Durability was a key characteristic of Egyptian sculpture. Placed in temples and tombs, the statues of gods, kings, and individuals were intended as sites where the divine or human essence could reside in perpetuity and receive cult and offerings. Sculpture therefore played an important intermediary role between the worlds of the human and the divine and those of the living and the dead. The use of hard stones, the sturdy forms of most stone statuary, and the dry climate, which benefits the preservation of wooden statuary, have contributed to the remarkable survival of sculpture in a variety of media. The general appearance of Egyptian sculpture endured as well. Because statues and reliefs were closely tied to religious beliefs and rituals, established forms continued over millennia and through periods of foreign rule. Conscious revivals of older styles followed times of unrest (including the “intermediate periods” after the Old, Middle, and New Kingdoms). The effective formal solutions and high-quality carving of Egyptian sculpture inspired sculptors in neighboring regions, especially in sixth-century BCE Greece. Through its impact on Greek art, Egyptian sculpture helped lay the foundations for art in the Western tradition.
This gallery comprises sculptures, paintings, and textiles from four millennia, from the Old Kingdom (c. 2649–2100 BCE) to the advent of Islam. Objects of the Ptolemaic period (323–30 BCE) demonstrate the strength of local artistic traditions, which existed alongside Greek art forms introduced by the new rulers of Macedonian origin. For the following Roman period, mummy portraits indicate both continuity and change in their combination of Egyptian funerary rites with portraiture in Greco-Roman style. The exceptional preservation of the paintings—and of traces of paint on sculpture—is owed again to the Egyptian climate, as is the survival of textiles. Fragmentary clothing and hangings provide glimpses of everyday life in late Roman and early Byzantine Egypt.