Artist profile: Ancient Egypt – iconography

Every month, I profile an artist that inspires my own art, in several segments.

I could list the typical symbols in the Ancient Egyptian visual lexicon: the lotus represents rebirth, cows represent fertility, black represents fertility, green represents rebirth – let’s be honest, pretty much everything represents fertility and/or rebirth.

I could make a long list of symbols. Instead, I’m going to talk about a book I bought a while ago that goes beyond all that to bring a whole new level of interpretation to Ancient Egyptian art.

It’s called Reading Egyptian Art: A Hieroglyphic Guide to Ancient Egyptian Painting and Sculpture by Richard H. Wilkinson. I recommend it to anyone interested in a new way to look at the art of Ancient Egypt – check it out from the library, buy it, borrow it.

What Wilkinson does is draw attention to iconography: namely, the presence of visual identifying cues that identify people, events, and context. I’ll give three examples to show you how cool this is. (The hieroglyphics/signs are numbered according to Gardiner’s sign list.)

sign A30: adore
sign A30: Adore

Nefertari (1298-1235 BCE)
wall painting of Nefertari (1298-1235 BCE)

Here’s Nefertari, being all gorgeous and decked out in her finest queenly regalia. But she does more than be pretty – she tells us what she’s doing, because her entire body is the “adore” sign. The wall painting is in her tomb, in which she adores/worships the gods as she meets them in the afterlife.




sign 28: rejoice
sign A28: Rejoice

Weighing the soul - he passed!
Hot damn! I passed!

This is a dude who just found out great news – his soul was weighed and he passed the test with flying colors. He’s going to the sweet, sweet afterlife.


sign s34: ankh (life)
sign S34: the Ankh – Life

Hathor giving Thutmose IV the breath of life
An ankh a day keeps the... oh wait.

Lastly, here is the goddess Hathor feeding pharaoh Thutmose IV an ankh, which is the most widely-recognized symbol of life. The image is from his tomb in the Valley of Kings, and so most likely represents rebirth (receiving the breath of life) after death.


Maybe it’s just me, but this is mind-blowing. It adds such a wonderful new layer of meaning to everything!

Other parts in the Ancient Egyptian artist profile series
Visit to the Cleveland Museum of Art
Breaking the Standard (the Amarna Period)



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