Visualising Giza by Paulalorla

Over four centuries span the earliest known images of Giza and the present. At that early point depictions of Egypt were often prone to error and seldom first hand but their record is a useful one. Through these historic images we can plot the rediscovery of an ancient nation, looking at the details as they began to fill out over time. In part one below I'll look at this period and the artistic platforms Giza's image appeared in as it developed through to the 1700's.

In part two I'll look at the noted artists of the Orientalist, Pre-Raphaelite and Academicism art movements, who travelled to Giza in the 1800's. These artists stood at Giza and stared, they recorded their gaze capturing the pyramids and Sphinx prior to excavation and deeply entrenched in huge drifts of sand. Many of their works may be familiar to you, likewise many earlier renderings too, but I hope I can introduce you to some new artists who have used their craft at Giza.

The Visualising Giza gallery

Visualising Giza - part one - The early renderings and influence (1200 - 1800)

Ceiling mosaic at St Mark's Basilica, Rome (1200's)

Our visual journey begins with the gold and bronze mosaics of St Mark's Basilica in Rome. Finished in the late 13th century its domed atrium ceiling depicts many Old Testament scenes. (1) Among them Joseph standing before the pyramids with bales of wheat, a representation of the Christian myth that the pyramids served as storehouses for Pharaoh's lean years. The artists who completed the mosaics were unknown, local and possibly worked from the Cotton Genesis manuscript, a 4-5th century Greek Illuminated manuscript copy of the Book of Genesis. Sadly this was damaged in a fire in 1731 leaving only 35 of its original 165 leaves.

Gates of Paradise, Florence Baptistery (1452) original and copy which now sits in its place.

The pyramid as biblical detail emerges again in the 15th century with Lorenzo Ghiberti's gilded bronze doors from the Florence Baptistery. Michaelangelo named Ghiberti's doors claiming they were worthy to be 'The Gates of Paradise'. On panel no.3 they show Noah amidst a biblical flood scene, a large pyramid sits as the backdrop. Ghiberti was an early Italian Renaissance artist, a humanist, a collector of classical artefacts and a historian. His pyramid is also an ark rendered from the description of 2nd century Christian theologian Origen. It is not known to be a representation of Giza but this early resemblance on such an acclaimed work does make it worthy of note.

1 and 2 - Detail from Cosmographia by Sebastian Munster | 3 and 4 Detail from Cosmographie de Levant by Andre Thevet

From gold and bronze Giza's visual journey makes its way to woodcut printing through the cosmographers of the 16th Century. Cosmography was a science that attempted to describe the general features of the world or universe. Commissioned by the wealthy and noble they were prized possessions in early libraries. However, neither Sebastian Munster's Cosmographia (1544) nor Andre de Thevet's Cosmography of the Levant (1556) provided woodcuts with any sign of accuracy. This was in part due to the authors practice of using the work of other travellers. (2) Giza was yet to be depicted by someone who had been there themselves.

Panorama with the Abduction of Helen Amidst the Wonders of the Ancient World - Maerten van Heemskerck (1535)

In the 16th century scholars were still disputing which monuments were the most marvellous, Giza's place amongst the seven wonders was known but not fully realised. This is especially evident in Maerten van Heemskerck's oil on canvas Panorama with the Abduction of Helen Amidst the Wonders of the Ancient World (1535) (4) where we can barely see the pyramids and his Seven Wonders woodcut series where they're too narrow.

1 - Maarten Heemskerck's Seven Wonders series (1572) 2 - Pyramids of Egypt by Unknown (1500's)
3 right - Sphinx Mystagoga by Athanasius Kircher (1676)

This narrowness was a direct influence from the Pyramid of Cestius, built in 12BC it is considered one of the best-preserved ancient buildings in Rome. It was a far easier site for the European traveller and inspired many visiting artists who established its proportions as typical of pyramids elsewhere.(5) Rome's Athanasius Kircher (1601-1680) depicted this visual error in Sphinx Mystagoga (1676) but added elements from here-say such as camels, looters and pyramid climbers.

1 - Helffrich (1579) 2 - Unknown (1500's) 3 - Sommer (1591) 4 - Sandy (1610)
5 - Hollar (1643) 6 - le Gouz (1653) 7 - Moncony (1665) 8 - Afrique (1668)

The quality of information passed from traveller to cosmographer to artist or woodcutter gave a cumulative error that remained in Giza's visual record until the late 18th Century. This is particularly evident with the Sphinx, which is shown a number of times as female, with a range of hairstyles and in bust form up to its excavation in the early 19th century. (3)

Pyramids under construction by Antonio Tempesta (1608) Pyramidographia by John Greaves (1646)

By the 17th century, amidst these errors of interpretation and here-say, artists began to consider how pyramids were made. Antonio Tempesta (1555-1630), an Italian engraver, tackled the subject in his Seven Wonders etched print series, showing it far more courtesy than the slave depictions that were to follow. His Pyramids Under Construction (1608) shows a peaceful scene reminiscent of farming landscapes. Influenced by Dutch landscape painters Tempesta created a Giza easily familiar to western tastes, his construction techniques recognisable as farm labour.

