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The Egyptian style: from 3100 BC

The first civilization to establish a recognizable artistic style is Egypt. This style follows a strange but remarkably consistent convention, by which the feet, legs and head of each human figure are shown in profile but the torso, shoulders, arms and eye are depicted as if from the front.

By this means, it has to be admitted, the artist is able to tackle each separate feature from the easiest angle. It is a convenient convention, and it is used both in paintings and in low-relief sculptures. Often the two are combined, with paint applied to the lightly sculpted figures.

The paintings in Egyptian tombs and temples usually depict the incidents which will occur during the journey of the dead into the next world. The practical purpose is to provide the sacred details required for this journey, in the form of images and hieroglyphs.

In the great temple of Ramses II at Thebes, for example, one image shows his queen, Nefertari, being gently taken by the hand by the goddess Isis. The inscription says: 'Words spoken by Isis - Come, great king's wife Nefertari, beloved of Mut, without fault, that I may show thee thy place in the sacred world'. Similarly helpful paintings are later buried with rich Egyptians in the standard form of papyrus scroll known as the Book of the Dead - introduced in the New Kingdom, from the 16th century BC..

Minoan art: c.1600 BC

While the Egyptian skill in painting was reserved mainly for tombs and temples, the Aegean civilization on the northern side of the Mediterranean makes much use of painted murals in the living rooms of the rich and mighty.

A fresco of about 1600 BC in the royal palace at Knossos, in Crete, develops the island's link with the cult of the bull. Two bullfighters flank the charging creature while an acrobat vaults over it.

The island of Thera is at this time a thriving colony of Crete. In about 1525 BC it is suddenly submerged in volcanic ash in an eruption of the local volcano. Archaeological excavations on the island (also known as Santorin) have unearthed some remarkably well preserved rooms, lived in by the richer inhabitants of Thera more than 3500 years ago. These rooms are lavishly decorated with murals.

One room has on its walls a range of fanciful mountains, of a kind later more familiar in Chinese painting. The Minoan tradition introduces landscape as a subject of art.

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