The most important and most widespread artistic medium used by the ancient Egyptians was sculpture in relief. It came into being at the dawn of historical time, toward the end of the fourth millennium BCE, at the same time as writing in its earliest form. Actual relief sculpture, as the Egyptians understood it, served for the decoration of the walls of monumental stone structures. Its use was restricted to sacred buildings, since only temples and tombs were built of stone, while the residences and palaces were built of mud brick. Egyptian relief sculpture has a distinctive appearance, found only in the Nile Valley and nowhere else in the ancient world. It is uncommonly flat—the depth of a relief rarely exceeds a few millimeters—and it is usually colorfully painted. Invariably, Egyptian relief sculpture consists of an image and an inscription. It covers the whole wall, with the exception of a small area at the base, and not only individual architectural features or sections of the wall. Buildings began to be decorated with relief sculptures in the fourth dynasty, and through time these reliefs took over all the walls of a room and all the rooms of a building, inside and outside, including the door frames, columns, architraves, and ceilings. In the temples, only reliefs are found and, although reliefs are very frequently found in tombs, sometimes there are wall paintings instead of reliefs. From the beginning of the Old Kingdom, sacred architecture was inconceivable without reliefs. Over the course of Egyptian history, there came to be such a number of reliefs that if they were stood side by side they would extend for many kilometers/miles. Reliefs constitute a compendium of the Egyptian religion, but reading it presupposes the knowledge of the Egyptian theologians, and these reliefs are therefore difficult for us to interpret today.

The kings' tombs and temples were residences of the gods, in which the deceased king dwelled as a god along with all the other divinities. The message of the relief and its inscriptions are primarily directed to the owner; they were not a medium of communication with the general population. The building inscription of Edfu says that priests and scholars should come to look at the temple and to admire the accomplishment of the king. As to the direct function of the relief, Egyptologists are not certain. What is clear, however, is that the reliefs make a political-theological statement about the king as the leader of the world. The reliefs show that it is the king, not the gods, who holds the main role: he conquers enemies, performs every conceivable ritual and symbolic act, celebrates festivals, and acts as a priest. In all this, the gods lovingly support the king. It is impossible to separate politics and theology in ancient Egypt, because the ruler is at the same time a god. Many scenes describe rituals that were performed in the temple. Many reflect a highly developed theological understanding about the events that are being played out in a higher sphere between the gods and the king—events that serve to keep the world in existence. The reliefs clearly confirm the consensus of the upper class as to the role of the king as the preserver of creation. Overall, the buildings are a demonstration of the power and greatness of the ruler.

The tombs of nonroyal individuals are their residences for the afterlife. The rooms above ground, where the reliefs and autobiographical texts are found, were accessible to relatives and visitors. The pictures focus especially on the work of the lower class, which is initiated and controlled by the owner of the tomb, including the production of foodstuffs and other goods and the reproduction of the cattle. The tomb is intended to make the name of its owner live on and to perpetuate his beneficial activity.

The earliest reliefs appear on large votive offerings set up in the temples, such as cosmetic palettes and maceheads of “Dynasty 0” (about 3100 BCE). In the Early Dynastic period, the first stelae appear. These are personal memorials that belong to the tombs, and later, in increasing numbers, also to the temples. They are the most important supports for reliefs, besides the walls of buildings. From the third dynasty, the walls of royal pyramid complexes, temples of the gods, and tombs of officials began to be covered with relief sculptures. From around this same time have been found reliefs on stone cliffs, like those seen in the mines and quarries on the Sinai Peninsula, in the Eastern Desert, and in Nubia. They represent the rule of Egypt even at the edge of the civilized world. Large stone pieces of furniture in the temples, such as altars, shrines, obelisks, and pyramidia may be adorned with relief sculptures, and in the tombs the sarcophagi are also thus decorated. The statues carry reliefs on the pedestal and the rear support; beginning in the eleventh century BCE, representations are even chiseled into the figure itself. Small luxury household items, such as boxes, containers, and furniture, may have relief carvings in wood, faience, or metal.

