Chapter- 1-2 : The Inception of Visual Communications in Ancient Egypt

The Inception of Visual Communications in Ancient Egypt
Wooden ushabti box and ushabtis of Pinedjem I.

There is no doubt that ancient Egyptians were the originator of what is today defined as ‘visual communication design’. The Egyptian language of antiquity used the same word, sekh, to signify writing, drawing, and painting, and from the very beginning of her history, Egypt used written message in combination with images to convey various socio-cultural values that were at the roots of her system of beliefs. More than five thousand years ago, the graphic designers of Egypt were working on a strict greed system that established conventional codes of representation in sculpture, painting, and relief. By and large, Egyptian scribes used the same conventions in the standardization of hieroglyphic signs in their system of writing. This is why the ancient Egyptian graphic design and hieroglyphs are closely correlated. For instance, the hieroglyphic ideogram for “man,” is the figure of a seated man, which also appears frequently in sculptures and paintings.


The composition of the Egyptian designs are well balanced, harmonious, and adhere to certain minimalism principles. The artists abstract from play of light and shadow, and minimalize the illusion of space and atmosphere in outdoor scenes. The images are sharpened by clear outlines, and the complexity of interrelationships among spatial forms are simplified. The artists use flat areas of color to enhance order and clarity, and compose figurative scenes in horizontal registers. The figures were portrayed emotionless since artists wanted to avoid the transient aspect of life, as they were interested in eternal features and immortality.


The Gods Osiris and Atum, from the Tomb of Nefertari, New Kingdom (wall painting), Egyptian 19th Dynasty (c.1297-1185 BC) / Valley of the Queens, Thebes


Egyptian gods are depicted wearing headdresses with a solar disk. Ostrich feathers, and animal horns. Usually the deities hold an ankh and a scepter. When in human form, the gods are shown wearing a false beard with a curved tip.


The Visual Communications and the Egyptian System of Beliefs

“Greetings to you, Osiris, Lord of Eternity
King of the Two Lands, Chief of both banks…
Youth, King, who took the White Crown for himself…
Who makes himself young again a million times…
What he loves is that every face looks up to him…
Shining youth, who is in the primordial water, born on the first of the year…
From the outflow of his limbs both lands drink.
Of him it is arranged that the corn springs forth from the water
In which he is situated….


In the Egyptian system of beliefs Gods, such as Atum and Osiris, as well as many others, played the key roles in the management of universe and all its affairs. Not only they symbolized all natural phenomena but also abstract concepts such as truth, justice, kinship, and love.


Geb, the earth god is reclining beneath Nut, the sky goddess, while Shu, the air god, is preventing her from falling, and two ram-headed Heh deities, are supporting Shu’s arms, Detail from the Greenfield Papyrus, from the Book of the Dead of Nesitanebtashru, c. 950 BC.


In a dialogue between Atum and Osiris in the Book of the Dead, Atum states that he will eventually destroy the world, submerging gods, men and Egypt back into Nun, the primal waters, which were all that existed at the beginning of time. In this nonexistence, Atum and Osiris will survive in the form of serpents.

Atum’s myth merged with that of the great sun god Ra, giving rise to the deity Atum-Ra. In the beginning there was only Nun, a primordial mass of unstructured water, Atum-Ra, lived in Nun. After a period of time he rose from the splendor of the Sun. Atum-Ra was the father of the gods, creating the first divine couple, Tefnut and Shu, the first female and male gods. He created these two children out of dust and his own spittle; Tefnut, was the Goddess of Moisture, and Shu was the god of Air and together with their father they formed a trinity. Tefnut and Shu, gave birth to Geb, the earth God, who married Nut, the Goddess of sky, and with her fathered four children; Osiris, Isis, Seth and Nephthys.


