The Art of the Amarna Period

by Megaera Lorenz

(All of the photographs in this page, except where otherwise noted, come from  The Royal Women of Amarna, by Dorothea Arnold.)

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During Akhenaten's reign, Akhenaten led a remarkable artistic revolution to go along with his religious turnover. The style he used has been called both naturalistic and expressionistic, among other things, but how one classifies it really depends on what part of his reign you are looking at.
 

Style

The Early Period
 

An early representation of AkhenatenDuring the early part of Akhenaten's reign, the artistic style made a sudden transition from the traditional Egyptian style of portraying people with ideal, perfect physiques, to a new and rather jarring style, illustrated here in an extreme example in the image at right. It would seem that the artists were attempting to portray people (Akhenaten in particular) with brutal honesty, to the extent that the images became caricatures.The master sculptor, Bek, claimed to have been taught by Akhenaten himself. Whether this means that Akhenaten actually taught him his trade or merely told him what he wanted the art to look like Bek does not clarify, but the latter is probably more likely.
    Since such a depiction of Akhenaten could only have been created with his approval, it might be that his physical appearance figured prominently into his religion. He called himself Wa-en-Re, or "The Unique One of Re," thus emphasizing the fact that he was not like anyone else, and he also placed a lot of emphasis on the unique nature of his god, Aten. It could be that he believed that his peculiar physical appearance had divine significance, and somehow linked him to the Aten. (Picture from Akhenaten: The Heretic King, by Dr. Donald Redford)
 

An early statue of AkhenatenThis statue from Akhenaten's temple at Karnak is the three-dimensional equivalent of the relief above. This is the classic early period look of Akhenaten: feminine curves, heavy thighs and belly, half-closed eyes, full lips, and a long face and neck characterized representations of the king.(Picture from The Art of Ancient Egypt, by Gay Robins)

An early representation of NefertitiDuring the early years, there was a tendency for the artists to make Akhenaten's family members look like clones of him. Here, at right, is an early representation of either Nefertiti or Tiye, looking very much like images of Akhenaten from the early years. This cloning went out of fashion with the advent of the later style of Amarna art.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

The Late Period

An Amarna Princess: sketch of a bust by Megaera Lorenz.In the later portion of Akhenaten's reign, the style changed abruptly, probably because a new master sculptor, Tuthmose, took over. The remains of Tuthmose's workshop have provided us with a spectacular array of artistic masterpieces, as well as valuable insights into the process by which the artists created their work.
    Tuthmose had a style which was decidedly more realistic than Bek's. He produced some of the finest art in Egyptian history. His portraits are also probably some of the most accurate portrayals of the Amarna family in existence.
    The statuary from Tuthmose's workshop is of a type known as "composite statuary." The individual parts of the statues were composed separately from one another and then fastened together. In this bust of one of Akhenaten's daughters (drawing at left by Megaera Lorenz), a little bit of the large stone peg is left at the base of the neck. This peg would have been inserted into a slot in a torso created by another artist, maybe composed of a different material.
    Akhenaten's daughters all display the strange elongation in their skulls that the princess in the bust has. The mummies of Smenkhkare and Tutankhamen have skulls which look similar to this, so it is almost certainly an accurate depiction.
 
 
 
 

Akhenaten and NefertitiTwo-dimensional art also changed. The image at right is an artist's model (it would not be used as an official image) showing Akhenaten and Nefertiti. This version of Akhenaten (the larger face on the left) is strikingly different from the early Amarna representation of him at the top of this page. Here he is shown with a smaller mouth, larger eyes, and softer features. He looks more subdued and serene than the earlier version.
    Nefertiti has also changed. She no longer looks like Akhenaten, but has a distinctive face of her own.
 
 

A bust of NefertitiIn fact, Nefertiti's face emerged very clearly during this period. The images of Nefertiti from this period are some of the most famous and striking works of art ever created in ancient history. This unfinished bust was meant to have a crown attached, probably like the one in the famous Berlin Museum bust.
 
 

A statue of Akhenaten The changes in Akhenaten's appearance also carried over into three-dimensional art. In the image at right, his features are softer, rounder, and plumper than in earlier representations. Whether this reflects a change in the mood of the times, a change in the actual appearance of Akhenaten, the fact that a new artist had taken over, or some combination of the above, is not clear. (Picture from The Pharaohs: Master-Builders by Henri Stierlin)
 
 
 

Content

Aside from a new style, certain new motifs appeared in the Amarna period. So many images of Akhenaten and Nefertiti worshipping the Aten emerged from this period that pre-Rosetta Stone explorers who found remains from Akhetaten dubbed Akhenaten and Nefertiti "disc worshippers." The content of Amarna period imagery was also more relaxed and informal than that of any other period in Egyptian history, making the pharaoh and his family seem a bit more human than their predecessors and successors.
 