Great effort was required to produce a wall relief. A relief sculpture always requires teamwork, in which at least three specialized craftsmen take part. First, one artist, using a fine brush and ink, draws the preliminary sketch onto a wall. Then the sculptor goes to work, chiseling out the depictions and inscriptions. Finally, the painter paints the picture as thoroughly as though it were a wall painting. Today, however, the color has been preserved on only a very few examples. Relief sculpture was done using two different techniques. One kind is raised relief, in which the figures are raised and stand out several millimeters from the background. The other kind is sunk relief, used on the outside walls of buildings. Here the outline of the figures is sunk several millimeters into the background. When the light strikes the image, bold shadows appear in the areas that have been hollowed out. Little information has come down to us about the work sites. The most important sites were always located where the king resided, because he was the one who commissioned work on the temples and the royal tomb complex. And where the king lived, there the highest officials also lived, and it was they who commissioned work on their tombs. Relief sculpture, which requires significant resources to be produced, is an art form typically associated with kingly courts, and a decrease in quality can often been detected in the provinces and when those who commissioned the work had less wealth.

Few of the names of the artists who worked in relief sculpture have come down to us, and there were very rarely any individual stylistic features. This would have required a highly developed notion of individuality, a view that emerged for the first time with the ancient Greeks. Instead, Egyptian sculpture is characterized by a strong attachment to tradition. The rules of the art were developed at the beginning of the historical period and were handed down in the workshops to each new generation as a precious heritage. Therefore, between the first dynasty and the Roman period, there was only a gradual, barely perceptible change in style. The initiative for innovation belonged completely to the king. Thus it happened that under each new king, a variation in style was developed. Differences in style between reliefs from the same period tend to be connected to the nature of the commission given to the workshop. In other words, the work proceeded differently according to the function of the building, the size of the relief sculpture, or the kind of stone that was used. Only rarely can a particular style be attributed to a specific place.

Already with the appearance of the first relief sculptures in Dynasty “0,” the conventions for representation have largely been set. The relief sculpture is practically two-dimensional and does not reflect knowledge of perspective. The human form, as well as those of animals, plants, and objects, is represented according to fixed rules, which were to change only insignificantly over three millennia. Equally regulated is the manner in which several figures are placed together in a joint action or scene and how a wall is subdivided. What we see here is a unique product of the Egyptian mind and one of the most striking visual features of this culture. In the beginning, the proportions of the figures are still unsure, but by the third dynasty the system is fully developed. If we look at a standing figure of a king, a god, or the owner of a tomb (of which there are thousands from all periods), we see that the figure is a silhouette cut with minimal depth, while extremely fine layering within a few millimeters gives it its modeling. The body is very slender, but proportioned naturally. The angles of vision from which the individual parts of the body are viewed vary greatly. The head is viewed from the side, but the eye is viewed from the front, and the trunk from the armpits downward is viewed somewhat from the side, as are the arms and legs. However, the observer does not realize that the parts of the body are contradictory in their positions, because the body is represented as practically flat and mostly without the contours of bones and muscles.

The structure of the figure makes it clear that the Egyptian artists had a relationship to reality, that is to say, to space and time, completely different from that of European artists from classical antiquity onward. The body is not developed in space and assumes no depth; rather, all its parts lie equally parallel to the surface. As a result of this two-dimensional composition, the contour lines result in geometric figures. The upper body forms a triangle, and the same is true for the legs and the pelvis. Thus, the body is structured according to two contradictory principles: it combines the natural proportions with a symmetrical double triangle. This combination is what conveys the “typically Egyptian” impression.

