History of Western Art
University of North Carolina

Nature in Egyptian Art

by Lynn Salerno

Nature had an important influence on the art of Egypt. In many Egyptian paintings and structures there can be found symbols of nature and natural processes. The general natural cycles associated with life in Egypt, such as the yearly flooding of the Nile river and their reverence for natural things, are evidenced in their art. The Egyptians worshipped the sun god 're', and had many animal-shaped gods in their religion and art. From the magnificent, Great Sphinxcarved in the fourth dynasty, to the frieze called the Geese of Medum (c.2530 B.C.), animals are portrayed with dignity, respect, and varying degrees of importance spiritually. The flora and fauna in the Nile valley also influenced their art, as seen in works such as the Fowling Scene (c. 1450 B.C.), and the Hippopotamus Hunt (c. 2400 B.C.). Natural elements can also be seen in the lotus and papyrus shaped capitals gracing the tops of some columns in the Temple of Amen-Mut-Khonsu (c. 1370 B.C.). The art of Egypt was infused with nature as their culture and religion were so closely connected to it.

Animals were held in high esteem by the Egyptians, and this shows in their art. The powerful Great Sphinx was the embodiment of regality, combining a man's head with the body of a majestic lion. In a different type of animal portrayal, such as the, Geese of Medumthe pure elements of nature can be seen. Painted on a tomb wall, the geese are delicately rendered with precision. Clearly, the simple yet elegant birds project a feeling of harmony with nature between the artist and subjects. In Egypt art, the animal can be seen as a god, or merely as a source of food, but always portrayed with care and attention to the details of nature.

The natural flora and fauna surrounding the Nile river was also a theme of Egyptian art. In the tomb painting the, Fowling Scenethe abundant natural resources of the Nile river valley can be seen. The artist gives attention not only to the wild animals hiding in the reeds and water, but to the plants growing in the marsh. This type of hunting scene can be noted also in the work, the. Hippopotamus HuntThe works portrayal of the simple human concern for food is embellished with the reeds, birds, water and all manor of activity found in the marshland. This inclusion of many details is a reflection of the Egyptians need and respect for those things natural.

In some Egyptian architecture, such as the columns in the,Temple of Amen-Mut-Khonsu elements of nature can be seen. Perched high atop the columns are their lotus and papyrus shaped capitals. Resembling clusters of the plants bundled together, the columns are an elegant witness to the uses of the local flora and fauna found in Egypt. Some surfaces on the columns still have traces of their original painted decorations that enhanced the theme of the papyrus shape.

The art of Egypt reflected their closeness to nature, in both the common and the supernatural aspects of their lives. Hunting scenes, such as the Fowling Scene, and the Hippopotamus Hunt provided the entombed deceased with some elements of everyday life that their 'ka' needed to live on happily and sustained. In addition, those scenes show the respect that the Egyptians had for nature itself. In other works, like the Great Sphinx and the Geese of Medum, animals are portrayed according to their intended purpose. Whether the purpose was supernatural or merely natural, animals in Egypt were given much respect and attention to detail when portrayed in art. Architectural accents, such as the bud and papyrus shaped columns found in the Temple of Amen-Mut-Khonsu, are examples of nature in structural Egyptian art. Those columns are examples of the common use of the local flora and fauna in their art. In many ways, the art of Egypt is infused with their beliefs about nature, which stemmed from a belief in the continuing river of life.

(Images were scanned from Gardener'sArt Through the Ages, eighth edition.)

copyright © Lynn Salerno, 1997 -2011