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Wednesday, November 7, 2007

HUX Independent Project: Art of the Amarna Period

There are many who would agree that the roots of the first great civilization came and went with ancient Egyptian culture. Further, any student with a passing interest in the arts and humanities would be remiss in their duties if they failed to study the impressive body of art work the Egyptians of the Old, Middle and New Kingdoms have left to us. And while we might be able to trace a subtle degree of artistic progress or changes between each of these Kingdoms, one must be careful not to omit the study of the Amarnic Period of art in Egyptian history, nor neglect to study the charismatic and revolutionary pharaoh who was responsible for not only wholesale changes in the culture and customs of the Egyptians he ruled, but also the abandonment of age old religious and artistic conventions.

By the 14th Century BCE, Egypt had carved out a large empire for itself at the expense of its African, Middle Eastern, and Asian neighbors. By proxy, the religious and cultural beliefs of the Empire had spread as far south as Nubia and northward into Syria (Tansey 96). By 1379 BCE, the pharaoh Amenophis III had secured the Empire of Egypt and was succeeded by his co-regent, Amenophis IV, later to be called Akhenaten (Rempel). The new pharaoh, well versed in the religious custom and rights afforded to Amun, Osiris, Horus and the many other Egyptian gods and goddesses, prophesied the rise and worship of a new god.

The heliopolitan religion of Egypt never owned a single, popular figure…one who was the dominant or true god-figure (Bille-de Mot 42). Amenophis IV (Akhenaten) attempted to invest into his culture and his people a heliopolitan religious figure for general worship: the solar disk with rays “terminating in open hands ready to distribute divine benefaction” (Bille-de Mot 42). Amenophis IV’s new religion was based around a solar disk he referred to simply as the Aten. At first, this practice likely did not alienate or offend the priests of the god Amun as it was no surprise for one pharaoh to favor one god over another for their own reasons (Reeves 31). Eventually, however, the religious reforms instituted by Amenophis IV (Akhenaten) caused a rift between himself and the priests of Amun. So great was this rift that six years after his coronation the pharaoh and his court completely abandoned the city of Thebes, the then capital and seat of Pharaonic power in the Middle Kingdom (World Art 674). Amenophis IV moved his court down the river Nile, miles away from Thebes, where he established the creation of a new city, Akhetaten (or as we call it today, Tell el-Amarna) which loosely translates in “Horizon of Aten” (Reeves 8). It was also at this time that the Amenophis IV dropped his birth name (Amun is Content) and changed it to Akhenaten (Glory to the Aten) to both validate his new religious vision of the Aten and symbolically erase the worship of Amun from his rule (“The Glory of the Aten”).

Akhenaten’s battles with the Priests of Amun were far from over. Akhenaten openly challenged the practices and ideas of the priests of Amun, including their keeping of concubines at their temples and the priestly sale of magical charms and talismans (Hobbs 39). Akhenaten then proclaimed the religion of the Aten as the universal religion of Egypt, abolished the cult of Amun and ordering the summary defacing of Amun’s name and image from state documents and state sanctioned art (Tansey 96). All through the kingdom, artworks that bore the image or name of Amun were defaced and blotted out of existence. All the temples of Amun were emptied and Akhenaten even went so far as to expunge the plural ‘gods’ from their language (“The Glory of Aten). As Richard Tansey points out, this type of behavior may have the look of psychotic fanaticism, but he points out that they were “portended by Egyptian empiricism”, the end result being that Aten did not just become the primary god of one man or one nation (as was the case of Amun), but a god for all people under Egyptian rule (Tansey 96).

Thus, Akhenaten was exploiting already-gathering forces when he raised the imperialized god of the sun to be the only god of all earth and proscribed any rival as blasphemous. He appropriated to himself the new and universal god, making himself both the son and the prophet, even the sole experient (sic), of Aton (sic). To him alone could they go make revelation. (Tansey 96)

But the image of the Aten was not only a symbol of universalism, but a universal symbol. The Aten symbolized a “universal love embracing all living beings, whatever their country”, and this was one of the most significant and striking features of the sun-disk god (Bille-de Mot 42). Eleonore Bille-de Mot makes mention that this type of religious cosmopolitanism had not been seen in Egypt before (42). The rise of the Aten struck its zenith and its death during the same seventeen years that Akhenaten reigned, when an Empire reached its peak and slowly began to decline in the face of poor foreign policy decisions (“Glory of the Aten”).