The figures are placed together in groups of several people who are doing something together. Frequently, the figures are all standing on one horizontal line. Since there is no third dimension of depth, the figures can be arranged only from left to right, or vice versa. Two means are used to place the figures into relation to one another: overlapping and symmetry. In many cases, the figures overlap so much that they form a narrow ladder shape. There are two main kinds of symmetry encountered: translational symmetry, in which one figure or one motif is repeated several times while it is shifted sideways, and axial symmetry, in which a group of figures or a motif consists of two halves that are mirror images of each other. Often both kinds of symmetry are combined. The illusion of movement is created through the arrangement of the figures or their extremities in a diagonal direction, and even parallel to one another. The composition of the group is ornamental in character. What is characteristic is a beautiful harmony of the lines, a masterfully crafted consonance of regular forms—a harmony that flows from the symmetry.

Relief Sculpture

Relief Sculpture. Eighteenth dynasty relief of Thutmose IV from his Festival Hall at Karnak. (Courtesy Donald B. Redford)

A wall is usually subdivided into several sections that are separated by horizontal lines. This order is repeatedly interrupted, however, because gods, kings, and the owners of the tomb are represented as far larger than ordinary people and bring together several series of small scenes. Scenes that are particularly important are repeated twice in mirrorlike fashion, and very frequently alongside a door.

The relief sculpture, since it is little more than two-dimensional, portrays “space and time” reality only to a very limited extent. The geometry and symmetry operating here make visible an unchanging world that transcends time. The Egyptians were little interested in ephemeral events; they focused instead on the fixed patterns of behavior, a harmonic order. The system of representation proves this: Little development takes place, but people are certain that the world, as it is, is in order and will always remain so.

As for the development of style between the Old Kingdom and the eighteenth dynasty it is primarily the proportions of the figures that change. However, significant change in style is characteristic of the Amarna period. Everything is overtaken by a great dynamism. Only presentday actions of the king and of the owners of the tombs are portrayed, which take place at specific places such as the temples and palaces of the city of Tell el-Amarna. In the twenty-sixth dynasty, an amazing phenomenon of historicism appears: in the tombs of rich, educated officials there are relief sculptures in the styles of several earlier periods. From the thirtieth dynasty into the Roman period we find a mixed Hellenistic-Egyptian style. A final real change in style can be observed in the temples of the Ptolemaic period. The relief is somewhat higher and the figures present somewhat more corporeality, since they are more roundly modeled. The free space around the figures is filled with intricately detailed decoration. Very typical is the arrangement of the scenes on the walls into a uniform system of rectangles, which produces a stiff and lifeless effect.

In the early Old Kingdom, under King Sneferu, about 2,500 BCE, for the first time there appear a series of continuous relief sculpture scenes on the walls in the royal pyramid complex. The decoration concept, which was to remain in effect from then on, is already very much present: the base area of the wall contains a series of Nile gods, which represent the fruitfulness of the earth watered by the Nile. On the strips of depictions above this is a series of scenes, each showing the king performing a ritual act, either alone or with a god. The king may be standing beside a symbolic object, or he may be running a course while holding symbolic objects in his hands. He is raising a mace in order to slay an enemy lying on the ground, or he is standing in a boat in the papyrus marsh, hunting birds. Often he is standing beside a divinity who is embracing and kissing him. Or he may be simply standing, facing the divinity, and both hold a scepter; or the two of them are performing the ritual for the founding of a temple, driving rods into the ground. Above the king there often hovers a falcon or a vulture, both protective powers with which he is allied. On the top, the wall is finished off with a narrow band covered with stars that represents the heavens. The king is wearing a short apron—which appears in several variants, from the belt of which there always hangs the tail of an animal—and several types of crowns. When he is draped in a short or long mantle, it means he is celebrating the jubilee of his coronation.

Concerning scenes that first appear in the fifth dynasty, a few should be mentioned that show what the gods do for the king: a goddess is standing and nursing the king, who is depicted as a large child. In one large scene depicting homage being given, the king is seated on a throne between two gods who bestow life on him, while long rows of gods and courtiers hail him. Elsewhere the ruler appears in the shape of a sphinx who tramples his enemies. The divinities are depicted as men and women and often bear a crownlike symbol on their heads. Some gods have the head of an animal or a body shaped as a mummy. The manner in which the gods and the king behave with one another shows that the king is fully integrated into his divine family. Moreover, the king is also depicted so often that it will be clear that he is the most important and most active partner. The characteristics of the king and the divinities mentioned above—elements of clothing, insignia, heads of animals, and crowns—may occur in many different combinations and form a complex system of symbols which tells something about the character, rank, and function of the wearer in a specific context. Egyptology is still far from having completely deciphered this system.

