Art Through Time: A Global View
The Body Art: Fragment of a wall relief showing the sister of Djehutyhotep
This painted relief comes from the tomb of Djehutyhotep, a nomarch, or “governor,” of the Fifteenth Upper Egyptian nome (province).
The figure shown, which belongs to a group believed to represent Djehutyhotep’s female relatives, is thought to be the governor’s sister.
During the Twelfth Dynasty, the period in which this relief was created, a canonical grid was devised to standardize representations of the human form. This geometric grid specified such bodily proportions as the ratio of the height of a standing figure to the vertical levels of the knees, waist, elbows, armpits, and shoulders. The figure of Djehutyotep’s sister presumably follows this idealized, uniform approach to depicting the human body, which would be widely followed until the advent of the Amarna period centuries later.
The image combines sideways and frontal views, with the shoulders, arms and upper chest shown frontally, while the head, uncovered left breast, torso, legs, and feet are rendered in profile. To the modern eye familiar with a more naturalistic European art tradition, this approach to the human form is often unfairly judged as elementary and unsophisticated. In fact, Egyptian representations of the body were highly conceptual. They were never intended to be mimetic or illusionistic. By rendering their figures from more than one angle simultaneously, they were able to highlight all aspects of the idealized body at once. What’s more, the lack of three-dimensional space implied by these figures actually serves to remove them from present reality. Thus, they are able to exist in a suspended state of timelessness in which they remain eternally young, strong, perfect. When we do find figures in Egyptian art that do not have these composite forms or appear in static poses, they are more often than not laborers, entertainers, or other members of the non-elite classes.
The individual depicted here is clearly a woman of privilege. Her svelte figure, emphasized by a form-fitting white dress, is accentuated and adorned with jewelry around her neck, wrists, and ankles. The woman’s hair is worn in long plaits as it would have been on special occasions, perhaps supplemented with additional braids in the same color as her own.
Deborah Vischak, Lecturer of Art and Archaeology, Princeton University
“The Egyptian system of depicting bodies, of depicting all kinds of images, is very different certainly from most of the Western traditions that we’re familiar with. Understanding the way the body is represented in Egyptian art is the gateway to understanding the entire Egyptian system of representation, especially in two dimensions. The body as it’s represented in relief and painting is put together from different viewpoints. It’s what we call a composite figure. So the different pieces of the body—for example, the torso is seen from the front, the legs are seen from the side, the face is seen in profile, but the eye is seen from the front. So you’ve got this mix of perspectives.
And what is important to understand about that is that the whole idea for the Egyptians behind making images is not to recreate reality in that sort of underlying Western way, which is really about recreating the experience of viewing, that’s the Western tradition, it’s about seeing something by one viewer at one moment in time. And this idea did not resonate for the Egyptians at all. What they’re trying to create is something that is much more eternal. So their representations are not recreations of something that they’ve seen, rather they’re creating an image following on a concept. It’s really much more of a conceptual image system. So when they piece together the body with these different viewpoints, what they’re doing is creating an image that represents body or human figure or person. And it’s an image that communicates the idea of the individual, of the human person, without being concerned with the specifics of one particular person at one place in space and in time. And the nature of the way the body is put together, it allows for a certain amount of flexibility in posing the legs or the arms. Also some certain details in clothing or sort minor things—hairstyle, that kind of thing, jewelry—that are useful for the Egyptians for communicating different aspects of the identity of the figure.
Understanding that kind of fundamental nature of the body in that system then explains the sort of whole Egyptian image system. Why are things represented in the way that they’re represented? Why did they not care about the sort of realistic experience of viewing, the sort of illusion of seeing something on a wall the same way that you’d see it in the world? It just was not something that made sense, and the way the body was depicted, I think, expresses that very clearly.
I think to understand the Egyptian representation of the body the two main issues are conventions, in one sense, and also idealization in the other. The places that you find images of the body in either three-dimensional statuary or in two-dimensional relief and painted images—because these things are functional, there is this idea of convention of being able to repeat over and over again the image because the image, in order to function, has to look the way that it’s supposed to. There is this intentional maintenance of this tradition by the elite people who were the ones who were creating and producing these objects. That they purposefully, over and over and over again, want to have the body look the same way in the images, their objects should look the same way, the monuments should look the same way. They’re purposefully trying to maintain a cultural tradition that argues in the bigger picture for stability and the rightness of the world—and, of course, their place in it. So convention is very important in that regard. But idealization is also very important. And there are ideal versions of a male figure and of a female figure. They tend to be relatively youthful, very fit and strong figures. So that any individual being represented in their tomb or on a stele or an offering to a god is being represented in their best, most perfect form. And that’s what’s valuable rather than recreating what they might actually look like in life.”
“Fragment of wall relief showing the sister of Djehutyhotep.” In Highlights.The British Museum Web site. http://www.bmimages.com/results.asp?image=00037567001&imagex=1&searchnum=0001.
Hawass, Zahi. Silent Images: Women in Pharaonic Egypt. Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 1995.
Malek, Jaromir. Egyptian Art (Art and Ideas). London: Phaidon, 1999.
Robins, Gay. Art of Ancient Egypt, revised edition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008.
Robins, Gay. Proportion and Style in Ancient Egyptian Art. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1994.
Robins, Gay. Women in Ancient Egypt. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993.
Silverman, David, ed. Ancient Egypt. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.