Most of what we know of the Egyptian culture has been deducted from hieroglyphics, but we can also learn a lot about the culture from the artwork that has been discovered. Art was very important for their religious and political practices so they were very innovative in the ways they used the materials available to them[i]. This research paper is going to describe how impactful blue colored materials were for this culture during the time around 2500 B.C. to 900 B.C., and how they used both natural and man-made materials. Scholars have found that they paid attention to detail when it came to their art, and their man-made materials will be the focus of this paper to show how innovative and religious the Egyptian culture was. The man-made will also be compared to the natural materials available to them to show why they might have preferred the imitations.
The Egyptians had many close resources available to them like limestone, calcite, sandstone, schist, and preywacke. Harder stones were quartzite, diorite, granite, and basalt[ii]. Blue colored Egyptian art pieces are most likely going to be made of either lapis lazuli, turquoise, glass, faience, Egyptian blue, or glass glazes from what we know today.
Colors are kept pure in their artwork without hardly any tinting or shading[iii]. Colors of the various stones were important to the Egyptians and they applied different meanings and symbols to each of the colors. For example, warm hues represented the god Horus or the sun and black was often a symbol of the life giving soil from the Nile. Osiris, the god of the underworld, was represented with green or black because of their belief in his resurrection[iv]. Gods that were painted or carved from blue materials would be related with the sky, cosmos, divinity, or other godly traits. The Nile River was an important eternal life source and the color blue imitated all the life giving aspects of the waters. Every color had multiple meanings and the color blue was used a lot in their art, so it must have been a very important symbol for their culture[v].
Precious metals were also important as symbols. Gold and silver personified the flesh and bones of gods. The combination of blue with the metals had an aesthetic purpose, but more importantly, it was used to show the high ranking status of the subject it represented[vi].
Turquoise and lapis lazuli were highly cherished because of their beautiful blue colors and the challenges that it took to get them. Turquoise had been brought over from Sinai, and they used trade routes in Afghanistan for lapis lazuli since both could not be found in Egypt[vii]. Even with the challenge of getting blue colored materials, they made many things out of natural blue semiprecious stones. Egyptian artwork, besides sculpture and paintings, almost always had semiprecious stones inlaid into patterns. Cloisonné was a form of inlaying where metals would be melted or shaped to look like tiny borders outlining the desired pattern. Glass or stones would be carved to fit into the shapes so that the metal would outline the patterns. Wearable artworks were mostly cloisonné pieces or intricate beaded patterns. (Fig. 1) is a gold cloisonné necklace pendant inlayed with natural materials. The light sky blue color is turquoise, the dark blue colors are lapis lazuli, and the burnt orange is carnelian.
The Egyptians had experimented with creating their own blue glazes and materials to imitate real gemstones[viii]. Egyptian artwork made with faience has been found in funerary complexes dating back as early as the third dynasty[ix]. The process for making faience started in Mesopotamia and the knowledge must have eventually been taken to Egyptians through trading routes. The Egyptian word for the material is tjehenet, but in English it is known as faience[x]. This man-made material was cost effective, and the materials used to create the blue color were less expensive than the real semi-precious stones. Its placidity was perfect for smaller items and jewelry.
The process had been in the Egyptian culture for so many centuries that they were able to finely tune their knowledge on how to make the best quality glazes of all different colors, and the imitated colors match very closely to their natural models[xi]. The picture to the left (Fig. 2) shows two processions creating faience artwork. The man on the bottom left corner is holding a round symbol that looks similar to a beaded necklace and the next seems to be holding a weaving contraption. The use of blue Egyptian faience must have made these processes faster since they didn’t have to travel far to get the materials, but it was still considered a very valuable and have been found in many high ranking tombs. Faience is created by grinding a base of the readily available quartz and sand with a combination other materials, and then mixed with a little water to be molded and shaped. Small molds for beads and figures have been found throughout artist’s workshops[xii]. Colored glazes were added using an efflorescence, cementation, or application glazing[xiii] on the surface of the quartz base to change the color. The right combination of minerals made it very aesthetically pleasing for being an imitation of the highly desired precious stones and there are many that closely resemble with turquoise or lapis lazuli[xiv]. The mixture was fired after being molded and glazed so the process seems to be faster and easier to create objects of Faience than it was to carve stone. The Egyptians were known for taking innovative steps for grand architecture and inventions, but even something as simple as creating their own colors to save on time and resources is an achievement[xv].Faience is an interesting glazing technique because of the brilliant colors and textures that can be created. Like previously mentioned, it could be manipulated into many colors and they wanted to imitate precious materials that they already knew, but it was much brighter and shinier than stones. It had very strong hues and a glassy ceramic look.