From the Middle Kingdom onward there was an increase in depictions of sacrificial scenes in which the king offers the divinity a gift; in such representations the king is shown in the role of priest. From the New Kingdom onward, rituals such as the daily care of the cult image were thoroughly depicted as a sequence of many scenes. In addition, there were processions, festivals, and mythical events. Finally, even historical events came to be shown, particularly wars that Pharaoh had won. The scenes of conquests and battles demonstrate the power of the divine king to annihilate all the enemies of Egypt, and so these depictions form a magical wall of protection around the temple. What is striking about the Ptolemaic period is that the temples are consecrated to a divine mother or father whose child brings about the salvation of the world; his birth is the most important feast of the year. Beginning in the New Kingdom, the ceiling of the temple is decorated as the heavens, with flying birds and constellations. The temple with its relief sculptures is an image of the world and of everything done by the king and other divinities in order to keep the world alive and periodically to renew it.

The earliest scene that appears in tombs of nonroyal individuals shows the owner of the tomb, whether man or woman, sitting at a table laden with food. Through all periods this scene remained the most important one because of the Egyptians' belief that the body was necessary for life in the next world and that it must be nourished. To this nucleus, beginning in the fourth dynasty, are added large standing figures of the owner of the tomb and his family. Later there are also depictions of men and women bringing foodstuffs, piles of food, and offering lists. During the fourth and fifth dynasties there developed a basic set of scenes depicting the reproduction of plants and animals and the production of goods for daily consumption. The scenes are always dominated by a large figure of the tomb owner, standing or sitting, who watches over the various labors, depicted on several small strips that are densely packed with figures. For these kinds of work in farming, animal husbandry, fishing and birdcatching, crafts, and transportation, a fixed repertory of formulations was developed from which several could be chosen and combined in new ways. The only scenes in which the tomb owner himself appears as active are those of the hunt in the papyrus marsh or in the desert. Their great importance is emphasized in the way they are presented as very large and often in axial symmetrical repetition. The fourth important complex was the burial ritual, which can consist of many scenes. In the Old and Middle Kingdoms, divinities, kings, or religious scenes are practically never depicted in the tombs of officials.

In the New Kingdom, important changes were introduced in the themes. Now the king is frequently depicted, in particular as the tomb owner liked to show how he was rewarded by the king for his merits. The religious scenes that describe the afterlife become more and more common and finally displace all other scenes. Occasionally there are scenes that otherwise are found only in temples, such as the coronation jubilee of the king, or the king making sacrifice to a god. In the necropolis of Thebes, more than half of the tombs are painted. In many cases these are smaller tombs that belonged to less wealthy people. In this period, however, painting is artistically more innovative and alive than the severe relief sculpture.

During the first millennium BCE it was common for artists to study historical monuments in order to copy scenes from all sources: the mythological scenes from the afterlife were taken from the tombs of kings; from the nonroyal tombs came the scenes of daily life, the funeral ritual, and interaction with the gods of the dead. The latest relief sculptures are found in Roman Alexandria in catacomb tombs, where the king is shown offering a sacrifice before a divinity, a depiction that traditionally was customary only in temples. In this scene the deceased himself can be the god in his appearance as Osiris.

The Egyptians felt a strong need to express their religion in images and to clarify these images through inscriptions. In the center there stands the king in his capacity as a god who, along with the other gods, keeps the world going, and in addition there were depictions of the afterlife of the ruler as well as of the members of the upper class who were related to him. Flat relief sculpture was the perfect means for making visible and perpetuating the activities of the king and of the gods.

