Much of Egyptian art centers around funerary traditions and the afterlife. It was their belief that an individual’s soul, or ka, lived on eternally in the afterlife, and would be rewarded or punished depending upon how well they lived on Earth. Their works, therefore, are orderly and balanced, and were created to last for an eternity.


We see this theme in nearly every depiction of the royal family. It was the responsibility of the pharaoh to impose order upon the chaos of nature and the people they ruled. Pharaohs are therefore depicted with strong and rigid physiques, and are composed of materials that were able to withstand the elements. In Old Kingdom works, their calm, proud expressions mirror their duty of creating balance and order (ma’at). Middle Kingdom pharaohs are often depicted with troubled, worrisome looks—however, this may allude to the gravity of their responsibilities.


Because of the eternal nature of Egyptian art, themes do not change significantly from century to century. However, it should be noted that depictions of the New Kingdom pharaoh, Akhenaten, break with tradition, and are often produced with an air of whimsy and even, as some scholars have noted, femininity. Note also that while members of the royal family and aristocracy are depicted in stiff and rigid poses, members of the lower classes are often seen in more natural poses.


These same themes themes of permanence and instilling order upon nature are reflected in the funerary structures of the great pharaohs as well—from the Great Pyramids of the Old Kingdom to the rock cut tombs of Hatshepsut and Ramesses in the Middle and New Kingdoms.