Toward the mid 17th century John Greaves (1602-1652) an Oxford astronomy professor under the patronage of Archbishop Laud, visited Egypt with Edward Pocock, a professor of Arabic also from Oxford. Sent by Laud in his capacity as Chancellor of the University of Oxford Greaves was tasked to expand the university's knowledge of Egypt. (6) The resulting work was Pyramidographia (1646) (7) and from its copper engraved plates the first cross-section of the Great Pyramid in western published print. A style of representation continued right through to the 3D animations of Jean-Pierre Houdin today. (8)

The Great Sphinx of Giza by Cornelis de Bruijn (1698) Profile of the Sphinx by Frederick Ludvig Norden (1755)

Later that century in 1681 Dutch artist and traveler Cornelis de Brujn (1652-1727) entered Egypt, possibly financed through intelligence work for the Dutch. (9) Egypt inspired De Bruijn to make drawings for scholars and he heavily invested into the publication of his work Travels in the Principal Parts of Asia Minor (1698). In it he gave a more accurate depiction of the Sphinx and an early glimpse into the Grand Gallery, recorded from his own visit. Unfortunately his engraver did not share his vision of the site and amended his pyramid proportions to the recognisable slope previously established.

Collectively the 17th century had a loose grasp of Giza, entering the mid 18th century things began to change. The Danish naval captain and explorer Frederick Ludvig Norden (1708-1742) was sent at the request of the King of Denmark to make drawings and observations of Egypt's ancient monuments. Norden executed 200 'on the spot' drawings during his travels in 1737-38 which were later published in the posthumous Voyage d'Egypte et de Nubie (1755). The work contained steel engraved plates depicting views, maps and plans and contained the most comprehensive visual record of Giza published at the time. (10)

Pyramids (1765) Fantaisie Egyptienne (1760) by Hubert Robert

The first noted works of art specifically depicting Giza were made by Hubert Robert (1733-1808) a French artist who moved to Rome in 1754. Staying for 11 years he sketched amidst romantic ruins in the company of other young artists and was given the moniker Robert des ruines. Robert never travelled to Giza but this did not in any way impede his vision of the site, his works Fantaisie Egyptienne (1760) and Pyramids (1765) captured in oil 'the earliest fully realized Egyptian landscape'. These works were applauded in their time, are the forerunners to 19th century Orientalist depictions and have been exhibited in Paris, Rome, Copenhagen, America, Canada and Vienna. Pyramids is currently on display at Smith College Museum of Art, Northampton. (11) Fantaisie Egyptienne was sold at Christies in 1999 for $1.1 million and is unfortunately no longer on display. (12)

From 7 Wonders of the Ancient World - a picture book for children by Friedrich Justin Bertuch (1790)
View of the Sphinx near Cairo by Viviant Denon (1798)

The years preceding the 19th century offered many notable visualisations of Giza, yet only a few were by those who'd been there. In 1796 The improved print technologies of lithography opened a profitable market in images of new places and cultures. This combined with the opening up of Egypt, via invasion and the new dynasty of Muhammad Ali, allowed 19th century artists access to the site. Visualising its enormity and majesty they found for themselves the aspects most appealing and their work at Giza is covered in the next section.

Visualising Giza - part two - The artists on the plateau (1800 - 1900)

(1) Mosaics in the atrium of Saint Mark's Basilica in Venice - qantara
(2) Andre de Thevet's biography by Elsa Conrad
(3) By Brush and Lens: Revealing the Sphinx by Elaine Evans and Frank McClung is an excellent paper looking at image reproduction available at The University of Tennessee
(4) Panorama with the Abduction of Helen Amidst the Wonders of the Ancient World is on permanent display at The Walters Art Museum. A large high res image can be viewed here
(5) The error of the incline of the Great Pyramid is also attributed to Symon Simeonis's 1323 account
(6) Intersections, The Travel Notebooks of John Greaves by Zur Shalev pages 77 - 100
(7) A first edition of Pyramidographia was sold in 2009 at Christies for $4,750 - Lot no.179
(8) A list of historic Great Pyramid cross sections from John Greaves to J H Cole by Chris Tedder
(9) Dutch historian Jona Lendering provides a detailed look at Cornelis de Bruijn's travels including his experience inside the Great Pyramid at
(10) Frederick Ludvig Norden's drawings from The antiquities, natural history, ruins, and other curiosities of Egypt, Nubia and Thebes can be viewed in their entirety at - enter 'Norden Egypt'
(11) Hubert Robert's Pyramids - Smith College Museum of Art Database
(12) Hubert Robert's Fantaisie Egyptienne was sold in 1999 at Christies to an anonymous phone bidder for $1,102,500 - Lot no.41

Visualising Giza Gallery