Egypt, Egyptian art during the Ptolemaic Period of Egyptian history

From the Saite Period to Roman Domination (30 B.C.), there is stylistic consistency, particularly in statuary. This is particularly visible in funerary statues, such as shabtis. There was a single design, in either green or blue faience. In this late period, the expression of the shabti was typically happy and smiling, there was commonly a beard but not the full regalia of crown, wig, overhanging hair decorations that characterized shabtis in the New Kingdom and earlier. There was a squarish base on which the feet rested, the body with slightly elongated.

Most shabtis from the Ptolemaic period that have been excavated are from northern Egypt and were made for men. During the Ptolemaic period, inscriptions framed by lines were introduced. Often these inscriptions were in blue letters on a green or lighter blue background. According to most scholars, the height of shabti-making was in the Sixth Century B.C.

Shabti, from Napata, Sudan; steatite; ca. 600 B.C.; 8 9/16 x 2 11/16 x 1 15/16 inches; Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York.

During the Ptolemaic period, Egypt was ruled by non-Egyptians. The Ptolemies were Macedonians. They were put in place by Alexander the Great of Macedon. However, the Hellenistic artistic influence was seen mostly in sculpture, and even in sculpture it was not heavy-handed.

In 334 B.C., Alexander the Great (356-323 B.C.) secured the Greek cities of Asia Minor. He had already conquered the northern and southern Greek peninsula, with his army of 40,000 men, about half of whom were Macedonians. After freeing most of the island-dwelling Greeks from Persian domination, he "disbanded his fleet" according to Alexander's own journal "defeated the Persian fleet on land." In 333, B.C. he refused to sign a peace treaty with the Persians and was engaged by the "Persian Grand Army" (their cavalry) in southern Anatolia in the Battle of Issus, one of Alexander's most brilliant victories. Alexander spent the next three years conquering the Persian strongholds of Egypt, Palestine, and Phoenicia but had not yet conquered the heart of the Persian Empire.

Capitals of sandstone columns from the Temple of Hathor at Dendera, built during the time of Ptolemy X ( ca. 100 B.C.) but not inscribed until the time of the Roman Emperor Nero (ca. 60 A.D.). They show the persistence of traditional Egyptian forms despite foreign rule.

Ptolemaic temple reliefs also following traditional Egyptian forms. There was no perspective, two-dimensionality reigned, and there was no attempt to show depth, which the Greeks were already doing in their funerary reliefs.

Relief from the tomb of Ptolemy I Soter I (384-284 B.C). Height of this portion of the relief is 37.8 inches. The King is making an offering to the god Horus, in the center. One way in which the Ptolemies departed from other rules was that they did not take part in the traditional festival of Horus held at Edfu annually.The grid on which the scene is painted is highly visible here. In the past they were hidden. Hieroglyphs were presented in a particularly neat and clean pattern during the Ptolemaic period. The relief was excavated at Tuna el-Gebel and is currently at the Pelizaeus-Museum, Hildesheim.

In newly conquered Egypt, Alexander the Great made his headquarters at Alexandria. But Alexandria was less a governmental capitol than a thriving trading port. It is doubtful that Alexander the Great set out to Hellenize Egypt. What we know of him suggests that his goals were to conquer India and continue east as far as possible. He did not seem to be obsessed with administration of territories conquered. Alexander did not garrison Memphis, which the Persians had done.

Alexander was King of Egypt from 332-323 B.C. Alexander's half-brother, Philip Arrhidaeus was made King of Egypt, along with the entire empire after Alexander's death. Ptolemy I Soter I (305-285 B.C.) established the Ptolemaic Dynasty. Ptolemy Soter was a Macedonian military man, who had been in bureaucrat in Egypt during Alexander's lifetime. He was a supporter of Alexander the Great and his son Alexander IV against the forces of Cassander. Ptolemy appointed himself to the throne of Egypt in 304 B.C. after Alexander IV was murdered.

Fragment of basalt statue of Ptolemy I Soter I (ca. 305-283 B.C); 25.2 inches high; British Museum, London, U.K. The smooth surface of the black basalt was typical of Ptolemaic statuary.

Ptolemy I Soter I ( ca. 367-282 B.C.) altered the organization of the Egyptian military, law, and government. Under his administration, there were formal inventories of grain, livestock, slaves, and other assets. There were many Greek soldiers who settled in Egypt during his reign-they became the elite of Egypt and Greek became the official language of the elite. Egyptian law was used to govern the masses and Egyptian languages continued to be used by most Egyptians. Ptolemy Soter established the city of Ptolemais Hermiou, a city maintaining Greek culture within Egypt. Although intensely Greek culturally and intellectually, Ptolemy I and his successors in the Ptolemaic Dynasty were depicted as Egyptian kings.