Further changes in the religion of Egypt were to follow with the rise of the Aten to prominence. Eleonore Bille-de Mot states that prior to the religion of Aten Egyptian theology was concerned with notions of good and evil and that this changed with the temporary elimination of the old gods (42). The new religion of Aten “did not seem to have any moral concern. Aten was simply a creative god (with) sincerity understood as an expression of freedom” (42).

The Image of the Aten

One of the most significant changes that Akhenaten ushered into Egyptian civilization was a new approach to the visual arts. The new innovations would sweep across his city and his peoples during his reign and even though the style of art he helped to create would disappear after his death, its legacy continues to influence art to this day. Arguably, the origin of Akhenaten’s artistic revolution came with the state-sanctioned image of what Aten would look like in reliefs, carvings, etchings, and renderings. As Aten was the embodiment of the very sun, it was then “present in all things…. (a) universal demiurge” that had no need for statues in which its followers could pay homage (Bille-de Mot 43). The sanctuary temples of Aten were not somber places or places of mystery. Temples dedicated to Aten were open-air temples, one which the god Aten could visit daily with the flood of its very rays (Ibid. 43). In every piece of Egyptian art from this time, the Aten is seen as nothing more than a disk. There are no animal or humanoid features attributed to it as is so common with all the other gods before Aten. The previous images of the sun-god in Egypt incorporated either a pyramid or a falcon with it (Rempel). The new symbol of the sun-god Aten was a simple disk with radiating rays emanating forth from it, “each ray terminating in a human hand. It was a masterly symbol, suggesting a power issuing from its celestial source, and putting its hand upon the world and the affairs of man” (Rempel). Through the simplicity of the image of Aten, Akhenaten created a religious symbolism that deified the force by which the sun made itself felt on earth and served to a create an image of a god that was, at the same time, universal/spiritual/abstract. The hands of Aten which radiate from the disk often reach so far into a sculpture or a relief that the hands actually touch the figure of the king or his queen or their children. This serves to humanize the god, offering ocular proof of the tenderness and warmth of the Aten’s caress.

The relief carving King Ikhnaton and his Family Adoring the God Aton (Appendix Figure 1) demonstrates the imagery of Aten remarkably well. This piece, carved during the ninth year of Akhenaten’s reign, is fashioned from limestone and measures 19” tall by 20” wide. This piece shows the king, his wife Nefertiti, and one of their daughters worshipping Aten. Both Akhenaten and Nefertiti are offering flowers up to Aten which is easily recognized here as the deeply cut disk in the upper-right quadrant of the image. The rays of Aten stretch in straight lines away from its disk-body towards the figure of Akhenaten and Nefertiti. Slight, but yet still perceptible are the hands that rush forth from the ends of the Aten’s rays. While most of the hands of Aten are cupped and empty, a few of them hold forth an Ankh, the traditional Egyptian symbol for life (Donadoni 108). These Ankhs can be found being held before the noses of the king and queen. Between the figures of the king and queen is a stand that offers more flowers to Aten. The same occurs in the two stands that figure before the body of the king. The hands of Aten can be seen extending not only to the royal couple, but to the stands, accepting the offerings and gifts of the royal couple. The dominant figures are those of the royal couple and their daughter. All three figure prominently in the foreground with Akhenaten dominating the central space of the work. All three humanoid figures are based on a triangle “formed by the figures, which rises from the little princesses (sic) to the god” (Donadoni 108). The carving of the relief is of varying depth and the expressiveness of the work is made more or less detailed by the importance of the figure or action being depicted. “Thus, the focal point of the composition lies in the upper right-hand corner”, the same area dominated by the deeply carved and polished sun disk (Donadoni 108). The depth/shallowness of this relief is also interesting from the aspect of light. The varying depth of the relief causes irregularities in how light plays off the image. “The irregular distribution of the light on the surfaces is accompanied by the movements created by the lines of hieroglyphs, the flowers, the altars, and the rays of the god. These are all elements that create ground figures of minority intensity and interest with respect to the main subjects of the composition” (Donadoni 108). Hence, the masterful way in which the work has been carved creates a vitality in the work and helps to accentuate the contours of the body and likely would have helped to accentuate the paints used in the work when it was in its prime.

