July 11, 2021

At the Met: Egyptian Relief Sculpture

Relief with a billy goat ca. 2551–2528 B.C. Old Kingdom

I am in awe of ancient Egyptian sculpture. The sensitivity to line and form, and rhythm across a wall, that is sustained across centuries is remarkable. It's hard to imagine a culture that stayed so consistent over this length of time, with small variations in style. The close attention to the volumetric shapes of this goat bring it fully to life, even though the representation is simplified and in low relief. Ah, those elegantly curved horns! 

 Relief fragment showing a pile of offerings and part of an offering list ca. 2010–2000 B.C. or ca. 2000–1981 B.C. Middle Kingdom Egypt

Many of these sculptures were found in chambers in pyramid temples, and were offerings to the king, The bounty shown above was thought to provide for life everlasting. This work doesn't have the realism of the relief of a goat shown above, but the abstracted forms and color are very satisfying. This fragment is a clear illustration of how the medium of relief carving is between fully rounded sculpture and painting.

Relief depicting an offering table and part of an inscription ca. 2010–2000 B.C. or ca. 2000–1981 B.C. Middle Kingdom Egypt

Although the details in this relief are more crudely handled, I love the pile of shapes and the duck's head alongside them, resting on curves An exhibition of Middle Kingdom art at the Met several years ago pushed me to start doing low relief sculpture in clay; I wrote about the show in an earlier blog post. As an artist I feel totally inadequate when comparing my reliefs to those from ancient Egypt; mine seem clunky and inelegant. Oh well, I try my best, and it's good to aspire to these role models.

Relief Fragment Showing Waterfowl in a Clapnet ca. 2020–2000 B.C. Middle Kingdom Egypt

This fragment depicts a stack of ducks in repeated curves. I can see that they are different species from the shapes of their heads and the varying curves of their beaks. I couldn't figure out how they were in a net until I looked at the description of this piece on the Met's website. It pointed out that there was till a faint tracery of paint on the ducks' bodies, indicating the net; you can see this if you click on the image to enlarge it. 

5 Lintel of Amenemhat I and Deities ca. 1981–1952 B.C. Middle Kingdom Egypt

Relief block from a building of Amenemhat I ca. 1981–1952 B.C. Middle Kingdom Egypt, with god Horus

The two reliefs above are from the same building, the king's mortuary temple. The artists who carved these reliefs––all the reliefs shown in this post are carved from limestone blocks––were very skilled. The hieroglyphs at the top are especially beautiful in their simplification of objects, which turns them into language. I find that lintel so very beautiful; I want to run my hand along the edges of the forms, to feel their subtle distinctions.

 Reliefs from the North Wall of a Chapel of Ramesses I ca. 1295–1294 B.C. New Kingdom Egypt

This more recent relief made during the New Kingdom is more crowded with activity than earlier works. There are piles of provisions atop piles of provisions, and below, many workers preparing food or libations. The sculpted forms are more rounded than those in the Middle or Old Kingdoms, which increases the feeling of a bustling, overstuffed storehouse. Rhythms are varied and I see a rich visual polyphony.

Relief plaque with a swallow, and with Face of an Owl 400–30 B.C. Late Period–Ptolemaic Period

There's a heightened sense of realism in these two small plaques, made much later than the works above. At this time Egyptian art was influenced by that of Greece; Alexander the Great had conquered Egypt in 332 B.C. An article on the Met's website explains the history and artistic interchanges of this period. I see the Egyptian style in the basic simplification of form, and the carefully observed details; the relief is higher, as is common with Greek sculptural reliefs. The owl is a marvel, a compelling portrait of an inscrutable bird. I know I just wrote that these works are more realistic than what came before, but paradoxically, they are also wonderfully stylized: the artists managed to portray creatures that are both real and ideal, perfect of their kind. It is so interesting to think about this delicate shifting balance between naturalistic representation and abstraction that is evidenced across the centuries in Egyptian art. 


  1. Thanks for reminding me of the pleasures of looking at Egyptian relief sculpture, discovered many years ago at the Met as an art student. It was such a revelation then, and still is now. Once used an elegant image of a hand as a reference to make a small embroidery for the cover of a handmade book.

    1. Thanks so much for your comment. By the way, you can type your name in the comment if you'd like so I know who wrote it.

  2. Altoon, I remember the remarkable Will Barnet telling me about his having been moved and inspired by Egyptian artists, as they convey such nuance so well within simplified forms. These low reliefs also have us wanting to touch them. Timeless. Wonderful post.

  3. Wonderful, Altoon. So great to see this work.

  4. Thank you for bringing them to life for us. They are brilliant and fascinating. They also touch me a bit with dread. I think that's why when I visit the Met, my favorite museum anywhere in the world, I rush through. For everyday life I have to imagine hard, as Thomas Mann did in his "Joseph" novel. Nevertheless, your blog is a regular inspiration and I love it.

  5. Altoon, you encapsulated it so well in your comment that this art is a "delicate, shifting balance between natural representation and abstraction..." This added to my appreciation of the magic of these pieces.