Athena Review, Vol.5, no. 1

Museum Reviews: Egypt

Paintings of the Tomb-Chapel of Nebamun

An exhibit at the British Museum, London, UK
Reviewed by Murray Eiland

     Painting can be a difficult to understand art form. The modern world has used technology to project images into just about every sphere of life.  From video in various forms through cartoons and symbols, we are awash in images.  This necessitates rapid analysis and discrimination.  Children from an early age are directed - perhaps by necessity - to appreciate images intellectually.  They are largely interpreted as things of practical interest.  For example, in the popular media images convey current events.  Interpretation requires reading the image or images like a text.  Visiting an art gallery gives respite to this trend, as beauty can be appreciated. Many people can be persuaded to take time out of their schedules to appreciate painting, particularly from well known artists.  However, these artists draw upon the collective cultural knowledge of the audience and present, on one level or another, comprehensible images. 

     The reviewer has been several times to room 61 of the British Museum and examined the paintings there.  These are ancient Egyptian paintings ascribed to the tomb of Nebamun. It is one of the most quiet rooms in the museum.  Many visitors just walk through.  Those that linger seem to do so for a long time.  There is much supporting material to read. The syntax and vocabulary of ancient Egyptian painting is complicated.  To an observer used to paintings of the European Renaissance the images may appear strange. There is no interplay of light and shade.  They have a limited palette, and very little mixing of color.  Depictions of the human form are schematized. As a rule the shoulders are shown square, and the hips turned to the side. The head, legs and arms  are in profile, and the chest and eye shown flat. Some observers may suggest the ancient paintings are “crude” without realising the date these images were painted, much less considering the artistic cannon they followed.  However, in so many ways these images are remarkable.

     The hunting scene, with Nebamun’s wife to the right and his little daughter grasping his legs, has been reproduced in many general art history books as a prime example of ancient Egyptian painting.  It almost certainly does not record an actual event, as it is unlikely that hunting in the marshes was a family activity, but it does convey much about the society of the time.  Family was important, but also clearly hunting was a male activity. A related scene, now lost, apparently showed Nebamun spearing fish with his young son. As something of an aside the Pharaoh and priests were said not to eat fish because of their association with the god Set.  According to ancient texts, fish ate the phallus of Osirus after he was killed, chopped to pieces, and thrown in the river by his brother Set. In various parts of Egypt there were various species of fish that were regarded as acceptable to eat.  No one can be sure what was intended by the hunting scene.  Were Nebamun and his family going to eat what they killed?   Perhaps like big game hunters in the past, there was no intention of using the meat.  It is interesting here that both compositions are active. Hunting is depicted rather than netting.  It shows ideal activities of the elite.  Some question arises regarding the cat (an African wild cat Felis silvestris libyca).  Is it a pet or an opportunist? 

     Pliny  the Elder in his Natural History (AD 77-79) notes in chapter 5 of Book XXXV that the Egyptians claimed that it was they who invented painting some six thousand years before it was passed on to the Greeks. While today it is understood that there are cave paintings in Europe that date to about 32,000 years ago, it cannot be doubted that Egypt was a great center for painting in antiquity. The first issue to address regarding paintings from ancient Egyptian tombs is their setting. Their function was not to depict an accurate - or even flattering - “snapshot.”   Rather, the goal was to draw an idealised scene from memory. The occupant is usually depicted in the prime of life, with no physical defects.  There was no effort to make the painting into an accurate likeness of the human body. This is in contrast to ancient Greek art, but it must be remembered that these developments lay far in the future. In contrast, the natural world could be depicted as it appeared.  Considerable detail could be lavished upon animals so that it is possible to identify different species. On the other extreme background foliage could be painted in a variety of colors.  The human body for ancient Egyptians was portrayed according to strict rules.  While the bodies could be in a stiff pose, the faces usually are serene.  While the facial expression would not convey emotion, the scene as a whole must be read, paying particular attention to gestures.  Perspective was not attempted, and colors were more or less flat, at least compared to the shading and shadows so often seen on Renaissance paintings from Europe. 