Judgement before Osiris, from the papyrus of the scribe Hunefer, from the book of the dead of Hunefer, 19th Dynasty. 1285 BC, painted papyrus, British Museum, London


Osiris was the ruler of the underworld. The oldest and simplest hieroglyphic form of his name is written by a “throne” and an “eye.” He was the eldest offspring of Geb, the god of Earth and Nut, the goddess of sky. He married Isis, who the Book of the Dead describes as “She who gives birth to heaven and earth, knows the orphan, knows the widow, seeks justice for the poor, and shelter for the weak”. Osiris and his wife Isis became the king and the queen of Egypt when his father, Geb, retired. Osiris promulgated just and fine laws for his people who were considered privileged among the mankind. Osiris then asked Isis to assume the throne of Egypt and himself traveled afar to spread his laws around the world.

When Osiris returned, Seth, his jealous brother, plotted to murder him in order to usurp his throne. Seth gave a royal banquet and offered his guests, including Osiris, a prize in the form of a magnificent coffin, which was specially built to fit Osiris’ body. The winer was supposed to be the one who best fitted in the coffin, and when Osiris tried it, Seth shut the lid and threw the coffin in the Nile river. Seth assumed the kingship, and the grieving Isis went out to look for Osiris’ body, where she found it in Byblos. She brought the corpse back to Egypt, and through her powerful magic brought him back to life for a while to conceive a son, Horus, who was to avenge his father’s death. Seth found the Osiris body, tore it apart into pieces, and threw them back into the Nile. Isis stubbornly searched for him and found every pieces of his body and reassembled it by papyrus bands into a mummy. Osiris then transformed to an akh, and traveled to the underworld to become king and judge of the dead.

Meanwhile Seth continued his cruel rule. Isis was hidden with her baby Horus in the marshes. When Isis went to buy food in the villages Seth’s spies found where she was hiding. Seth disguised as a snake and went into her hiding place. He found Horus alone and being a snake bit and poisoned the child. The poor mother brought the baby to the villagers and asked for their help to no avail. she cried out in despair. Nephtys, her sister, advised her to stop the Sun Boat of Ra and ask him for help. Isis, who was aware of Ra’s secret name, used it to stop his boat. Ra through his messenger, Thoth assured her of the safety of Horus by promising that the Sun Boat would stop untill Horus was recovered. Ra kept his promises and Horus was cured. Horus grew to become a hero, and when he was ready, Isis gave him great Magic to use against Seth. Horus found Seth and challenged him for the throne. They fought for many days, until Seth gave up, and was castrated. Horus did not kill him, lest he be just as wicked as him. A fight broke up among the Gods who supported Horus and the Gods who supported Seth. But realizing that their quarrel would disturb Ma’at, or the balance of life,they asked the wise Neith for for his arbitration. Neith ruled that Horus was the rightful heir to the throne. Thus, Horus cast Seth into Darkness, where he lives to this day, still scheming to overthrow Horus.


Judgement before Osiris (detail),

This is the weighing of the heart scene. Anubis conducts the weighing on the scale of Maat, against the feather of truth. The ibis-headed Thoth, scribe of the gods, records the result. If his heart is lighter than the feather, it is the sign of his innocence and Hunefer is allowed to pass into the afterlife. If not, it is the sign of his wickedness and his heart will be eaten by the waiting chimeric devouring creature Ammit, which is composed of the deadly crocodile, lion, and hippopotamus.


Every king of Egypt was identified with Horus during his life and with Osiris after his death, and Egyptians performed rituals and made offerings to gain the favor of these gods who are featured prominently in their art.


Canonical Proportions in Egyptian Design


(From L. to R.) Hesire Seqqara of the Third Dynasty, a nobleman of the Sixth Dynasty, and Mererurka Seqqqara of the Sixth Dynasty.

Note that these three figures are depicted on a grid of 19 squares in height. The canonical ratio of 18/11 shows 18 square from the hairline and 11 square from the navel.


