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Introduction


Photo courtesy of Roemer und Pelizaeus Museum
A
nthropoid sarcophagus of Amunemopet
New Kingdom, Dynasty 18, 1570-1320 B.C.
Wood, painted and gilded, findspot unknown



The magnificent works of art that you are about to behold were crafted for the elite members of ancient Egyptian society. They comprised 10% of the entire population. As members of this elite, they encouraged craftsmen to give visual expression to their religious and political ideas. The art created by these individuals was, therefore, symbolic rather than representational.

Very often that art contained coded messages which were only understood by the members of the elite. We invite you, therefore, to look at that art through the eyes of the ancient Egyptians rather than through the lens of a Western art historian. By doing so, we hope that you will gain a better understanding of that art and of the ideals of the men and women for whom it was made.

The symbolic value of ancient Egyptian art was rooted in the hieroglyphs, a system of picture writing in which each hieroglyph was a somewhat simplified rendering of an object familiar to the ancient Egyptians from the world around them. Since there are many more abstract concepts such as life and death or good and evil in the minds of women and men than there are objects in the real world, the ancient Egyptians were forced to represent those abstract concepts with their hieroglyphs.

Let us take one example of how this might work. The sun rises at dawn and sets at dusk each day, only to renew the cycle on the morrow. The sun, therefore, became a potent symbol of resurrection. When the deceased was associated with the sun by means of the use of gold or gilding, he or she could aspire to be resurrected on an analogy with the rising sun.

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