Narmer Palette: Decoding Its Iconography & Importance

In Ancient Egypt, art was crucial for conveying power and authority. King Narmer used a makeup palette as his means of ideological communication.

Jun 15, 2024By Isa Ghanayem, MFA Printmaking, BFA Studio Art

king narmer palette artistic convention

 

The Palette of King Narmer is arguably the pinnacle artwork of Pre-Dynastic Egypt. In this palette, artistic conventions were utilized in combination with Pharaoh Narmer’s ideological convictions. The merging of Upper and Lower Egypt could not have been achieved without solid visual propaganda; only the most potent imagery could have propelled Narmer’s Monarchy. The most critical conventions utilized in the Palette of King Narmer include religious iconography, register composition, low relief technique, stylized forms, and the influence of makeup and makeup palettes in ancient Egypt as a whole.

 

Ma’at, Balance, Harmony, and King Narmer’s Unification

The entrance to the Temple of Horus at Edfu, c. 237-57 BCE. Source: The Institute for the Study of Ancient Cultures at The University of Chicago

 

The Palette of King Narmer was found at Hierakonpolis within the Temple of Horus, a religious and political capital in Pre-Dynastic Egypt. The palette was discovered in a tomb for the Pre-Dynastic Kings who ruled between 5,000 and 6,000 BCE. All these palettes shared similar themes of battles and victories that occurred both before and after the unification of Egypt under a Monarchy of King Menes, who ruled right after King Narmer.

 

The Palette of Narmer, along with its unusual size being an ancient makeup palette, was the crowning gem of all the palettes found at this site due to its importance as a tool of propaganda for the initial unification of Upper and Lower Egypt. For King Narmer and the Pharaohs to follow his rule for centuries to come, the utilization of art to spread political and religious doctrine was key to maintaining the desired social order, also known to the ancient Egyptians as ma’at. In The Egypt Story: Its Art, Its Monuments, Its History, P.H. Newby emphasizes that although today people look towards Egyptian art for its aesthetic beauty, what was important to the ancient Egyptian patrons was an accurate portrayal of their fundamentals on how to live.

 

Strong Iconography

Palette of King Narmer from Hierakonpolis, Egypt, c. 3000-2920 BCE. Source: Smarthistory

 

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Although the Egyptians did not lack an eye for beauty, conceptual utility came first. The focus on balancing opposites to create harmony was important, these dualities being the Red Land, which represented the desert, and the Black Land, which represented the fertile land. The Egyptians believed that when these two lands were balanced, the Nile River would provide the Egyptians with its annual flood that maintained crops and, hence, maintained life. This unification of harmonizing two lands was similarly utilized in unifying Upper and Lower Egypt, which was balanced by the rule of one King. In order to maintain ma’at, all artworks were defined by regulations, hence avoiding the production of art that may threaten the unification of Egypt supervised by King Narmer. Narmer’s Palette became the standard for art that maintained ma’at and established law.

 

All ancient Egyptian art is filled with powerful iconography that describes the potent religious mythos of each period, including the graphic low-relief imagery portrayed in the Palette of Narmer. An unknown artist of this slate stone piece carved King Narmer wearing the crown of Upper Egypt on one side of the palette and wearing both the white and red crowns of Upper and Lower Egypt on the other. This clearly depicts his mission to unify the lands.

 

This dynamic and influential imagery included pictorial images of the many gods and goddesses worshiped in both Upper and Lower Egypt. Their commanding presence and high place in the hierarchy helped establish Narmer’s ideological messages by utilizing the images for their ability to invoke order in Egypt’s citizens. By showing the support of the gods and portraying them alongside Narmer as Pharaoh, Narmer’s ideological agenda became the divine command as well.

 

Support From the Gods & the Power of Composition

Detail of one register from The Palette of King Narmer from Hierakonpolis, Egypt, c. 3000-2920 BCE. Source: Smarthistory

 

The two heads at the top of the palette on either side depict the Goddess Hathor, a sky goddess and a mighty mother figure. Narmer’s wife and four attendants are seen holding the emblems of Horus, and on the opposite side of the palette Horus himself is depicted alongside King Narmer. The god Horus, just like the goddess Hathor, was a powerful sky god as well as a protector of Pharaohs in ancient Egypt. Alongside all of the support visually granted by the gods through their appearance in the piece, both real and composite mythological animals of great ferocity appear in the work. There are two lion and panther composite creatures whose necks intertwine to create the paint deposit indent. These hybrid creatures provoke fear in the viewer, yet also frame the central aspect of the makeup palette, which informs the viewer that everything will remain in the realm of ma’at if they behave and unify.