Whether carving statues or painting figures, the Egyptian graphic designers used a grid system in order to adhere to a canon of aesthetics, which determined some strict ratios. As Iversen has pointed out, the Egyptians frequently referred to their works of art as being ‘true’, which means they wanted to represent the natural proportions, and perhaps even the true dimensions of the objects. Grids were used to control the proportions of two-dimensional relief sculpture and to line up the sides, back, and front of sculpture. The evidence of grids is often found in unfinished relief sculpture or in paintings where a layer of paint has peeled off to reveal the traces of grids. These traces have provided the data to study how Egyptian artists worked.


Grids are first appeared in 2125–1991 BC during the Eleventh Dynasty and remained in force until the end of the 26th Dynasty in the New Kingdom. The Egyptian artists first drew horizontal and vertical grid-lines on the surface of the wall they intended to paint, or on a rock they intended to carve. The grid canonically determined the aesthetic proportions of the figures, which was 18 units to the hairline, or 19 units to the top of the head. The height of the figure was usually measured to the hairline rather than the top of the head, perhaps because the head often were concealed by a crown or head piece. Various parts of body was placed on precise segments of grid lines. For instance, the connection of the neck and shoulders was placed at the row sixteenth, the elbow at the row ninth with width of six squares. The width of female figures was only between four and five squares. The face is two squares high, the shoulders are aligned at sixteen squares from the base of the figure, the elbows align at twelve from the base, and the knees at six. The grid system thus allowed artists to create striking compositions of harmony and consistency that are scalable to colossal statues or tiny figures in hieroglyphic scripts.


Vertical Perspectives with Multiple Viewpoints


Nebamun hunting in the marshes, fragment of a scene from the tomb-chapel of a wealthy Egyptian official called Nebamun, C. 1350 BC.


Nakht hunting birds in the marsh:  Nakht is shown both on the left and the right (his family is also shown twice). On the left he holds a boomerang, on the right he hunts with a spear – the spear was never painted in (most probably because Nakht had died), Tomb of Nakht – Scribe of the Granaries (reign of Tuthmosis IV)


Egyptian art’s perspective was complex and geared towards enhancing the harmony of a composition, while providing the most complete information. In their figurative paintings artists realizing the fact that they are representing a three dimensional geometric body in a restricted two dimensional surface, opted to add other visual dimensions to achieve their orderly aesthetics ideals while conveying a “true” message. They typically used size as one of their dimensions in order to indicates the hierarchical importance of characters. For instance, kings are often depicted much larger than his subjects. In general, this resulted in a vertical perspective . Other dimensions were employed through multiple points of view, that would allow the human figures to be represented from the angle of view where they are best defined. Thus, heads are defined in profile with protruding nose and lips. The eyes in profile are depicted from the front view, looking at the viewers. The shoulders are seen from the front, their torsos and hips are depicted in three-quarter view point which allow the legs and arms to be seen in profile with legs extended when the figure is walking.

Distance of a figure, with respect to the viewer, is either presented by the overlapping of the bodies or by placing of the more distant figures above the ones in the foreground. However, the prominent dignitaries rarely overlap one another. Husbands and wives are depicted in a close distance from each other so that only their arms may overlap. The important peoples’ bodies had to be represented complete and according to the canons. However, the lower ranking individuals, servants and slaves were often depicted as overlapping. The artists used such occasions to introduce some rhythmic repetitive patterns with these overlapping bodies so as to enhance the aesthetics of their works.

Queen Nefertari bringing an offering to Goddesses Hathor and Selkis, Tomb of Queen Nefertari, wife of Rameses IInd. Thebes.

In representing objects and landscapes the artists used the same multiple points of view technique. For instance, in the image Queen Nefertari bringing an offering to Goddesses Hathor and Selkis, we can see the goddesses are sitting in profile. The table-leg in front of them is represented from front viewpoint, the tabletop is viewed directly from above. The offerings on the tabletop are arranged vertically, so that each item can be identified by the viewer.

Egyptians paid particular attention to represent various modes of production at various stages of the of work, in farming, wine making and so on. In many of their tombs, such as tomb of nakht, various scenes of daily works such as ploughing, digging, sowing, stages of the harvest: the measuring and winnowing of the grain , the reaping and pressing of the grain into baskets and so on are depicted.