The Amarna period is known to have a very different style of art compared to most of the traditional art from the austere Egyptian culture. They have found numerous artifacts of glass and faience that date back to the Amarna period. (Fig. 3) Glass artwork like vessels were created during this time. Faience might have been the preferred material because of its industrial qualities, its verstilbility, and it had many possibilities with bright colors because blue wasn’t the only color that was popular during this time. They created a lot of faience jewelry that was multi-colored with white, green, yellow, red, purple, and others[xvi].
Jewelry is a great example of how they would combine man-made and natural beads to make intricate patterns, but other combined forms of art are death masks, furniture, internal organ coffins, and sarcophaguses. (Fig. 4) The Death Mask of Tutankhamen, created after the Amarna period, is a masterpiece of gold work and inlayed gems. Blue stripes of glass paste are inlayed in the headdress, eyebrows, and outlining the eyes[xvii]. Egyptian glass paste, is not a paste, but is colored glass that has been shaped and cemented into the grooves of gold. The blue color in the glass came mainly from cobalt and/or copper. Cobalt found mixed into the glass meant that Egyptian glass workers were connected with glass makers from other cultures because Egyptians didn’t have immediate access to Cobalt[xviii]. The man-made and natural materials harmonize well with each other and are durable enough to last so many years.
They created many artworks that were purely imitation. Shapes of small figures were usually of animals or deities, but most shapes were beads and decorative objects for jewelry and clothes. Shapes of small faience figurines called Shabtis (Fig. 5) are miniature versions of Egyptian sarcophaguses or sculptures and they were placed inside the tombs of mummies[xix]. Details were painted with manganese after they were fired[xx]. Hieroglyphics are almost always seen on Shabtis to describe their purpose or to guide the person in the afterlife. Hundreds of these were needed to work on behalf of the dead according to their beliefs. Because of the need for so many figurines, faience would have been perfect because of how easy they were to produce, their amazing colors, and smooth surface quality[xxi].
There are many other aspects of blue treasures of Egypt that can be learned from, but most importantly, they show how essential artwork was and how productive the Egyptian culture was. Shapes and colors in the art symbolize their religious beliefs, and because the color blue had important symbolism of godly traits and the Nile, natural materials such as turquoise and lapis lazuli were highly prized. Natural stones were significant religiously even though they were harder to acquire and were not as manageable compared to the man-made art materials like faience and glass. So man-made materials like faience and glass were also important and highly valued blue treasures even though they were only imitations.
[i] Tiradritti, Francesco, and Araldo De Luca. Egyptian Treasures from the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. New York: H.N. Abrams, 1999. Print
[ii] Robins, Gay. The Art of Ancient Egypt. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2000. Print. 24.
[iii] Robins 24.
[iv] Singer, Graciela G., Dr. "Color in Ancient Egypt." Acadamia. N.p., n.d. Web. 02 Dec. 2014. <http://www.academia.edu/386121/Color_in_Ancient_Egypt>. 11.
[v] Singer 11.
[vi] Robins 25.
[vii] Robins 114.
[viii] Robins 25.
[ix] Tiradritti 47.
[x] Shaw, Ian, Paul T. Nicholson, Ian Shaw, and Ian Shaw. The Princeton Dictionary of Ancient Egypt. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2008. Print. 110.
[xi] Mark, Joshua J. "Faience." Ancient History Encyclopedia. Ancient History Encyclopedia, 11 Aug. 2010. Web. 2 Dec. 2014. <http://www.ancient.eu/Faience/>.
[xii] "Faience Openwork Collar." The British Museum. Trustees of the British Museum, n.d. Web. 2 Dec. 2014. <http%3A%2F%2Fwww.britishmuseum.org%2Fexplore%2Fhighlights%2Fhighlight_objects%2Faes%2Ff%2Ffaience_openwork_collar.aspx>
[xiii] Shaw 111.
[xv] Shaw 111.
[xvi] "Ancient Egyptian Art | Vessel | F1909.416." Ancient Egyptian Art | Vessel | F1909.416. Smithsonian Insititution, n.d. Web. 2 Dec. 2014. <http://www.asia.si.edu/collections/zoomObject.cfm?ObjectId=4914>.
[xvii] Tiradritti 235.
[xviii] Lucas, A., and J. R. Harris. Ancient Egyptian Materials and Industries. London: E. Arnold, 1962. Print. 189.
[xix] Hawass, Zahi A. Valley of the Golden Mummies. New York, NY: Harry N. Abrams, 2000. Print. 142.
[xx] Shaw 110.
[xxi] Hawass 142.
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