 

In The Origins of Register Composition in Predynastic Egyptian Art published in the Journal of the American Oriental Society, Whitney M. Davis discusses how the register system progressively emerged from specific mechanisms and techniques during the Egyptian Pre-Dynastic period. Artistic concerns such as the progression of narrative, having a baseline for imagery, depicting reality, and location-specific or landscape pieces helped to push the use of registers due to the registers’ ability to delineate imagery on a spatial, temporal, and contextual level. The Palette of Narmer used registers as a convention for Narmer’s ideological benefit by delineating the specific important imagery from one another. Registers allowed for several messages to be conveyed to the viewer in one piece, hence adding to its potent imagery and overall effectiveness as political propaganda.

 

Detail image of the Palette of King Narmer from Hierakonpolis, Egypt, c. 3000-2920 BCE. Source: National Geographic

 

Although aesthetic beauty was not of primary concern when creating ancient Egyptian artworks, it was taken into consideration. In The Art of the Predynastic Period published in The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, Eric T. Peet states that the low relief technique used in Pre-Dynastic Egyptian art, although not anatomically correct, gave the works an important aesthetic that draws in the eye of the viewer. When discussing the low-relief style in correlation with the stylized but unrealistic ancient Egyptian human form, Peet wrote, “This is due partly to the delicacy of the low relief but still more to this subtlety of line of which we are speaking. The curves of the body are not anatomically correct, but they have a charm and grace, which is even more important. They arrest the eye and in the same instant give it repose.” The aesthetic value of the low relief technique allowed for specific imagery to be portrayed in the Palette of Narmer. One detail was pointed out by Adriana Rossi in The Origin of Technical Drawing in the Narmer Palette published in the Nexus Network Journal.

 

Map of ancient Egypt, showing Upper & Lower Egypt and archaeological sites along the Nile River. Source: World History Encyclopedia

 

Rossi discusses one small yet important relief detail in the Palette, which is what she argues to be an aerial view of a fortified structure that existed in multiples along the Nile River in Pre-Dynastic Egypt. The fortification structure detail was placed on the lowest register beneath Pharaoh Narmer’s feet, and along foreign invaders fleeing the scene. Rossi explains that fortifications such as this one were used as a defense system against the neighboring populations that had not been conquered by Narmer. She defends this by stating that the protuberances around the perimeter of the palette are not of the same width. Therefore, the detail of the fortified citadel is not merely a random protrusion. This detail, although so seemingly small, carries a large message aimed towards provoking fear in neighboring peoples, therefore helping maintain King Narmer’s ma’at in the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt.

 

Makeup, Magic, Science

Ancient Egyptian cosmetic implements including a kohl tube, a razor, a whetstone, a pair of tweezers, and a mirror from the New Kingdom period, Upper Egypt, c. 1550–1458 BCE. Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

 

One of the most interesting decisions made by King Narmer in being the patron of such a large ceremonial makeup palette was the decision to display his political convictions on such an object. This decision was deliberate since it provoked ancient Egyptian citizens on a personal level due to makeup’s great cultural importance. At the time, Egyptian black and green makeup was utilized for religious, beautifying, and therapeutic purposes. Ancient Egyptians gave a magic role to makeup and held the belief that wearing it would ensure protection directly from the Egyptian gods Horus and Ra.

 

In Finding Out Egyptian Gods’ Secret Using Analytical Chemistry: Biomedical Properties of Egyptian Black Makeup Revealed by Amperometry at Single Cells, Issa Tapsoba discusses the chemistry of what the ancient Egyptians were putting in their makeup palettes and on their eyes. The lead-based compounds used by the Egyptians have been proven to treat eye illness and skin ailments by promoting the action of immune cells, hence protecting the wearer. Through Tapsoba’s research, this ancient magic is now solidified scientifically. It seems that King Narmer was perfectly aware of the power of makeup on a social and magical level, hence using the palette as his vehicle to further promote his political ideology.

 

King Narmer’s Influence Sets the Stage for Egypt 

Limestone Head of King Narmer (1st dynasty). Source: Wikipedia

 

The Palette of King Narmer helped establish a powerful, authoritative political view through its use of artistic conventions and compelling symbolism. Many Pre-Dynastic works, such as the Palette of King Narmer, set the stage for years to come in ancient Egyptian art because of their ability to combine visual beauty with a chosen philosophy or even multiple underlying messages. As the Egyptian royal families continued to establish their rule among the ancient Egyptian people, art remained the most critical device in maintaining their political influence.

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By Isa GhanayemMFA Printmaking, BFA Studio ArtIsa Ghanayem is an artist and writer with focuses in printmaking, sculpture, photography, dance, sound, and installation. In 2019 she received her B.F.A. in Studio Art at Loyola University Chicago. In 2023 Isa received her MFA in Printmaking from the Rhode Island School of Design. Isa has exhibited her work in Illinois, Rhode Island, and New Mexico, as well as in Greece. Isa’s writing interests include outsider artists, Middle Eastern art, European Prehistoric art, and printmaking throughout history and into the present.