 

Family

Akhenaten and his familyThe family motif in Amarna is one of the most common. The Amarna family scenes are more intimate than those from the reign of any other pharaoh. Here Akhenaten is squashed underneath his wife and several daughters.It could be also that this new image of the pharaoh as a family man, had something to do with his religion.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Akhenaten and his familyThe image at right is one of the most famous images from the Amarna period. Even in a family scene like this, there is a religious aspect. The Aten is there to hold ankhs to the noses of Akhenaten and Nefertiti. This must be a fairly early image. The three children are Merytaten (being kissed by Akhenaten) Meketaten (sitting on Nefertiti's lap) and Aknkhesenpaaten (the baby on Nefertiti's shoulder).
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Akhenaten kissing one of his daughtersThis unfinished statue of Akhenaten kissing one of his daughters is a three-dimensional equivalent of the image shown above on the right.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Akhenaten and Nefertiti Also in the family category are a number of pictures showing husband and wife couples embracing or offering each other flowers. This tradition continued into Tutankhamen's reign. The scene at right probably takes place in a garden, judging from the bunch of flowers behind Akhenaten. Below is a reconstruction of the scene by Megaera Lorenz.

A reconstruction of a fragment of a picture of Akhenaten and Nefertiti
 
 

Akhenaten and, possibly, Smekhkare Here is another typical couple image. However, it seems to be a picture of two kings rather than a king and a queen. Since the cartouches have been cut out, it is impossible to make a definite identification of both figures. The figure at right is almost certainly Akhenaten. The other one is probably his co-regent, Smenkhkare. However, the intimacy of this scene has led some to doubt this identification -- one proposal is that the figure on the left is actually Nefertiti, who was occasionally shown in a crown usually reserved for men. However, the person's figure is portrayed as no more feminine than Akhenaten's, nor is he/she wearing the long gown that Nefertiti almost invariably wore. Still others have proposed that the other figure is indeed Smenkhkare, and that this picture indicates a homosexual relationship between the two kings.
 
 
 
 

Aten Worship

Aside from the Berlin bust of Nefertiti and the strange colossal statues of Akhenaten from Karnak, Aten worship scenes are probably the images most strongly associated with the Amarna period. The "disc worship" images were almost all created to the same formula: Akhenaten standing in front of an altar, offering something to the Aten, while Nefertiti stands behind Akhenaten and one or more of their daughters stands behind Nefertiti.
 
 
 

Akhenaten, Nefertiti, Merytaten and Meketaten worshipping AtenThe image at right is a classic example of the Aten worship image. Akhenaten and Nefertiti offer bunches of flowers to the Aten while their two eldest daughters stand behind them shaking sistrums. (Picture from The Art of Ancient Egypt by Gay Robins)
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Akhenaten as a sphinxIn one of the stranger sun worship images from the Amarna period, Akhenaten is shown as a sphinx holding up an offering to the Aten.
 
 
 
 

 Although the art style of Amarna eventually vanished after the reign of Akhenaten, it continued to influence Egyptian art far longer than his other reforms had influenced any other aspect of Egyptian culture. The beauty of Amarna art, especially that of the later Amarna period, still fascinates people today.
 
 
 
 
 


The pictures on this page are from the following books (click on the titles to order them from Amazon.com):

The Royal Women of Amarna: This beautiful book offers in-depth analyses of works of art from the Amarna period portraying the women of Akhetaten. By Dorthea Arnold with contributions from James P. Allen and L. Green, published by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1997.

Akhenaten: The Heretic King: This is probably one of the best books about Akhenaten, written by Dr. Donald B. Redford, director of the Akhenaten Temple Project. Published by Princeton University Press, 1984.

The Art of Ancient Egypt: A beautifully illustrated book which analyses Egyptian art from predynastic times to the Ptolemaic period. Written by Gay Robins and published by Harvard University Press, 1997.

The Pharaohs: Master Builders: A book about Egyptian art and architecture with lovely photographs by Anne and Henri Stierlin. Written by Henri Stierlin and published by Terrail (Paris), 1995.


Return to Akhenaten.
Proceed to Akhenaten's Family.
Proceed to The Mystery of Akhenaten: Genetics or Aesthetics?
Proceed to Webpage-En-Aten.
Proceed to The Amarna Royal Family: Biographies of the Amarna Royalty.

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