel, which was one of the wonders of Babylon, still standing upon the great plains of Mesopotamia; it would, in spite of its height and its enormous ma.s.s, in spite of the various colours in which it was clothed, appear cold and heavy beside Karnak in its first glory, beside the imposing splendours of the Hypostyle Hall.

Until the rise of Greek art, the artists of Egypt remained, then, the great masters of antiquity. Her architecture, by the beauty of its materials, by its proportions, by its richness and variety, was without a rival until the birth of the Doric temple. Her sculptors betrayed a singular apt.i.tude in grasping and interpreting the features of individuals or of races, and they succeeded in creating types which reached general truth without becoming strangers to individuality.

Their royal statues were great, not so much by their dimensions as by the n.o.bility of their style, and their expression of calm and pensive gravity. The existence of a few child-like conventions, from which they never shook themselves free, cannot prevent us from feeling deep admiration for the insight into life, the purity of contour, the freedom and truth of design which distinguish their bas-reliefs and paintings. Egyptian decoration is everywhere informed by a fertile invention and a happy choice of motives, by a harmony of tints which charms the eye even now, when the endless tapestry with which tombs and houses, palaces and sanctuaries, were hung, is rent and faded. The smallest works of the humblest craftsman are distinguished by a desire for grace which spreads over them like a reflection from art and beauty, and they helped to carry some knowledge of the brilliant civilization of Egypt to the most distant coasts of the ancient world.

During the earlier ages of antiquity, this civilization exercised upon the nascent art of neighbouring, and even of some distant people, an influence a.n.a.logous to that which Greece was in later days to wield over the whole basin of the Mediterranean. For many a long century the style of Egypt enjoyed an unchallenged supremacy and offered a forecast of that universal acceptance which was to be the lot of Grecian art, when after two or three thousand years of fertility, of power, and of prestige, the work of Egypt would be done, and the time would arrive for her to fall asleep upon her laurels.



The discovery of some thirty-eight royal mummies with their sepulchral furniture, which signalized the accession of Professor Maspero to the Directorship of Egyptian Explorations, was the result, in some degree, of one of those inductive processes of which M. Perrot speaks as characteristic of modern research. For several years previously those who kept account of the additions to public and private collections of Egyptian antiquities had suspected that some inviolate royal tomb had been discovered by the Arabs of Thebes, and that they were gradually dissipating its contents. Early in 1876 General Campbell bought the hieratic ritual of Pinotem I.,--or Her Hor, a priest king, and founder of the twenty-first dynasty--from them; and in 1877 M. de Saulcy showed M. Maspero photographs of a long papyrus which had belonged to Queen Notemit, the mother of Pinotem. About the same time the funerary statuettes of that king appeared in the market, "some of them very fine in workmanship, others rough and coa.r.s.e."[403] The certainty of a find and of its nature became so great that, in 1879, Maspero was enabled to a.s.sert of a tablet belonging to Rogers-Bey, that it came from some sepulchre "belonging to the, as yet, undiscovered tomb of the Her Hor family."[404] The mummy for which this tablet was made has been discovered in the pit at Deir-el-Bahari.

[403] MASPERO, _La trouvaille de Deir-el-Bahari_, Cairo, 1882, 4to.

[404] _Ibid._

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A History of Art in Ancient Egypt Volume II Part 34 summary

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