     This discussion of technique leads to a natural question, the status of painters in ancient Egypt.  European painters of the Renaissance are known by name.  They could charge high fees for art produced for the elite.  While evidence from Egypt is sparse, there is no reason to suggest that painting was viewed as of little importance.   Evidence from unfinished tombs, as well as scientific studies of the sequence of pigment application, suggests that teams of artists worked on tombs.  One artist may complete the broad outlines, while another could apply the finishing touches.  In other instances, such as the famous hunting scene of Nebamun, it appears that two people may have worked side by side. Proponents of the “artistic” theory suggest that many masters of the European Renaissance had studios with students who may have had their paintings finished by the master who signed the work.  Adherents to the “painters as workers” theory suggest that much of the stiffness of ancient Egyptian painting could be due to the use of teams of workers who were simply assigned a task with a deadline. They were not allowed creative freedom. While the debate about the status of painters will continue, one thing is certain. Ancient Egyptian painters no matter how skilled followed strict rules regarding how they could depict their subject matter.  This is likely due to the conservative tendencies of religious art.  The society of the European Renaissance had a very different set of virtues.  The lack of a signature in itself does not suggest that artists were held in low esteem.  Clearly there was a way for the “best” artists to be selected in ancient Egypt. One may assume that skilful teams, if not individuals, were known at some level. 

     Ancient Egypt was concerned with monuments for eternity.  Architecture occupied pride of place, and painting was likely seen as an adjunct to monuments in stone.  The way artists were organised was also distinctive.  They were likely grouped either in royal or temple administered workshops.  Classical Greece, on the other hand, had a fully monetised economy.  Artists  were able to pursue their own commissions and be paid according to their merit. One cannot be certain if Nebamun requested particular painters for his tomb chapel, but there is no doubt that his family was well connected.  From inscriptions  he was said to be “scribe and accountant in the granary of divine offerings.”   It appears that he lived in the final years of Amenhotep III (1390-1352 BC) or the early years of his successor Amenhotep IV or  Ankhenaten (1353-1336 BC). The hieroglyph for the god Amun appears in the name Nebamun.  The tomb was likely completed before Ankenaten’s unsuccessful attempt to replace the Egyptian pantheon with the worship of one god, Aten. It was clearly open during the time of Ankenaten and his religious reforms, as Amun has been hacked out and replaced in a clumsy way sometime later. No one can be sure how long it remained open, but what survives today is unusually vibrant.   

     Sadly for archaeology, the paintings from the Tomb chapel of Nebamun were recovered from a time before systematic archaeology. They were acquired from Thebes in 1820, and made their way to England and eventually the British Museum shortly thereafter. Records were not kept regarding the location of the tomb.  It is likely that the excavators – who would be labelled as looters today – wanted to keep the find spot secret. Because of the date of the paintings, as well as scientific studies that examined the wall that the paintings are affixed, it is likely that they came from the northern part of the necropolis of Dra Abu el-Naga.  This area has been further destroyed by modern habitation, if indeed the tomb structure survived removal of the paintings.  Only some of the paintings were removed. Those that were of a style that could not find buyers, such as what were likely stiff portraits of Nebamun himself, were not retained.  Although some ancient Egyptian painting could be executed directly on stone, the tomb of Nebamun was situated in an area of weak limestone.  The tomb chapel was roughly cut out of the surrounding rock and the inside was lined with mud plaster. This is delicate material and it started to deteriorate shortly after it arrived in the very different climate of England. A variety of different treatments were used to conserve them over time, but in 1988 they were subjected to a long period of conservation and study.  Old plaster mountings were removed using dental equipment. Painted surfaces were consolidated using an acrylic emulsion.

     The original painted surfaces, while they are relatively light resistant, aew susceptible to damp.  Ancient Egyptian painters used a small range of coloring agents.  These included lamp black, calcium sulphate (white) and huntite (white).  Clay tinted with mineral oxides - red and yellow ochres were also used. Two synthetic materials called frit, ceramic that was quenched to form glass, yielding blue and green were also used. While it is difficult to appreciate from photographs, colors in the paintings from the tomb of Nebamun could be mixed.  Different tones were obtained by mixing with huntite (white). A range of reds, yellows and oranges and browns can be made from mixing red and yellow ochres with black and white.  Some pigments for foliage, which have been lost over time, could have been made from mixing green and blue frit.  Beeswax was also likely used to enrich the colors. 

     What may at first appear to be flaking paint is in fact an effect that was designed to imitate the effect of skin seen through a diaphanous linen cloth. This effect was gained by painting first in red, and then allowing the paint to dry.  Next a layer of white huntite was applied, but while it was still wet, most was brushed off.  What may at first appear to be degredation due to age, or perhaps the correction of an error, was instead an intentional technique. The materials and methods used in ancient Egyptian painting imposed limitations upon the artists.  In Europe, until the beginning of the 16th century, painters used tempera, pigments mixed with egg yolk, with a gesso (chalk and gum) primed surface. The pigment dried quickly, so mixing colors was essentially impossible.  Gradations of tone and color were only possible using fine streaks of paint and cross-hatchings.  First used over tempera as a semi-transparent wash, oil paints came of age by the middle of the seventeenth century.  Direct brush strokes and subtle changes of color and texture as in Rembrandt or Van Gogh are possible using oil paints.  Similar techniques are not possible using tempera, much less the materials and techniques available to the ancient Egyptians.