Ptolemy Soter founded the cult of Serapis. Serapis was a combination of two Egyptian gods: Apis and Osiris plus the main Greek gods: Zeus, Hades, Asklepios, Dionysios, and Helios. Serapis had powers over fertility, the sun, corn, funerary rites, and medicine. He was the first god with such sweeping, broad qualities. Serapis's consort was the existing Egyptian deity Isis, the goddess whose qualities encapsulated essential femininity. The center of worship for Serapris was in Alexandria at the so-called Serapeum. It was a religious burial place for the bulls associated with the gods Apis and Mnevis.

The cult of Osiris was particularly popular among the Romans, as was the cult of Isis. The Romans built temples to Isis throughout the Empire. The Isis cult survived the collapse of the Roman Empire and the advent of Christianity. The Egyptians believed Osiris was a manifestation of the dead Pharaoh, and also had to do with the Underworld as well as fertility. Herodotus, who visited and wrote about Egypt in the fifth century B.C., identified Osiris with the Greek god Dionysius.

Bronze figure of Osiris, ca. Third Century B.C.; 7 ½ inches high; private collection, United Kingdom. Here the Ptolemaic Osiris no longer wears the two side feathers, typically on either side of the traditional atef crown. In times past, statues of Osiris were often made of gold.

Jar in the shape of the god Osiris; Egypt, ca. First Century B.C.; bronze and lead; 5 inches high; the depiction of Osiris in the shape of a jar is a stylistic invention of the Ptolemaic period. University of Indiana Museum of Art.

In the time of the Ptolemies, the cult of Serapis included the worship of the new Ptolemaic line of pharaohs. Alexandria supplanted Memphis as the preeminent religious city. The wealthy and connected of Egyptian society seemed to put more stock in magical stela during the Ptolemaic period. These were religious objects produced for private individuals, something uncommon in earlier Egyptian times. Most of the Ptolemaic magical stelae were connected with matters of health. They were commonly of limestone; the Greeks tended to use marble or bronze for private sculpture.

Stela asking for the god Imhotep's intervention so a couple would have a male child; also features of images other gods including Serapis, 34.25 inches high; ca. 43 B.C.; British Museum, London, U.K.

Ivory head of the god Serapis; Eastern Mediterranean; ca. 2nd century A.D., 3 ½ inches high, University of Indiana Museum of Art.

The Ptolemies sometimes archaized, but the most striking change in depiction of figures is the range from idealizing to nearly grotesque realism in portrayal of men. Previously Egyptian depictions tended toward the idealistic but stiff, not with an attempt at likeness. Likeness was still not the goal of art under the Ptolemies. The influence of Greek sculpture under the Ptolemies was shown in its emphasis on the face more than in the past. Smiles suddenly appear. Toward the end of the Ptolemaic period, the headdress sometimes gives way to tousled hair.

Stela of Ptolemy II Philadelphus and Arsinoe II, ca. Third Century B.C.; British Museum, London, U.K.

"Mummy bead" face mask; Torquoise-glazed; 6 3/8 inches high; ca. Third Century B.C.; private collector, Great Britain. During the Ptolemaic period it became common to wrap the mummy in a piece of linen, which was festooned with six pieces of wood with pictures. These pieces of wood covered the main parts of the body. A mask such as this one above would be placed over the face. There were foot coverings as well. As opposed to past Egyptian practice, these burial coverings were bought "off the shelf" from workshops rather than made for an individual.

One significant change in Ptolemaic art is the sudden re-appearance of women, who had been absent since about the Twenty-sixth Dynasty. Some of this must have been due to the importance of women-such as the series of Cleopatras-who acted as co-regents or sometimes occupied the throne by themselves. The women were shown less realistically than men in the Ptolemaic period. Even with the Greek influence on art, the notion of the individual portrait still had not supplanted Egyptian artistic norms during the Ptolemaic Dynasty.

The wife of Ptolemy II, Arsinoe II was often depicted in the form of the Greek goddess Aphrodite, but she wore the crown of lower Egypt, with ram's horns, ostrich feathers, and other traditional Egyptian indicators of royalty and/or deity. She wore the vulture headdress only on the religious portion of a relief.

The traditional table for offerings disappeared from reliefs during the Ptolemaic period. Male gods were no longer portrayed with tails.

Ways of presenting text on columns and reliefs became formal and rigid during the Ptolemaic Dynasty.

Cleopatra VII, the last of the Ptolemaic line, was often depicted with characteristics of the goddess Isis. She often had either a small throne as her headdress or the more traditional sun disk between two horns.

Temple relief of Cleopatra VII and Ptolemy XIII, ca. 52 B.C.; Temple of Hathor, Dendara, Egypt. The relief also shows a procession of priests carrying offerings for the gods.