Akhenaten as Sphinx (Appendix Figure 2) also shows the relation between the Aten and the Pharaoh. Here, Akhenaten is carved as a sphinx in deep, sunken relief. The forelegs of the sphinx body are not the traditional lion’s paws, but human arms and hands which hold aloft a “libation vessel which asperges (sic) a floral offering at the left” (Aldred 99). The rays of the Aten emanate from its disk-figure placed in the upper left quadrant of the relief. Again, as was typical, the Aten is the most significantly carved figure as far as polish and depth. The rays of the Aten stretch forth to accept the offering Akhenaten is making to his god. The rayed arms end in hands that caress the floral offering, the lion-body of the pharaoh, and once again hold an Ankh to the nose of the king. The hieroglyphs which run along the same level as the sun-disk denote the names of Aten, Akhenaten, and Nefertiti (Aldred 99). The work, measuring 58 centimeters high by 92 centimeters wide, is carved from limestone and is no longer complete. Aldred points out that the relief had been broken in three places and mended by the museum in Geneva where it now resides (Aldred 99). There is a clear blemish on the cheek of the pharaoh’s face, evidence of the wear and tear on the slab. Aldred is also quick to point out that while Akhenaten had rejected the old mythologies of the old gods, presenting himself as a sphinx was not uncommon (Aldred 99). Curiously, the hieroglyphs state that Aten is within “the sunshade in [the temple called] Fashioner of the Horizon of the Aten in Akhetaten” (Aldred 99). Aldred points out that no such temple has been identified in what remains of Akhetaten, but the “sunshades were apparently kiosk-like structures in which members of the royal family may have received a periodic recharge of their divine power” (Aldred 99). This notion makes perfect sense when one considers the frequency in which Amarnic relief depicts any number of the royal family being bathed in the inviting arms of the Aten, creating a clear association between the relationship of the Aten’s life-giving rays and the mortal recipients of its divine life.

While Akhenaten only reigned for seventeen years, and while the priests of Amun were quick to re-acquire their old influence and power, the image of the Aten and the mannerist differences of Amarnic art were not quick to disappear. Akhenaten’s successor is perhaps the most well-known of all Egyptian pharaoh’s. King Tutankhamun’s rich legacy of treasure and its subsequent discovery by Howard Carter are well known tales to any passing enthusiast of Egyptian art. What may not be as well-known is the fact that Tutankhamun was not the intended successor to Akhenaten and that Tutankhamun was not his original name. In the A and E documentary In Search of History: Akhenaten, Egypt’s Heretic King, Egyptologist James Allen speculates that Akhenaten’s immediate successor was Smenkhare, who is documented as the pharaoh’s co-regent by year fourteen of Akhenaten’s reign. The fate of Smenkhare is not well known, but Eleonore Bille-de Mot notes that his mummy has been discovered and it was determined that he died around the age twenty-five, and that documentation found within his tomb indicates that he perished in the seventeenth year of Akhenaten’s reign (which also happened to be the final year of Akhenaten’s reign) (147). At this point, the throne was handed over to the exceedingly young Tutankhaten. The young king was likely placed under dubious pressure from the once displaced priests of Amun to return Egypt to its previous religion. His kingship in peril and he being young and, likely, impressionable, Tutankhaten rejected the Aten in both name and religion. He struck the name of Aten from his own surname and changed it to Tutankhamun, symbolically and officially re-embracing and re-validating the worship on Amun in both name and deed (Allen qtd. in In Search of History). Memphis became the new seat of political and religious power in Egypt and Akhetaten was literally abandoned. The old religion eventually returned and the better part of the artistic innovations that Amarna had endorsed would eventually disappear with the image of the Aten.