     Ancient Egyptian painting presents many problems for a modern viewer. On one level a painting is no more than a representation of shapes, lines, tones, colors and textures. On another level is meaning.  Many artists of relatively recent times, such as Matisse and Kandinsky, painted flat images which were based on patterns and bright colors.  However abstract they are, they are easier for most people to understand than images from a long deceased culture. Yet today there is a close parallel to ancient Egyptian painting. Icons in Christian worship have a very long history. By the early 5th century at the latest there were private icons of saints.  This tradition continues to the present day, as various Christian groups continue to make images in this distinctive style. While the “Romans” did not object to statuary, the “Greeks” or Eastern churches maintained prohibitions against three dimensional religious art.  Honor is directed towards the person depicted, not the icon itself.  In icons from the east and early Medieval west, there was little scope for individualism.  Both icon painting and ancient Egyptian paining were primarily designed to tell stories.  They rely upon symbols which the viewer understands to one degree or another.  The artist must therefore keep true to the received artistic cannon, and only depart in details from a standard. 

     In the case of both ancient Egyptian art and icons, a viewer must be familiar with the history of the art.  The paintings must not be seen as a modern image, that conveys information, but rather read like a document from a distant age.  With a greater amount of experience, some assessment of the aesthetic qualities of the painting may also be obtained.  With the recent publication of two important books on the subject there is hope that  Nebamun’s tomb paintings will reach a wide audience. Room 61 at the British museum can then be appreciated not only by archaeologists, but also by those with a wider interest in painting.  Such masterpieces of ancient Egyptian painting deserve to be appreciated as fine art and not just archaeological curiosities.


Fig.1: A young Nebamun is hunting with a throwing stick. His wife nis behind him holding flowers in one hand and a metal sistrum and a collar and counterpoise in the other (for making music).  His daughter, grasping lotus flowers, is between his legs.  In contrast to the human figures, which are drawn according to a long established cannon, the natural world, such as the cat, birds and fish, are drawn with great attention to detail.  The composition here shows an interplay between the figures. Nebamun is hunting, his wife is by his side, and his daughter looks behind her, apparently at her mother  (after Parkinson 2008, fig.1)

Fig. 2:  The small valley of Dra Abu el-Naga contains many tomb-chapels, but no one is sure which one housed the paintings. While the ancient site has impinged by modern development, the area around the main hill has been excavated by the Egyptian-Spanish mission (after Parkinson 2008, fig. 36).

Fig.3: Ancient brushes such as these from burials at Thebes would have been used to paint the scenes from the Nebamun’s tomb (after Parkinson 2008, fig. 60). 

Fig.4: The funerary offering scene is the most formal.  This is an ancient motif in ancient Egyptian tomb painting, so the foods are not depicted in a particularly naturalistic manner.  The jars contain wine, and although the food looks piled on top it would have been arrayed on a mat (there was no effort at perspective) (after Parkinson 2008, fig. 75). 

Fig.5: The banquet scene shows guests (top register) being waited upon and being entertained by dancers and musicians (bottom register).  The women are depicted with cones atop their heads, indicating they are wearing perfume.  The musicians are apparently arrayed so that they form a circle (after Parkinson 2008, fig. 83). . 

Fig.6: (detail of fig.5).  The dancers are not drawn to accurately depict anatomy, but rather to accentuate the curves of their bodies (after Parkinson 2008, fig. 91). 

Fig.7: (detail of fig.5). In the bottom register guests are divided by gender. The first woman is either accepting or rejecting a drinking cup from a servant girl.  The women behind her are not all engaged in the same activity. The artist has enlivened the scene with indications of friendship between the women (after Parkinson 2008, fig. 95). 

Fig.8: This is a scene of Nebamun viewing the products of the estate.  He is shown seated.  He is drawn much larger to convey his status.  His skin is painted with red over a white ground, which makes it very different from the workers and scribes who are simply rendered in red (after Parkinson 2008, fig. 101).. 


Middleton, Andrew and Ken Uprichard (Editors), 2008. The Nebamun Wall Paintings:  Conservation, Scientific Analysis and Display at the British Museum Archetype Books, London, 128 pages. ISBN-13: 978-1904982142, $60.00.  

Parkinson, Richard. 2008. The Painted Tomb-Chapel of Nebamun.  British Museum Press, London.  152 pages. ISBN-13: 978-0714119793, $29.95.

   This article will appear in Vol.5 No.1 of Athena Review, and has been reformatted for internet  publication.. The complete text and original format may be obtained in the printed version of the magazine. 

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