Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Lecture Four


We briefly returned to the Predynastic decorated pottery to clear up the confusion left last time about the sequence light-on-dark (Naqada I) to dark-on-light (Naqada II). The superficial similarity with the ancient Greek distinction between black figure and red figure demonstrates the limitations of the diffusionist approach, characteristically reluctant to admit the possibility of independent invention. With its appearance of a “pasted-on” panel, the first piece (by Exekias) showed the unresolved effort (in my opinion) of much highly regarded Greek ceramics in reconciling the picture format with the shape of the support (the vase). The bulbous shape of the typical pot presents a particular challenge, met better in some cultures than others (at least in my view).

Before turning to the main theme of the lecture--the Early Dynastic Period (D. 1 and 2)--we sought to characterize some major features of the Egyptian style and its legacy. It was the achievement of the late Predynastic period, as seen in the Hierakonpolis mural, to set forth the two major parameters, flatness and the frame situation. (These fundamentals have remained fundamental in easel paintings to the present day, as seen in the Poussin and Albers examples shown).

Egyptian paintings and the closely related medium of low relief show certain typical features, including the maintenance of the elements of representation close to the picture plane, with minimal overlapping, and (sometimes) a combination of views--from the front and above. Typical and indeed systematic is the convention of “fractional representation,” which employs both profile and frontal views. The claim that this device means that the Egyptians had a defective concept of the wholeness of the human body seems gratuitous, as the procedure does not carry over to statuary in the round. One should be wary of the label “aspective,” which seems too limiting. A comparison with modern maps is instructive. No one expects a country map, say, to show all the features, including mountains, the contrast of desert and cultivated areas, and so forth. In reading a map, we make an implicit contract that certain types of information will be recuperable, while other types won’t be. Egyptian paintings and reliefs require a similar tacit understanding on the part of the viewer.

The Early Dynastic Period seems to have lasted some 350 years. As the takeoff phase, it was formative for “canonical” Egyptian civilization. Above all, this was the nation-building phase, as the kings deliberately encouraged a sense of nationalism (focused of course on their own persons). The regalia (including the two crowns, white and red) that were to signify pharaoh-hood throughout ancient Egyptian history debuted in this era. There is also evidence of the emergence of special rituals, including the Sed ovservance, whereby the king “renewed” himself. Unlike the shadowy dynasty 0, we have a secure king list for dynsties 1 and 2. Several deities are clearly distinguishable, including Horus and Seth, royal patrons.

Gazing back into the closing phase of the Predynastic (Naqada III), archaeologists have determined that crystallization took place from three nodal points ruled by territorial kings: This (and Abydos), Saqqara, Hierakonpolis--all in Upper Egypt. The conquest of the North is a well established fact. The conquest led to the emergence of Memphis as a pivotal center of control, and eventually the dominant metropolis in Egypt--a situation that persists to the present day with Cairo. Saqqara, near Memphis, came to rival Abydos as a preeminent royal burial ground, forecasting the emergence of the Pyramid District.

The Narmer Palette is outstanding both as a historical document and as a work of art. We noted the emergence of the system of registers (and the associated phenomenon of the ground line), fractional representation, and the so-called “hieratic scale” whereby size signals the social importance of the figure. The serekh, with its two characters yielding the readings “nar” and “mer,” documents the presence of hieroglyphic. (Recent finds have pushed hieroglyphic back some 150 years, but it still seems that Mesopotamia deserves chronological priority. Of course, the two systems are entirely different, illustrating, together with other early forms of writing, the human capacity for independent invention.)

We can hypothetically trace the antecedents of the Narmer Palette principles in several other early objects, including the Two-Dogs Palette in Oxford, the Gebel el Arak knife, and the knife in the Brooklyn Museum.

A comparison of the superb Wadji stele in the Louvre with the clunky (and later) Raneb stele in the Metropolitan suggests differences in quality. It seems that some patrons were able to command the work of especially fine artists, while others were not. A hierarchy of skill had emerged. In visiting the Met, be sure to examine the Raneb piece as well as the decorated Predynastic pottery.

Turning to architecture. we noted three types of early tomb. The first two types, the common mastaba and the relatively rare palace-facade type, are illustrated by the two examples created for the woman pharaoh Merneith. The third type, a protopyramid, appears in tomb 3038 at Saqaara, with its nine steps, erected for one Nebetka, a high courtier in the time of Den (or Anidjib).

The step pyramid climaxed in the Djoser precinct at Saqqara, designed by Imhotep, history’s first known architect. This vast complex (37 acres) was surrounded by a high wall (34 feet). The design of the wall (and the single entrance) reflect the advancing and receding panel design associated with monumental secular architecture (or so we assume), as well as the serekh, its miniature counterpart. The huge pyramid, incorporating several stages of enlargement, sits upon a vast labyrinth of underground chambers. Despite much work on the part of archaeologists, not all of this warren has been explored.

Recovered from the serdab is the noble, but mutilated statue of the seated Djoser. Despite (or perhaps even because of) the depredations it has suffered, this piece ranks as a major landmark in which the almost incredible grandeur inherent in the pharaoh image has been realized. Also surviving is the exquisite low relief of the athletic pharaoh performing his Sed run.

At the break, the first assignment was distributed; see the adjacent posting.

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