Welcome back to the Accessible Art History blog! This week, I’m continuing my AP Art History series with more required images from Unit Two. As I said in the last post, this unit is going to cover multiple videos because it spans thousands of years and multiple civilizations. This time around, I’m going to discuss half of the images from Ancient Egypt! There are nine required in AP Art History, so I’m going to divide them into two, separate posts. So, to learn more, keep on reading!
Palette of King Narmer - #13
The first required image of Ancient Egypt is this item: The Palette of Narmer. It is incredibly important to the study of Egypt in its earliest days! This work dates from c. 3000–2920 B.C.E. Narmer, who’s name means “painted catfish”, is considered by historians to be the first pharaoh of Egypt because his military campaigns united Upper and Lower Egypt under a single ruler. The palette illustrates this important moment in history! It was discovered along with other sacred objects at an early temple of the falcon god Horus at the site of Hierakonpolis. This was the capital of Egypt at the time, which is another thing that signals its importance. This object would have been used as a makeup palette, where minerals would be crushed into pigments and then applied to the face and body.
The palette itself is just over two feet long and made of siltstone. It is carved on both sides in low relief. On the front, we see a representation of the cow headed goddess Hathor. She is one of Egypt’s most powerful and oldest deities, with clear evidence of worship going back to the Predynastic era. The main part of the palette shows our hero, Narmer. Note that he is wearing an outfit associated with kingship of Upper Egypt. Not only is he stepping on his enemies, but he is about to club one to death! Notice how Narmer is distinctly bigger than his enemies. Art historians call this hierarchy of scale. Essentially, the bigger a figure is, the more important they are. To the right of Narmer, there is a large falcon. This is the god Horus (the same god whose temple the palette was found in). He is helping Narmer slay his enemies, showing that the campaigns were divinely sanctioned.
On the other side of the palette, we see the aftermath of the battle. This time, Narmer is wearing the kingly costume of Lower Egypt. Once again, he is the biggest figure in the upper scene. He appears to be a part of a procession celebrating his victory. There is even a pile of bodies, their heads severed and placed between their legs! The center part of this side is where the cosmetic mixing would have taken place. Two mythical creatures, called serpopards intertwined their long necks to create a recess. Together, these two sides show how Narmer and his military might brought the two halves of Egypt together to create a mighty kingdom that would last for thousands of years.
The Seated Scribe - #15
In many ways, this next required work is the opposite of the last one! It is called “The Seated Scribe” and dates from around c. 2500 B.C.E. or the 4th Dynasty period. As the name would suggest, this sculpture is of a man seated cross-legged. It is made of painted limestone with wood and rock crystal added for details. Amazingly, the majority of the paint has survived the millenia, giving the piece a true life-like quality. The eyes are particularly well made, which also give the scribe an air of intelligence and alertness. He almost seems as if he is going to stand up and start speaking at any moment.
Aside from his lifelike features, there is another part of this sculpture that makes it remarkable. As I will discuss later in the video, portraiture in Ancient Egypt was almost always idealized. This means that people were shown in a certain way, specifically one that would show them in their most perfect form. However, the Seated Scribe is not idealized. Instead of having lots of muscles, he is kind of chubby! The artist has emphasized his rounded stomach and slight paunch. This is fairly unusual, especially because the position of a scribe was usually reserved for members of the royal family.
Giza Pyramid Complex - #17
The next image on the APAH list is technically a set of images. But, this makes sense as there are three pyramids and a giant sphinx on the Giza plateau. This group of monuments dates from the Old Kingdom period, specifically around 2600 and 2500 BCE. The oldest pyramid is also the largest. It was built for the Pharaoh Khufu around 2551–2528 B.C.E. Fascinatingly, it was the tallest man made object in the world until 1221 CE with the construction of Old St. Paul’s Cathedral in England!
The construction of the Great Pyramid is absolutely remarkable. In a time before computer aided design and calculations, the Ancient Egyptians managed to create a building that only differs by 1 ¾ inches on each of the four sides. It is also level within less than one inch! How amazing is that?
Khufu’s pyramid is built of about 230,000 blocks of stone. Some of them weigh up to 50 tons (100,000 lbs) each! Today, the pyramids are rough and brown. But, back in their prime, they outside would have been encased in brilliant, white, limestone. The sides would have been smooth and polished, shining in the bright, Egyptian sun!
As many of you know, pyramids in general, not just at the Giza plateau, were used as burial sites for royalty. Inside Khufu’s pyramid, there are two chambers: one for the pharaoh and one for his queen. There would have also been religious spaces and rooms for treasures/items to take into the afterlife. Additionally, outside of the pyramid, there were seven boat pits. Boats were symbolic as they ushered the pharaoh into the afterlife. These likely accompanied Khufu during his funeral procession and were buried along with the king.
Khafre and the Sphinx
The next pyramid, both chronologically and size wise, is the pyramid of Khufu’s son, Khafre. It was built c. 2520–2494 B.C.E. and actually appears larger because it was built higher on the plateau. The inside of Khafre’s pyramid is also much simpler, with just a few chambers for the king and his goods. However, what makes Khafre’s space so special is that we were left with dozens of images of the king, allowing us to analyze his likeness thousands of years later.
In addition to the 52 statues of Khafre discovered in his pyramid, we also have the most famous statue: The Giant Sphinx outside of the pyramid! It sits at the end of a causeway running down the east side of the complex. It is a giant lion body with the head of a pharaoh, most Egyptologists agree that Khafre’s likeness was used based on other known images of him. The mythical beast was carved into the bedrock and it appears that some of that rock was transformed into blocks to build the pyramid!
Sphinx’s and lions were both symbols of the sun, a powerful part of Ancient Egyptian religion. There is some evidence that this was a part of a larger temple complex, but so far, physical evidence has not been discovered.
The last, and smallest pyramid, is the Pyramid of Menkaure. He was the son of Khafre and the grandson of Khufu. The inside of the pyramid is complicated, with turning paths and several niches for statues. It is important to note that the pyramid and the surrounding complex was not finished by the time of Menkaure’s death. But, that doesn’t mean that it wasn’t filled with amazing statues. These have allowed us to understand Old Kingdom portraiture and artistic conventions.
King Menkaure (Mycerinus) and Queen - #18
This brings us right into the final image of this video, a nearly life size statue of Pharaoh Menkaure and his queen. Created between 2490–2472 B.C.E, The pair reflect the power and beauty of the Egyptian monarchy. Both stand tall, proud, and regal. Their relationship is indicated by the queen’s arm wrapped around Menkaure’s waist. Their bodies are in perfect proportions, an idealized view of royalty. (Unlike the seated scribe from earlier in the video.) However, there is a sense of individuality with the facial features. This balance between realism and idealism is fascinating, especially because this piece is thousands of years old!
These images are just the first half of the required images for Ancient Egypt. However, there are still several more which throw some surprising curveballs into our artistic knowledge. Make sure to keep an eye out for Ancient Egypt part 2!
Gardner’s Art through the Ages