Palette of King Narmer, Hierakonpolis, Egypt, ca. 3000-2920 BCE

The Palette of King Narmer depicts the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt, an event that ended the Egyptian Predynastic Period. Although scholars today believe that the event of the unification of Egpyt occurred over the span of several centuries, the palette of King Narmer depicts it occurring as a single great event.

The palette of King Narmer is significant for several different reasons. First, it is the earliest historical, as opposed to prehistorical, work of art preserved. It also is a work of art that commemorates a particular historical event (not many such works existed, or at least have been found, from this time period). The palette is a utilitarian object as well. It was not common objects to serve a utilitarian and artistic purpose during this time period either. The palette was used to prepare eye make-up. (Egyptians at the time used make-up to protect their eyes from the irritation, intensity, and glare of the sun). But perhaps the palette’s greatest importance is that it set the standard for depiction of the human figure in Egyptian art that was maintained for over three thousand years!

At the top of each side of the palette, there are two heads of a cow with a woman’s face, usually identified as the goddess Hathor but sometimes identified as the sky goddess Bat. Between the two heads is a King Narmer’s name, written in hieroglyphics (the catfish is a symbol for nar and the chisel is a symbol for mer).

On the back of the palette, King Narmer, who is wearing a bowling pin-shaped crown of Upper Egypt and accompanied by an official who carries his sandals, slays an enemy. This motif resembles the group at the lower left of the Hierakonpolis mural (the oldest Egyptian mural painting, which was discovered in a tomb) and became the standard pictorial formula symbolizing the triumph of the Egyptian god-kings over their enemies. In the upper right corner of the back of the palette stands the falcon with human arms, Horus, the king’s protector. Below the king are two fallen enemies that he has defeated.

On the front of the palette, the elongated necks of two felines are intertwined and form the depression that would have held the makeup in an ordinary palette. The intertwined necks are another symbol for the unification of the “Kingdom of the Two Lands”. In the upper right corner, there is a display of dead enemies from bird’s eye view. The heads of each of the soldiers are placed under their legs. In the upper register, King Narmer wears the crown of Lower Egypt. In the bottom register, the great bull knocking down the fortified city symbolizes the great strength of the king. According to Gardner’s Art Through the Ages, what is important in this work of art is the characterization of the king as supreme, isolated from and larger than all ordinary men and completely responsible for the triumph over the enemy. Here, at the very beginning of Egyptian history, is evidence of the state policy that established the pharaoh as a divine ruler.

In both sides of the palette, the artistic concept of hierarchy of scale is used. By virtue of his superior rank, the king, on both sides of the palette performs his ritual task alone and is significantly larger than his own men and the enemy. Also, in both sides, the artist portrayed King Narmer in composite view as some body parts are in profile while other parts are in full frontal view.

I really like this particular work of art. I am intrigued by the symbolism that is used on both sides of the palette and I think that the details on the palette such as the feathers of Horus or the muscles of the bull really work to enhance this piece of artwork as a whole. This work is a prime example of why I love art history so much. As someone who isn’t directly artistic, art history plays to my artistic side while giving me a glimpse of ancient cultures.

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