Testimony to the intense cultural activity that characterized the predynastic period (с.5000-З00вс) exists in the form of "palettes". These slate slabs, often decorated in relief, are thought to have been used originally for grinding pigments for eyepaint. By the Late Predynastic period, they had taken on a celebratory, official character, and their decoration was inspired by specific historical events. The palette of Narmer was a symbol of power and may have commemorated the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt. Its creation heralded the beginning of the historical age, subdivided traditionally into dynasties, in which the pharaoh was the emblem of political and religious power. The compositional elements found in the palette of Narmer were to remain constant in Egyptian art: the division of the background into registers, the greater dimensions given to the figure of the sovereign, and the pictorial value of certain images. The falcon is the personification of the king seizing the Nile Delta (Lower Egypt), which is represented by a papyrus with a human head. Objects are presented as they are conceived, not as they are seen.
The Egyptian artist aimed to reflect social and religious hierarchies in the composition and to assign proportions to the figures and objects whose relationships to one another were constant. For example, the pharaoh-god was greater than man and therefore had to be shown as such. The age of the first and second dynasties (с.2850-2б50вс) saw the birth of monumental architecture, including the first mastabas - flat-topped tombs with sloping sides - and pyramids. During this period, the pharaohs had two royal cemeteries, one at Abydos, the other at Memphis; architectural elements from both sites have survived. From these seeds developed the awe-inspiring art of the Old Kingdom, third to sixth dynasties (с.2б50-2150вс)
Painting and Sculpture
The most important paintings and sculptures of the Old Kingdom come from the mastabas. The frieze of geese in the tomb of Itet at Meidum was the lower part of a huge painting depicting the hunting of birds with nets, and is perhaps the oldest surviving wall painting on stucco. The function of bas-reliefs and paintings was to furnish the tomb with enduring pictures that imitated, transcended, and re-created nature. The need to guarantee the survival of the dead and to assemble in one single figure or object the fundamental elements for their magical re-animation lies at the root of the Egyptian iconographical repertory. The desire to show all the essential characteristics of the human figure in a single image led the Egyptian artists to present it in an unnatural way. The face was shown in profile with the eye to the front; shoulders and chest were viewed from the front, showing the juncture of the arms; and the legs were shown in profile to indicate the direction of movement. Each part was exhibited from its most characteristic angle in order to present the whole figure cm the flat surface.
Similar conventions governed the plastic arts. Enclosed in its cubic structure, the funerary effigy of Khafre is the prototype of pharaonic statues, with its immobile, hieratic, imperturbable pose - the very essence of royalty. Standing or seated, in wood or in stone, such figures, in spite of their rigid attitudes, are independent and vivid entities that immortalize the individual. At Saqqara, the statue of Djoser was positioned inside a stonebuilt chamber next the Step Pyramid, where it could "watch" the performance of rituals for the dead through tiny apertures in the walls.
While it cannot compare to the Great Pryamids in monumentality, its sculpture and painting reveal great clarity and compositional rigour. Typical of Middle Kingdom royal statuary are the colossal red granite sculptures of Sesostris III and the maned sphinxes of Amenemhet III. which personify the pharaoh and his power. Freer of the conventions of official art are the small sculptures in painted wood in which the artists skilfully and naturalistically capture aspects of everyday life. The Second Intermediate Period (13th-17th dynasties, c.1778—1570bc) witnessed much internal unrest and the waning of centralized power. Virtually defenceless against the incursions of the Hyksos from Western Asia. Egypt was nonetheless to rise phoenix-like from the ashes to enter its most splendid period of artistic achievement - the 18th dynasty.