Ancient Egyptian Art: Architecture, Sculpture, and Religion

Egyptian Art

Old Kingdom (3100-2040 BC)

  • Construction of the Great Pyramids

Middle Kingdom (2040-1567 BC)

New Kingdom (1567-1080 BC)

  • Amenhotep IV or Akhenaten

Age of Decline (1080-30 BC)

  • Invasions of various peoples, including Greeks and Romans

Distinctive Aspects of Egyptian Civilization

Importance of Agriculture

Thanks to the periodic flooding of the Nile, scientific advances in mathematics and geometry were reflected in their art, particularly in the construction of the pyramids.


Egyptian civilization was highly religious. Architecture was fundamentally religious and funerary. Their polytheistic religion featured gods composed of human and animal elements. Over the centuries, mythology developed, with the most important legend being that of Osiris, which formed the basis of the belief in immortality. Egyptians believed that humans could become immortal if their bodies were preserved in good condition. There was only one period, during the reign of Akhenaten, when religion became monotheistic and less elitist. This influenced art, which became more human and less idealized. After Akhenaten, Egypt returned to polytheism.

Divine Kingship

The king was the Pharaoh, holding both political and religious power and considered a god. This aspect is reflected in art, with gigantic pyramids built solely for the royal family to enjoy the afterlife. Sculpture and painting also reflected the divine character of the pharaoh and his family, who were idealized with divine symbols and an attitude and expression that placed them beyond the human realm.

Egyptian Architecture

Egyptian architecture is colossal and geometric. The buildings are excessively large for their intended function, designed to give an impression of grandeur and even fear. The shapes of the buildings are based on geometric and straight lines, conveying a sense of rest and serenity.

  • It is an architecture based on volume and mass, with few openings (doors and windows) and very thick walls.
  • The material used is stone in the form of large blocks (large stones perfectly carved and geometrically placed without using any mortar for their union).
  • It is a trabeated or lintel architecture, using vertical, horizontal, or diagonal lines.


The main load-bearing element is the column:

  • The base is usually disc-shaped.
  • The trunk is usually wide, of massive proportions. It may appear smooth or striated (imitating a bundle of sticks or reeds). Sometimes it may appear bulbous in shape and decorated with hieroglyphs.
  • The capital usually has a tree form, mimicking plants. There are several types of capitals:
    • Lotiform: Mimicking lotus leaves
    • Papyriform: Mimicking papyrus leaves
    • Palmiform: Mimicking palm or palm leaves
    • Campaniform: Mimicking a flower or open bell-shaped tree
    • Hathoric: With the face of the goddess Hathor

Decorative Elements

  • Widely used vegetable elements: the vulture with outspread wings, the winged disk (Sun symbol), beetles (representing eternal life), the cross-ring (symbolizing eternal life), the “uraeus” (or sacred cobra snake, symbol of the divinity of the pharaoh).
  • Hieroglyphics were used as both decorative and informative elements. Each drawing is a letter.

Types of Buildings

The main types of buildings are the Tomb and the Temple.

The Tomb


It is shaped like a truncated pyramid. Below the earth, a well was dug where the burial chamber was located, where the coffin was deposited and then sealed. At ground level, a door leads to the chapel. The term comes from Arabic and means “bench”. It was a type of funeral monument for priests and nobles.

The Step Pyramid

The desire for greatness and the accumulation of power in the hands of the Pharaoh led to the overlapping of mastabas, creating the Step Pyramid. Example:

  • Pyramid of Djoser (2700 BC) in Saqqara (Third Dynasty). It is a superposition of mastabas. The pyramid’s architect was Imhotep.
The Pyramids

They arose in Dynasty IV. They were built by first creating a step pyramid, which was then filled in until it had a flat surface. The sphinx served as protection. Example:

  • Giza Pyramid Complex: It consists of the pyramids of Khufu, Khafre, and Menkaure, along with the Sphinx of Giza (a portrait of the deified pharaoh Khafre, which mixes human and animal features). The entrance to the burial chamber was concealed as much as possible, and the interior of the pyramids is filled with complicated galleries and chambers to prevent the theft of the furniture.
The Hypogeum

From the Middle Kingdom onwards, this type of tomb was excavated into the mountainside, with a labyrinthine distribution to preserve the treasures. These tombs are found mainly in the Valley of the Kings at Thebes. They have painted decoration in relief, and the treasures found within are remarkable. The treasure of Tutankhamun has been the wealthiest of the preserved treasures.

