Egypt is one of the world’s oldest civilizations and one of the most enduring. Narmer, who united Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt to become the first Pharaoh, began his reign in about 3100 BC. Cleopatra VII died in 30 BC, over three thousand years later. We are closer in time to Cleopatra than Cleopatra was to the first King of Egypt.
The period known as the New Kingdom, approximately 1560 BC to 1070 BC, is to me the most interesting time in Egyptian history. The New Kingdom is the Egypt of the Book of Exodus and of King Tut. It was when Egypt became a world power. It was the time of the heretic Pharaoh Akhenaten who sought to replace Egypt’s religion with the monotheistic worship of Aten. Art was at its height during the New Kingdom.
Egyptian painting was very distinctive. The purpose of painting in ancient Egypt was to convey information, rather than produce works of artistic merit. Fortunately, it often did both. Paintings on the walls of tombs were thought to help the deceased enjoy the activities portrayed in the paintings. Therefore, we have some very informative pictures of life in ancient Egypt, including family life.
Paintings are generally flat, without perspective or shading. The background is either omitted, or shown in a way that everything the painter wants to show is clearly visible. Faces are almost always shown in profile, but eyes are shown as if seen from the front. Bodies are also in profile, but shoulders are shown frontally. This allows the painter to depict each arm clearly and completely. It allows the painter to give the viewer a detailed picture of what the subject is doing with each arm. The proportions of the human figure are fairly constant; children are usually shown as miniature adults.
The first painting of family life in the New Kingdom is from the tomb of Inherkau. Inherkau is seated in his home with his wife, surrounded by their four daughters. He holds a curl of one daughter’s elaborate hair-do, and pats her gently on the head. I find this to be an endearing representation of a loving family from over three thousand years ago.
The next is a family outing to the marshes from the tomb of Menna. Menna, his wife, a grown daughter, a young daughter and a young son are on a papyrus raft. Hunting scenes show more of the surroundings than other paintings because the artist wants to present the rich bounty of wildlife in the marsh. Menna is hunting ducks, holding live ducks for a decoy in one hand and a throwing stick in the other. His wife stands behind him, and their grown daughter stands behind her mother. A second, sitting image of the older daughter is in the upper left. A young daughter is beside Menna, leaning over the raft to gather lotus flowers. A young son holding ducks stands in front of Menna.
Social status is represented by the height of each figure. Menna is the tallest, his wife slightly shorter, the grown daughter is still shorter, and the two younger children are the lowest. However, if you were to straighten out the youngest daughter and put her in a standing position, she would be slightly taller than the grown daughter. The young daughter’s head is in a lower position, and that is enough to show her status. The artist may not have wanted her to appear too tiny in her bent posture, like the young girl in the tomb painting from the tomb of Pashedu.
Another scene of a family in the marsh is from the tomb of Nakht. It is similar to the previous marsh scene in that it portrays a husband, a wife, an older daughter, a younger daughter, and a son. A strange thing about this painting is that Nakht has his arms positioned as if he is holding a fishing spear, and yet no spear is visible. It appears that for some unknown reason, the spear was never painted.
The bas-relief below shows the royal family of Pharaoh Akhenaten, Queen Nefertiti, and three of their children. This depiction of a happy family is similar to that of Inherkhau. Nefertiti and Akhenaten had a total of six children, all girls. Akhenaten has a long face, skinny arms, and a pot belly. Pharaohs were normally depicted in an idealized fashion, but during the reign of Akhenaten there was a movement toward more realistic art. This is why the deformed heads of the girls are also shown realistically. We know from study of mummies of the family that the deformity was real. The unusual shape of the heads are also shown on the fragment of a tomb painting and the statue below.
The little statue, slightly over one foot high, is believed to be Princess Ankhesenpaaten, the third daughter of Nefertiti and Akhenaten. The statue is one of over 1,000 artifacts that was stolen or destroyed in August 2013 when a mob looted the Mallawi City Museum. Fortunately, it has been recovered. It is an enigmatic little statue; it appears that the sculptor was going to carve another face on the side of the head. I can’t decide if her expression is supposed to be serene or arrogant. What is that ball she holds?
The following bas-relief depicts Akhenaten, Nefertiti, Meriaten (their eldest daughter), and another princess adoring Aten, the solar disc. Meriaten holds a sistrum, and wears the same style robe as her mother. In the previous examples of New Kingdom art, the young girls were depicted in the nude. It is common for children to be nude in Egyptian art, but we know that they were sometimes clothed. Children’s clothing has been recovered from archeological sites. It gets too cold in Egyptian winters to always go without clothes. Egyptologists think that girls went naked part of the time, but that it was an artistic convention to show them nude nearly all of the time.
Dr. Gay Robins devotes a section in her book Women in Ancient Egypt to the “naked adolescent girl” motif in New Kingdom art. She states that there is a sexual connotation to the motif. Sometimes, however, it is not obvious today that there is anything sexual implied. The next two examples of New Kingdom art were included in that section of Women in Ancient Egypt. The first is a cosmetics container in the likeness of a young girl carrying a burden. It appears to be merely a cute little girl, but the sexual connotation is supposed to be evident to an ancient Egyptian because the girl wears an amulet depicting the God Bes, and Bes is associated with sexuality.
The second example from Dr. Robins’ book is this banquet scene from the tomb of Nebamun. Nude serving girls are attending to the guests at the party. Note that all of the guests in this painting are women. Note also that although the serving girls are nude, the serving boys are clothed. If the purpose of the nudity were to titillate the guests, shouldn’t the boys be nude too? Is it possible that the girls are nude merely because it is a custom without any sexual connotation?
The next two paintings also show girls at work, but they are working at a job that seems very strange today. They are professional mourners. They were paid to cry and wail at their client’s funeral. Most of the mourners are adults, but there is a girl in the painting from the tomb of Pharaoh Ramose, and four girls in the painting from the tomb of Khonsuemheb.
The final Egyptian girl in this post was in a musical band. Four women in the band have instruments, but the girl does not. Nevertheless, her enthusiasm for the music is apparent even in the flat, conventional style of New Kingdom painting.