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squares line figure passed

Grids were used to control the proportions of two-dimensional relief sculpture and to line up the sides, back, and front of sculpture in the round. Grids are often preserved in unfinished relief sculpture or in paintings where a finished layer of paint has fallen off to reveal the underlying grid. These remains of grids have provided the data to study how Egyptian artists worked. In the earliest examples from the Old Kingdom, Egyptian artists used a system of eight horizontal guidelines and one vertical line bisecting the figure through the ear rather than a complete grid. Grids marked eighteen horizontal units for each figure and also fourteen vertical lines spaced at the same distance as the horizontals. Thus the grid formed a series of squares. Grids are first preserved from Dynasty 11 (2125–1991 B.C.E. ) and continue for nearly 2,000 years into the Roman period.


Old Kingdom (2675–2170 B.C.E. ) guidelines allowed the artist to divide the figure in half and/or in thirds. A line at the lower border of the buttocks divided the figure in half. Lines at the elbow and the knee divided the figure into thirds. Artists drew additional lines at the top of the head, at the junction of the hairline and forehead, at the point where the neck and shoulders meet, at the armpit, and at the calf. The base line of the register marked the bottom of the figure’s foot. The proportions that were maintained made the distance from the bottom of the foot to the neck and shoulder line equal to eight-ninths of the figure’s height. The distance from the bottom of the foot to the armpit was four-fifths of the figure’s total height. This series of proportions gave figures their uniformity and most likely aided artists in drawing a figure on a large scale.


Grids of squares probably developed from guidelines. Grids were certainly in use by the Middle Kingdom (2008–1630 B.C.E. ). Eighteen squares separated the hairline from the bottom of the foot in the Middle Kingdom grid. Various body parts also fell on regular grid lines. For example, the meeting point of the neck and shoulders was at horizontal sixteen, the elbow at horizontal nine six squares wide, similar in proportion to Old Kingdom figures. Females were more slender with shoulders between four and five squares wide.


The proportions of figures changed in the mid-Eighteenth Dynasty (1550–1295 B.C.E. ), becoming more elongated. The small of the back rose from gridline eleven to gridline twelve, making the leg longer in proportion to the body. At the same time, the width of the shoulders was reduced from six squares to five squares. This reduction also made the figure more elongated and graceful in the New Kingdom (1538–1075 B.C.E. ) than it was previously.


Egyptian artists of the first millennium B.C.E. used a grid with twenty-one horizontal lines rather than the eighteen lines used previously. Though the exact time when the transition from eighteen to twenty-one squares was made is unknown, artists of the Twenty-fifth Dynasty (730–661 B.C.E. ) were surely using the twenty-one square grid to lay out relief sculpture. The new grid squares were thus five-sixths of the old grid squares. In the new system the following correspondences were made. Line twenty-one passed through the root of the nose and upper eyelid. Line twenty passed through the mouth. Line nineteen passed through the junction of the neck and shoulders. Line thirteen passed through the small of the back. Line eleven passed near the lower buttocks. Line seven passed through at the top of the knee. Line zero, the baseline, passed through the sole of the foot. The result of these changes was a slight change in the proportions of the figure. The knees, small of the back, and buttocks are all lower than in figures drawn on the Late Period grids than in the Middle and New Kingdom grids. Thus the torso and upper leg appear longer in proportion to the body as a whole in the Late Period than in the Middle and New Kingdom. This change is clear in figures until the end of ancient Egyptian history. However, the meaning of this change is not clear. The art historian Erik Iverson suggested that the grid changed to accommodate a new measuring system that used a shorter unit of measurement. The Egyptologist Gay Robins convincingly argued that the Late Period system used the same measuring system but regularized the grid to make calculations easier. In the early system the arm length was five grid squares. This distance was the hypothetical value of one cubit. A cubit was divided into six palms. A five-square arm thus equaled grid squares one and one-fifth palm wide and long. The new Late Period grid square used an arm length that was six squares long. Thus in the Late Period grid square each square was equal to the measurement one palm. All calculations would be simpler using grid squares equivalent to one palm rather than equivalent to one and one-fifth palm.


The grid was an ingenious and simple way to maintain proper proportions for figures no matter how large or small they were reproduced. Artists could maintain the same proportions for a sculpture only twelve inches tall as in sixty-foot tall sculptures in front of temples. This technique is also one element in the tendency of one work of Egyptian art to resemble all others.


Gay Robins, Proportion and Style in Ancient Egyptian Art (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1994).

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