There are many fascinating aspects of Ancient Egypt, but none quite like its pictorial and symbolic capacity. For this civilization, representing their gods and pharaohs on their journey to the afterlife had a strong symbolic and ritualistic significance, which is why they created the famous Egyptian colors.
These pigments were established through natural and chemical processes to produce rich and vibrant tones. We will tell you all about ancient Egyptian pigments. Join us! ????
Ancient Egyptian Colors
In Ancient Egypt, color was considered an integral part of nature or a person, so much so that the term “color” could refer to appearance, character, essence, or nature. Currently, the word “color” has different meanings depending on the perspective from which you observe it.
For example, for a physicist, color is related to photons of a particular energy level; for a physiologist, color is a stimulus to the retina; and for a chemist, it’s a dye. However, although color theory is almost as vast as the universe, the truth is that colors affect our mind, and the Egyptians knew this perfectly.
Egyptian colors were not only used in daily life representations; they were also part of Ancient Egypt’s architecture. On the facades, pigments were used to depict the Ancient Egyptian gods in their pantheon.
Egyptologist Margaret Bunson described Egyptian colors as “an integral element of all artistic representations, including wall scenes, statues, tomb objects, and jewelry, and the magical qualities of a specific color were believed to become part of any object to which it was added.”
How Did They Get the Pigments?
Before discussing how the ancient Egyptians obtained their pigments, it is necessary to clarify that we must differentiate between two types of colors: organic and synthetic.
Organic colors have been used since Paleolithic times because they are obtained from natural elements. The first colors were created from soft rocks or naturally occurring deposits, such as clay or ilmenite.
On the other hand, synthetic colors are the result of complex mixtures in which metal plays an essential role in their production. One interesting fact about Egyptian colors is that one of them, Egyptian blue, was the first known synthetic pigment in the world.
To obtain ancient Egyptian pigments, a wide variety of processes were used, which could include dissolution, precipitation, filtration, washing, calcination, and grinding of the materials.
Most Used Egyptian Colors
As we previously mentioned, colors held significant symbolic meaning for the ancient Egyptians, beyond their decorative function. Consequently, the color palette was limited. Today, we will explore some of the most commonly used ancient Egyptian colors:
This color was associated with disorder and chaos, and was also linked to the desert. Its base was iron and was obtained through oxidation. Red was the color of Seth, the god of chaos who was later associated with death. Additionally, red represented destructive fire and fury, and was used to convey danger.
Furthermore, red was utilized in protective amulets because it also represented blood and was considered a symbol of life and protection. This is one of the few ancient Egyptian colors that scribes used when discussing evil or on inauspicious days of the year.
Blue was the color of the sky and represented the domain of the Ancient Egyptian gods. As we mentioned earlier, it was a more complex process to obtain than other colors, requiring a combination of copper and iron oxide with calcium and silicon.
The meaning of the color could vary depending on the tone used. For example, lapis lazuli blue represented the horse of the ancient Egyptian gods, while turquoise blue represented the color of water. Egyptian blue symbolized life and rebirth.
Black symbolized fertility, new life, and resurrection. It was the color of Osiris, the god raised from the dead, and of Anubis. In fact, black was considered the color of the underworld.
Similarly, black was one of the easiest ancient Egyptian colors to obtain because it was extracted from various sources such as charcoal, burned animal bones, or soot. Typically, the ancient Egyptians used black on statues and coffins to invoke the regeneration process attributed to Osiris.
This was the color of purity, holiness, simplicity, and cleanliness. For this reason, clothing in Ancient Egypt was white, especially that of the priests.
Similarly, sacred objects such as tools, sandals, and sacred animals were also white. Pure white was one of the least commonly found Egyptian colors, made from chalk and gypsum.
The color green was the color of growth, vegetation, and new life. Along with black, it also represented resurrection. For the ancient Egyptians, green was a color with healing and protective powers, so it also meant well-being.
If we were to attribute ancient Egyptian colors to the worldview of this civilization, black would be the underworld, blue the sky, and green the earthly state. This pigment was obtained from copper and malachite powder.
Yellow has always been the color of the divinities par excellence. The color of the sun was perceived as something eternal and imperishable.
In fact, the different figures of the gods were built with pure gold, since it represented perfection. This tone was obtained from natural ocher or oxide.
The silver color represented the color of the sun at dawn and also that of the moon and stars. Since silver was a rarer metal than gold in Ancient Egypt, its value was higher.
This type of material was extremely rare, since silver did not exist in Egypt naturally; it was all imported. Additionally, unlike other ancient Egyptian colors, silver and gold were mainly used for inlays in sarcophagi or glass pieces.
Other interesting aspects of ancient Egyptian colors
The ancient Egyptians frequently paired colors that were considered complementary. For example, silver and gold formed a duality of opposites (like the sun and the moon) for them.
Green and black represented different aspects of the regeneration process. Other complementary colors were red and white.
Likewise, for the ancient Egyptians, the purity of the color was important, and the artisans did not change their color until they had finished with the one they were working with. To finish off the work, they used fine brushes to outline and add details.