Various Stages in the Production of Grains. The Mortuary Chapel of Menna, superintendent of the estates of the king and of Amen, at the middle of the 18th dynasty, Thebes.

In the top row from left to right, a slave is kissing the foot of the overseer, the lands are measured by means of a rope, from which the knobs, that assured the correctness of the measurement, have been struck out by the avenger, in order that Menna may never again count his acres. In the second row, Menna’s chariot and servants await to carry him to his fields, the quantity of his grain is recorded by the scribes; Menna stands under a canopy while servants bring him drink. In the third row, Menna sits under a canopy, outside of which is a tree with birds-nests built in it.


Mortuary Chapel of Menna, superintendent of the estates of the king and of Amen, at the middle of the 18th dynasty, Thebes.

In the top row from left to right, a boy walks along driving an animal, and carrying a small kid. Menna waits under a canopy to watch the arrival of a transportation boat. A servant receives the traders as they come ashore, and two sailors are punished with lashes for their wrong doings. In the second row, scenes of winnowing and threshing are illustrated.


Sennedjem and his wife harvesting grain, from the tomb Sennedjems at Deir el Medina.
Production of wine – two laborers pick the grapes, the juices are then squeezed out of them by men on the left – while a man is filling jars from a tap


The Egyptians believed that the pleasures of life including the times of prosperity could be made permanent by depicting scenes like; A feast for Nebamum, Nebamun hunting in the marshes, Sennedjem and his wife harvesting grain, Nakht and his wife sit before offerings, and so on. In these paintings the humanity rejoice, the family and friendship is glad, the nature and water resound; and the fields are jubilant. Overall, scenes of life, hunting and farming in the Nile marshes and the abundant wildlife supported by that environment symbolized rejuvenation and eternal life. As images like; Nakht hunting birds in the marsh, or Nebamun hunting in the marshes reveals, The geese, of several different species are depicted, and the colours are natural and subtle. Egyptian artists studied carefully the wildlife of their surroundings and paid utmost attention to detail in depicting the birds, fish, cattle, crocodiles, wildcats, butterflies and so on.


The Egyptian nobles were fond of elaborate parties and feasts as their main form of entertainment. Listening to music, watching dances, being served with foods, and friendly chats in an orderly and civilized manner were the main features of these parties. Both men and women were invited, and dining couches and small tables were provided for the guests, who regaled themselves with dishes of fowl, game, fish, bread, and wine. Women wore elegant dresses, and they paid particular attention to style and design of their dress, jewelery and furniture.


Nebamun’s cattle, fragment of a scene from the tomb-chapel of Nebamun, around 1350 BC


A feast for Nebamum, bottom half of a scene from the tomb-chapel of Nebamun, C. 1350 BC


A feast for Nebamum, top half of a scene from the tomb-chapel of Nebamun, C. 1350 BC


A feast for Nebamum, top half of a scene from the tomb-chapel of Nebamun, C. 1350 BC


Senejem and His Wife, Tomb of Nakht



Nakht and his wife sit before offerings, Tomb of Nakht – Scribe of the Granaries (reign of Tuthmosis IV)



These female musicians are sensually painted in such a striking detail. The graceful nude lute-player dances to the accompaniment  of a  beautiful  harpist   and an elegant  flute player.  Her body is seen in  front-view while her head is turned in profile to speak to her friend.


The tomb of Nakht; his wife tenderly holds a bird in her hand.




The tomb of Nakht, a nude young girl leaning to offer perfume  to three female dignitaries.


Birds are being caught in nets and plucked. The filled net is a complex of wings and colors


Detail from the joint Book of the dead of Herihor and Queen Nodjmet.
They both make obeisance towards offerings and a Weighting of the Heart
scene, and Osiris seated beyond. Removed from the Deir el-Bahari royal
cache before 1881. British Museum.



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