The Temple

The great temples are from the New Kingdom era, in which there are three types of temples: EXTERNAL, HEMISPEOS, and SPEOS.

Outer Temples


  • Avenue of sphinxes flanked by statues of divine animals like the ram of Amun.
  • Obelisk: Needle-shaped stone pyramid covered with hieroglyphic inscriptions.
  • Pylons: Monumental entrance moles formed by two trapezoid-shaped stones.
  • Hypostyle hall or open courtyard surrounded by columns.
  • Pillared hall or room completely covered by a painted wooden ceiling.
  • Rooms of the priests.
  • Holy of Holies, cella, or sanctuary: Chamber with an altar dedicated to the god of the temple. Only priests or the Pharaoh could enter.

The most important examples of the New Kingdom are:

  • Temple of Amun at Karnak (Thebes): Built under Thutmose III.
  • Temple of Amun at Luxor (Thebes): Built at the time of Ramesses II.
Hemispeos Temples

Hemispeos temples are semi-excavated into the rock. The most famous is:

  • Temple of Queen Hatshepsut at Deir el-Bahari: It is a trabeated architecture with columns and ramps. The entrance is on the outside, but most of the temple and shrine is carved into the mountain. It served as a tomb for the Queen who had it built.
Speos Temples

Speos temples are fully excavated into the rock. The most famous is:

  • Temple of Ramesses II at Abu Simbel: The most characteristic features are the four colossal figures, about 20 meters high, that lie at the entrance depicting the pharaoh.
Temples of Greco-Roman Influence

During the decline of ancient Egypt, the temples were left unaltered. Egyptian temples became smaller, while retaining the general characteristics of Egyptian architecture. Examples:

  • Temple of Hathor
  • Temple of Bebot

Egyptian Sculpture

The characteristics of round sculpture are:


  • For the figures of gods and pharaohs, pink or gray granite and black basalt were used, both materials without polychrome. For the sculptures of lesser characters, limestone and wood were used. These statues were polychromed to disguise the material.

Role of the Statues

  • The figures of the gods were often intended for temples. The sculptures or portraits of people were often intended to be placed in tombs, representing the deceased’s double.

Hieratic Style

  • Movement: The figures are stiff, motionless. Sometimes they appear stepping. All limbs are glued to the body and rigid without torsion.
  • Expression: The figures have no expression on their faces. They appear serious and staring straight ahead, with a distant gaze, alien to everyday life.

Law of Frontality

  • Figures are made to be viewed from the front, always looking ahead. This increases the sense of hierarchy and stiffness.

Geometric Elements

  • Figures are made using geometric elements, with interior details created using straight lines.

Types of Sculpture

  • Official sculpture: Dedicated to pharaohs and gods. Usually carried out without polychrome in fine materials, and the characters are idealized.
  • Popular sculpture: Made in limestone or painted wood. It has greater realism.

Old Kingdom

  • The Pharaoh Khafre (IV Dynasty): It is an official statue, which shows the Pharaoh seated, with the god Horus as a hawk protecting the king with his wings. He is represented with his symbols of power and divinity: scarf, beard, baton…
  • The Pharaoh Menkaure: He appears between two gods, represented by the cylindrical crown and symbols of power. The work is done in black basalt. The figures appear with one foot forward, but show a remarkable rigidity and are made with little naturalism, based on geometric shapes.
  • Prince Rahotep and his Wife Nofret
  • Seated Scribe
  • Mayor of the Town

New Kingdom

At this time, historical circumstances are reflected in art. The pharaoh Amenhotep IV converted to monotheism, believing in only one god, Aten. He renamed himself Akhenaten.

  • Head of King Akhenaten (1350 BC)
  • Portrait of Queen Nefertiti

When Akhenaten died, Egypt returned to its traditional politics, deification, and idealization of the pharaoh. Example:

  • Sarcophagus of Tutankhamun: It is made of a very rich material (gold) and again presents the symbols of power and the deification of the Pharaoh (head, cobra, stick, and whip). The expression is solemn and distant, and the figure displays a remarkable rigidity.

Late Period of Decline

Egyptian sculptures began losing their own characteristics. The figures became more realistic and lost much of their stiffness, abandoning geometric and straight lines. Example:

  • The Green Head