Egyptian art and the afterlife

The fascinating art of the Egyptian culture stretches from 3000 BC to today, as remnants left for us. This specific culture is so interesting because of the many remains left for us to examine and study. So many exquisite pieces of Egyptian art have made it to this day and age because of the durable substances that they were made of; a lot of their art was made of clay or stone and the climate in which they were kept (hot desert air of Egypt) was perfect for preserving them. Most art pieces were discovered from tombs, often of Egyptian nobility. However, in most cases we have no idea who the artists of these pieces of work are because they didn’t sign their names or mark any pieces of work that they created. Also, it was typically groups or teams that worked at a site and created sculptures or objects. The Egyptians created magnificent pieces of artwork that portrayed their beliefs and way of life.  Symbolic art was an important part of Egyptian architecture, such as buildings, palaces, and temples. Common symbols and images formed the foundation and influenced all other types of Egyptian art, as it was believed that they gave protection from evil in present life and afterlife. The tombs that held the mummified deceased Egyptians contained a substantial amount of these symbols and images. A lot of their art is centered on their gods, goddesses, and preparation into the afterlife; in fact, most of Egyptian art that has survived into our time is oriented towards the afterlife and life after death. One could argue that their art was magical because of the Egyptian belief that art had the power to associate with the gods and to appeal to them on behalf of people alive or dead. Their art often came in the form of sculptures, paintings, tomb painting, and carvings. Egyptian tomb art was known to be the point of contact between the dead and the living. Egyptians believed that some of the images, painting, or carvings that they created in tombs would come to life and accompany the mummified deceased into the afterlife. Tombs typically contained images of the mummified deceased carrying on an everyday task or completing a deed or an achievement, images of the deceased offering a sacrifice to a god (most likely Isis or Osiris), other images of snakes, gods, weapons, or scorpions to protect the tomb and keep evil spirits away. According to Deborah White, an editor at the Australian Museum, “Egyptian tombs were like secret art galleries that were never meant to be viewed. Instead, these amazing examples of artistic craftsmanship spoke only to an elite group of visitors – the gods.” 

According to Egyptian beliefs of the afterlife, the soul would leave the body (on death) and enter into the form of a bird called ‘ba.’ Then join the path of the sun god, Ra. To Egyptians, the sun represented warmth, light, and growth so this made the sun diety a very essential part of their life, as the sun was viewed as the ruler of everything that he created. In order to be reborn after death, it was absolutely essential for the bird (ba) to find its way to the mummy in the burial chamber and unite with it. In order for this to happen, the coffin had to resemble as much as possible the deified state of the deceased so that the returning ba could recognize it. The central figure is ram-headed, bird-bodied deity, the afterlife aspect of the sun god, stretching out his wings over the deceased. The tail of the bird continues in a column of hieroglyphic inscription consisting of a short offering formula, which divides the surface of the lid under the waist into two symmetrical halves. On each side run three scene panels with figures of Osiris and protective funerary deities (the four Sons of Horus), and below, winged sun-discs (the sun disk was viewed as either the body or eye of Ra) provide magical protection and rebirth for the deceased.
The lid of this mummy case has painted decorations that include rituals and spells from the Egyptian Book of the Dead. The book was a guide for the dead as they journeyed through the afterlife, so that their soul could live on housed in the mummy and their case. For centuries, Egyptians would paint these kinds of scenes on the walls of their tombs. Around 1000 BC, when Djedmontuiufankh (a priest of Amun) died and was mummified, the social and political systems of Egypt had started to change; important notabilities would be buried naked and hidden in chambers in the rock so that grave robbers could not find them. Mummies were placed in cases and all the symbols, rituals, spells, etc. had to be painted on the cases. The wooden lid of this mummy case shows the priest in the form of Osiris. Every dead person became associated with Osiris, destined to rise from the dead. This is why Djedmontuiufankh is wearing a long wig and braided beard and has his hands crossed over his chest, holding two schematically depicted scepters. On his chest and stomach lie protective figures of the god Horus (Horus was known as the god of the sky, war, and hunting or kingship, most often shown with a falcon’s head), the sky goddess Nut, and the sun disk. Between them are smaller figures of gods and many columns of hieroglyphic text.
The man depicted here on this Romano-Egyptian mummy portrait holds the symbols of his salvation, a glass filled with red liquid (most likely wine) and the garland of pink flowers. Wine and the color red were associated with life in Egyptian thought and rebirth in a funerary context. To elaborate, wine played a very important role in Egyptian ceremonial life, as there are many winemaking scenes on tomb walls. The garland of pink flowers (very likely lotuses) marks the man as an initiate in the cult of the goddess Isis; Isis was the goddess of health, marriage, and wisdom. She was worshipped as the ultimate and perfect mother and wife, as well as the patroness of magic and nature. She is also known as protector of the dead and offered her followers a happy and carefree afterlife. Egyptians portrayed Isis being born from a lotus flower, therefore they put lotuses in the hands of the mummified dead to represent their souls’ entrance into new life. Scholars do not know where this portrait was excavated, but several features match those of portraits from Er-Rubayat in the Fayum.
Egyptians believed that the immortal spirit of the deceased remained linked to and dependent on its earthly body. Egyptians tombs were full of items designed to help and guarantee the soul’s rebirth and its successful passage into the afterlife. Almost everything included with the burial symbolized rebirth and renewal. The point above is displayed well by this blue faience cup, which most likely came from an ancient Egyptian tomb. The vessel depicts the blue lotus, which is actually a fragrant water lily, much loved by the Egyptians. Because the petals open at sunrise and close at night, the flower was associated with life eternally renewed by the rays of the sun. The fully opened blossom on the cup forms the container for wine, which is a favorite drink of Egyptians. The lotus symbolizes the eternal cycle of life governed by the sun. It is also a symbol of rebirth and The Egyptian Book of the Dead contains spells for “transforming oneself into a lotus” and therefore fulfilling the Egyptian promise of resurrection.
(**Image was removed? Unable to find original image on Google Art-- This image is of a similar mummy/ the only image I could find to use**) This art piece is both the mummy of Khnumhotep and his coffin. He was an estate manager/steward during his life, but his mummy and coffin are designed to associate him with holiness and kingship in the afterlife. The gold mask on his mummy (which is still in its original condition) displays royal attributes, (like the Uraeus, which is the stylized form of an Egyptian snake or cobra that was used as a symbol of royalty, deity, or divine authority), that transforms his body into an avatar of Osiris who is the king of the afterlife and god of resurrection. The inscriptions on his coffin proclaim that he is worthy of association with various deities. At one end of the coffin is a pair of eyes; through these eyes, it was believed that Khnumhotep could magically view the world of the living. As mentioned before, Osiris was an Egyptian god, known as the god of the afterlife, the underworld, and the dead. More articulately, he was the god of transition (to the afterlife), resurrection, and regeneration. According to Egyptian beliefs, all people (not just pharaohs) were believed to be associated with Osiris upon death.
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