From the evidence of extinct animals to astronomical charts and instructions for burial, the paintings of ancient Egypt are filled with knowledge and beauty. Be it god, Pharoah, or traveler, the paintings found today tell us about the people of yesterday.
Ancient Egypt has always been a source of great art, especially thanks to the obsession the people had with providing their dead with the most luxurious final resting places.
Within the walls of temples, tombs, and pyramids are found some of the most beautiful paintings of all time. Here is a list of the 10 best ancient Egyptian paintings:
1. The Papyrus of Ani
The Papyrus of Ani is perhaps the most recognizable copy of the Egyptian Book of the Dead. Created in 1250 BC with six distinct lengths of papyrus, the “book” is nearly 80ft in length and contains the entirety of the Book of the Dead as well as many beautifully painted images that can be seen today.
One famous image from this scroll is that of Anubis weighing the heart of the dead, in order to determine the fate of the soul. The heart would be weighed against the feather of Ma’at, who personified truth and justice.
The image also includes a chimera, a creature made of different animals. In this case, the creature has the head of a crocodile, the forepart of a lion, and the hindquarters of a hippopotamus. It would leap forward and devour the heart of any soul that failed to pass the test of Anubis.
The pictures found on the Papyrus of Ani were illustrated using red and black ink. The black would come from burnt wood, while the red was iron oxide.
2. Astronomical ceiling of the tomb of Senenmut
The ancient Egyptian architect Senenmut was worthy of a luxurious tomb chapel on the western banks of the Nile, in the Theban Necropolis.
Within his tomb, the walls and surfaces were painted much like many others. However, one unique feature stands out – a complex astronomical map and calendar, painted on the ceiling above the burial tomb itself.
The celestial diagram is complex. Circles denote different months and seasons, while images map out constellations that can be seen in the night sky. Images representing Sirius, Orion, Ursa Major, and Draco can be found, as well as representations of most of the planets visible to the naked eye.
The ceiling in the tomb of Senenmut is the earliest known celestial diagram in human history. Senenmut lived in 1479–1458 BC, and during this time astronomy was used to accurately set the time of major religious festivals and inform the design of temples to the gods.
It may well be that the map painted was a copy of a map the architect used in life – a map referred to when designing temples, tombs, and monuments to the gods.
3. Battle of Kadesh
Ramses II’s temple complex near Luxor is also known as Ramesseum. Among its many artworks is a large relief of what is claimed the be the largest chariot battle in history.
Over five thousand chariots were said to have been at the battle between the New Kingdom of Egypt and the Hittite empire. Modern historians disagree as to the outcome of the battle, but Egyptians remember it as evidence of Ramses’ ability to lead the country in war.
The relief of the Battle of Kadesh is impressive. A detailed drawing of Ramses on his chariot, firing a bow from a standing position takes the center of a chaotic depiction of battle.
Dozens of men on horses and foot surround the chariot, while around the image are captions from “The Poem” and “The Bulletin”, ancient Egyptian texts that tell the story of the battle.
4. The Meidum Geese
In the tomb of Prince Nefermaat I, from the Fourth dynasty of Egypt, there is a curious painting that has had zoologists quite excited over recent years. On one of the walls of the tomb is an image that includes six geese, two of which may be the only evidence of an extinct species.
The detail in the painting of these geese is so impressive that, in 2015, claims were made that the images could be a 19th-century hoax. These claims were quickly dismissed, however, by art historians and Egyptian officials both.
A more exciting discussion is being had today as to whether the red-breasted geese in the painting may be an extinct species that had previously never been discovered.
Using the “Tobias Method”, an Australian researcher claims that there are no species of geese on record that matches them, despite easily identifying the other four birds in the painting.
However, controversy surrounds the discovery, with other researchers saying it is impossible to say based on images alone.
5. Anubis Attends a Mummy
Sennedjem, an artist and tomb designer at the time of Ramesses II, has quite an impressive burial chamber for his family, including large murals with intricately painted details.
Among them is a scene showing the god Anubis overseeing the preparation of Senedjem’s mummification.
Anubis was a funerary god, whose titles included “He who is in the place of embalming” and “Lord of the sacred land”.
For this reason, many burial chambers include paintings that show the canine-headed god as he prepares the sarcophagi of those buried within.
6. Nefertiabet’s Meal for the Afterlife
The princess is presently wearing a leapord-skin dress, which would have been seen as the height of fashion for the time. She sits on a throne with bull’s feet and wears a long wig.
In this painting, offerings of bread, beer, oryx, and beef are presented, and these were likely the food that was placed in the jars and containers found within the mastaba.
Inscriptions on the painting indicate that this food was for her and her gods to feast on, and include a list of linens that would also have been placed in the chamber for her afterlife.
7. The Tomb of Tutankhamun (Tutankhamun and Osiris)
Tutankhamun may be the most famous of the pharaohs but the child-king’s tomb is actually one of the less opulent for those of his station. However, the burial chamber was still completely covered in paintings, including those of the Pharoah meeting Osiris in the afterlife.
The famous image, taken from the North wall of the chamber, shows Tutankhamun embracing the god of the dead, while behind him stands his “ka” (soul).
On the same wall are images of Tutankhamun meeting Nut (the goddess of the stars) and “The Opening of the Mouth Ritual” which confirms the young boy’s identity as king of Egypt.
8. Nebamun Hunting Fowl in the Marshes
This famous painting, which can now be seen in the British Museum, comes from the tomb of an important Egyptian official, believed to be a treasurer to one of the pharaohs.
Nebamun is seen hunting birds from his boat, with his wife and daughter present. Fish swim under the boat, while a cat plays among the reeds.
The painting of Nebamun is filled with symbolism. The cat may represent a god hunting its enemies, while the lotus flowers held by Nebamun’s wife hold religious significance as the representation of life not just in Egypt but around the world.
9. Nubians with a Giraffe and a Monkey
In the tomb of the Egyptian noble, Rekhmire, is found images of some of his adventures and trades, including quite detailed pictures of animals that had come up from Nubia.
In one impressive painting, a giraffe is seen with a small monkey climbing its neck. Two Nubians, looking nothing like the Egyptians portrayed elsewhere, lead the giraffe by ropes tied around its ankles.
Ancient Nubia had many interactions with Egypt and shared much of their culture, resources, and knowledge.
While there was often war between the empires, there were also times of peaceful trade, and much of the gold found in tombs and temples originally came from those southern lands.
10. Nefertari Playing Senet
Nefertari was the beloved queen of King Ramesses II and as such one of the most important women in Egyptian history. Her tomb was one of the largest and most opulent tombs for someone who wasn’t a pharaoh, and Ramesses also built the temple of Hathor in her honor.
Among the many beautiful paintings within the tomb of Nefertari is one in which she sits playing the game Senet. Senet was an extremely popular board game among the Egyptian elite.
While the exact rules have since been lost, it has similarities to early versions of chess. Senet boards have been found in tombs dating back thousands of years.
The game of senet takes on special meaning when presented in funerary contexts. The word means “passing” and images of the dead playing the game signify that they are fully prepared for the challenges they may face in the afterlife. In this painting, Nefertari sits confidently in her royal headdress, certain to win the game of death.
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