Gender Representation in Ancient Egyptian Art

Image: Egyptian Tomb Art

Kim Jackson, an art writer for the San Diego Examiner has an excellent article on how gender is represented in ancient Egyptian tomb art. The articles deals with how male and female are represented in tomb paintings and the message artists seek to convey with their art.. Her article is beautifully illustrated with pictures from Egyptian tombs. The following is an excerpt from the article:

New Kingdom Egyptian tombs is a clear case where the artist conveys a message other than visual reality. In the typical New Kingdom tomb painting, relief, or statue, males are dressed in a Shendyt with perhaps a shirt, while women wear tight-fitting sheath dresses, probably made from a single piece of cloth wrapped around the body. However, archaeological examples of ancient Egyptian clothing demonstrate that the most common garment was a bag tunic… a linen bag with sleeves that fit very loosely. Both men and women wore it. In art, however, men wear an outfit that suggests freedom of movement while a woman’s garment suggests restricted movement. Even without archaeological evidence, the typical female garment depicted in art could never match reality. The dresses are so impossibly tight that a woman could not move, sit, or walk. The real intention behind this representation is to reveal the woman’s body. These dresses clearly reveal the overall female form and the pubic triangle. Since the difference between everyday Egyptian reality and artistic presentation is so radical, there must have been a reason for the difference.

Men are generally active in tomb representations. In Old Kingdom and Middle Kingdom tombs, the deceased reaches for offerings at the offering table or inspects agricultural laborers or workshops under his control, hunting birds or fishing. These roles definitely correspond to the Egyptian view of men actively winning a place for themselves in the afterlife.

The importance of women in Egyptian society is often conveyed in temple and tomb artwork as well. The chief role of the woman in Egypt was that of life-giver and supporter. Because of this, the emphasis in art was on their role as mothers, and they were often depicted wearing little or no clothing. The intent was not to portray eroticism but rather to symbolize reproduction—since all people come into the world without clothing, the idea of nudity is connected to that of birth. Due to their connection with birth, women are most often found depicted on tombs, for the Egyptians considered the tomb a means to re-birth into the next world. However, women represented in tombs could also hold other meanings. When labeled with their name in hieroglyphs, a figure of a woman could represent an individual wife, daughter, or cousin. Many women represented in one tomb could be a means for a man to emphasize his wealth. Both of these roles would be important to the deceased in addition to the overall conception of women as the source of rebirth.

Read the article in its entirety by clicking here [Note: The link yo the article is no longer available].

NOTE: For other studies on the history and archaeology of Egypt, read my post Egypt, The Land of the Pharaohs.

Claude Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary


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