Myths and Legends of Ancient Egypt
Page: 141In pre-dynastic Egypt the dead were usually interred in shallow graves with no embellishment, only one[Pg 313] painted tomb of that early period being known. When, however, we pass to the study of the period which succeeded, it is the art of sepulchral decoration which first claims attention. Not even in Roman Catholic countries, not even in China, has the welfare of the dead ever been thought of so lovingly, so constantly and zealously, as in ancient Egypt. A very solid affair was the Egyptian tomb of this era, built commonly of limestone or sandstone, but occasionally of granite, or of breccia from the Arabian mountains; and in the case of a notable person the sides of his tomb were duly carved with pictures of his deeds while on earth, and more especially with pictures illustrating his prospective passage through the underworld. Generally, too, a statue glorified the outside of his tomb, this statue being wrought of alabaster, schist or serpentine, diorite or limestone, granite or sandstone; and the sculptor, be it noted, never aimed primarily at decoration, but invariably at a portrait of the defunct. Moreover, he would seem to have pondered very deeply on the question of durability, attaching his work firmly to its repoussoir, or, more often, making it a very part thereof; and to illustrate the Egyptian's predilection in this respect we may mention two works, both in the Cairo Museum, the one showing the Pharaoh Mycerinus seated, the other depicting a group of three people, likewise seated. In both cases the statuary have been hewn out of the great pieces of rock supporting them, and could not possibly be removed therefrom save by elaborate cutting with mallet and chisel.
A wealth of other statues belonging to the early dynastic era are still extant, many of them possessing rare artistic value. And if the same can hardly be said with reference to existing specimens of the relief-cutting of this period, when turning from these to early[Pg 314] domestic art we are struck repeatedly by its infinite loveliness. Prominent among such things as merit this praise are numerous bracelets, while the Cairo Museum contains two fine carved ivory feet of a stool which express great vigour of artistic conception, and the same collection includes sundry tiny figures of monkeys, lions, and dogs, all of them manifestly the work of a master who had a keen sense for the curious beauty which lurks in the grotesque.
To an early period also, that of the Pyramid Kings, should be assigned those amazing monuments of the industry and ingenuity of bygone Egypt, the Pyramids and the Sphinx—works which have evoked nearly as much eloquence, alike in prose and verse, as the Monna Lisa of Leonardo da Vinci and the Elgin Marbles of Phidias. Usually supposed to have been wrought early in the era in question, their inception is, however, wrapped in mystery; but whatever the true solution of that enigma, this Memphite period was certainly one which witnessed considerable developments in Egyptian art. True, there is little opportunity of studying the architecture of the time, such relics as exist consisting in little more than heaps of stone or masses of sun-dried brick; yet in the field of sculpture, on the contrary, we are enabled to note and scrutinize progress. Heretofore sepulchral statues had been virtually a preserve of the rich and great, but now all sorts and conditions of tombs—or, at least, the tombs of many comparatively poor people—were garnished in this way; and as the defunct was often portrayed in an attitude indicating his career on earth, this statuary offers a valuable sidelight on Memphite Egyptian life. Thus we find, here a man engaged in brewing, there another seated at secretarial work, his posture practically that of the modern tailor; while we[Pg 315] observe also that care for the welfare of a deceased magnate of any kind was being manifested on a more intricate scale than hitherto. That is to say, suppose his friends and relations should be anxious that he should be well fed in the hereafter, they would embellish his resting-place with statuary delineating a kitchen in being; while sometimes, with an analogous end in view, they would represent in the tomb-chapel a group of musicians, each depicted with his instrument in his hands. And in all these works, as also in divers others of a different nature, we notice a more fluent handling than that characterizing the generality of those of pre-dynastic days, as witness what is possibly the very crown of the Pyramid age (Fourth Dynasty) sculpture, the full-length at Cairo of the 'Sheikh-el-Beled' (whose real name was Ka-aper), a figure wrought in a fashion vigorous and confident as anything from the hand of Rodin or Mestrovic. Furthermore, we mark again and again that artists were now beginning to express their respective individualities, they were showing themselves less prone to conform slavishly to a given régime; and it is significant that one of the Pyramid age sculptors, Ptah-Ankh, far from hiding his identity like all his predecessors, saw fit on one occasion to model a stone relief in which he himself figured as sitting in a boat.