Egyptian images are always composed of both figures and writing, while the hieroglyphs themselves are also small pictures that are integrated into the large picture. Only drawing and word together could make a valid statement. The relief sculptures of temples and tombs do not tell stories, and thus they are fundamentally different from what we are accustomed to in later cultures, particularly Christian culture in the West. Egyptian relief sculpture instead records symbolic actions from the life of the king, the gods, and the members of the upper class, and also scenes of work from the life of farmers, craftsmen, priests, scribes, servants, and soldiers. It is always a fictitious world that is presented to us: the gods speak in loving relationship with the king, all enemies collapse and die, all people are equally young and beautiful, the harvests are abundant, the herds of cattle are without number, and all predatory animals are slain. However, the fictitious world becomes reality through the fact that the figures and inscriptions are hewn into the stone wall. The Egyptians attributed to the images and the written words the power to bring into being the things they described. The temples and tombs with their relief sculptures that cover the walls, their cults, and their sacrifices all had an effect on life by regenerating it. Therefore the images and words had to be held fast in stone, which would never cease to exist.



  • Aldred, Cyril. Egyptian Art in the Days of the Pharaohs, 3100–320 BC. London, 1980. History of Egyptian art from the first to thirtieth dynasty; bibliography, index, and glossary.
  • Eaton-Krauss, Marianne. Ancient Egyptian Art. Oxford, 1999. Complete history of Egyptian art, including relief; emphasizes precise analysis of development of style and the meaning of the representations.
  • Freed, Rita. “Relief Styles of the Nebhepetre Montuhotep Funerary Temple Complex.” In Chief of Seers. Egyptian Studies in Memory of Cyril Aldred, edited by Elizabeth Goring et al. London and New York, 1997. Thorough study of the innovative early eleventh dynasty, which was decisive for the development of Middle Kingdom relief sculpture.
  • Lauer, Jean-Philippe. Saqqara, the Royal Cemetery of Memphis Excavations and Discoveries since 1850. London, 1978. Brief description of the most important tombs of kings and high officials, mainly from the Old Kingdom.
  • Leclant, Jean. Recherches sur les monuments thébains de la XXVe dynastie dite éthiopienne. Bibliothèque d'Étude, 36. Cairo, 1965. Inventory of buildings of the twenty-fifth dynasty and their relief sculptures, with study of the iconography of gods, kings, and divine consorts.
  • Martin, Geoffrey T. The Hidden Tombs of Memphis: New Discoveries from the Time of Tutankhamun and Ramesses the Great. London, 1991. Introduces a group of marvelously decorated tombs from the end of the eighteenth dynasty, discovered in Saqqara from 1975 onward and of great significance for Egyptian art.
  • Robins, Gay. The Art of Ancient Egypt. London, 1997. A general art history, with particular attention to the function and context of ancient artworks, and explanation of working techniques.
  • Robins, Gay. Egyptian Painting and Relief. Shire Egyptology, 3. Princes Risborough, 1986. Brief explanation of the principles of representation, including the squared grid system used to obtain proportions of major human figures.
  • Smith, William Stevenson. The Art and Architecture of Ancient Egypt. 2d edn., revised by W. K. Simpson. Harmondsworth, 1981. Art history from the late prehistoric period to end of the dynastic period; considers style and the meaning of representations, and discusses some unusual motifs.
  • Vandier, Jacques. Manuel d'archéologie égyptienne. 6 vols. Paris, 1952–1978. The only handbook with a general iconography of nonroyal tomb art, including scenes of daily life; one chapter covers the technique of relief sculpture and its conventions.
  • Vergnieux, Robert. Recherches sur les monuments thébains d'Amenhotep IV à l'aide d'outils informatiques Methodes et resultats. Geneva, 1999. New reconstruction of scenes from the temples of Akhenaten in Karnak, before he founded Tell el-Amarna; very well illustrated.

Maya Müller; Translated from German by Robert E. Shillenn