The Throne with Tutankhamon and Queen (Appendix figures 3 and 4) was fashioned after the end of the heyday of Amarnic form. Yet the wooden throne beautifully plated with gold, silver, and glass paste, contains a very obvious tribute to the Aten and the religious/artistic revolution of his predecessor. The imagery presented on the face of the seatback measures twenty-one inches by twenty-one inches square. Gold is the dominant color with burnt orange/red for the coloration of the bodies of Tutankhamun and his Queen. The most compelling image is the inclusion of the Aten, complete in its original form and placed in the center of the work, directly over the heads of the royal couple. The rays of the Aten race forth and the hands of Aten once again touch the royal crown of a pharaoh, and hold the carved image of the Ankh to the noses of both king and queen. Further holdovers from Amarnic style are noted in the paunch, rounded belly of the king (a typical device of high Amarnic form). The figures are “loose-limbed…with slight but studied awkwardness” (Donadori 128). Of further note is the fact that the hieroglyphs contain both the names ‘Tutankhaten’ and ‘Tutankhamun’, “reflecting the political tightrope the young king and his advisers were attempting to walk” (Reeves 181). Clearly, Tutankhamun understood the legacy of his father’s work and, as Reeves points out, a full rejection of Amarnic form would not happen until after Tutankhamun’s death, and that the Aten’s temples would continue to function in their divinity up and down the country for some years following the death of its founder (Reeves 181).

Sculpture and Statuary: The Roots

Much has been speculated as to the peculiar appearance of Akhenaten in Amarnic art. Whether in statuary or relief or painting, there are some obvious abnormalities in his physical appearance. This is further compounded by the sheer volume of works that bear Akhenaten’s image. Why would a society that had so revered the stiff, static, and heroic representations of humanity suddenly opt to revere a paunch, sickly king whose typical imagery is more feminine that masculine?

One of the most obvious reasons for the plethora of images of Akhenaten and the royal family stems from the religious changes instituted by him. The abolishing of all divine images as ordered by the heretic king caused a great problem among people who were accustomed (due to generations of history) to worshipping a carved image (Bille-de Mot 93). To a people used to identifying humanoid images of many gods, the sudden new theology was too abstract. The idea of worshipping an immaterial god (Aten) must have been somewhat frightening and disconcerting to a people conditioned through eons of repeated religious custom. As their was no fully realized image of a humanoid Aten, the people of Egypt turned to worshipping Aten’s mortal representative, Akhenaten (Bille-de Mot 93). This, in part, explains the great number of representations of Akhenaten in the visual arts. This new demand for sculpture in the round or in relief caused the artists of Amarnic form to study their models with exceptional amounts of detail (Bille-de Mot 93). As a result, many plaster casts and molds of the royal family were commissioned in order to keep up with the high demand for carved images (Bille-de Mot 94).

If the demand for carved images of the royal family resulted in careful study of the subject, is it safe to assume that Akhenaten was deformed in some way? The question of the king’s physiology has been a perplexing one to Egyptologists for years. This is further compounded by the fact that Amarnic representations of the king seems to have changed from its early attempts to its more refined style at the end of Akhenaten’s reign. Eleonore Bille-de Mot points out that there are two distinct phases in Amarnic art. The Early Amarnic form featured more severely exaggerated forms while Late Amarnic lessened the exaggerations considerably (Bille-de Mot 91). Why is this so? The period of Amarnic art only lasts in its purist form for seventeen years (the duration of Akhenaten’s reign). Is it possible that changes this severe could have occurred in such a short time? One possible reason why the style changed so dramatically is due to “aesthetic wearying” in the face of the effigies that served to caricature the royal couple (Bille-de Mot 91). A second, and more understandable reason, is due to the fact that better expert sculptors came to Akhetaten and added their technical skill and precise knowledge of the human body to the canon of Amarnic art (Bille-de Mot 91). It is well documented that two different sculptors were the chief artisans of Amarnic style during the reign of Akhenaten. The first was the master sculptor Bek, who had been responsible for colossal statues of the pharaoh Amenophis III (Akhenaten’s father) and who would help to “formulate the distinctive Amarna art-style” under the supervision of Akhenaten (Reeves 66). The more recent discovery of the house of master sculptor Thutmose revealed numerous limestone, sandstone, and plaster casts of hands and feet of the royal family, cementing his role as the chief artisan of the late Amarnic period. Stylistic differences between Bek and Thutmose are quite numerous and bear discussion.

The Works of Bek and the Diseased King

The works of Bek signify the earliest innovations in the visual arts in Akhetaten. As noted, Amarna sculpture was forced to focus more on the secular and less on the religious due to a serious lack of religious iconography to work with. The omission of the old gods and their association with death and the afterlife gave way to the rise of Aten and a new concern with life in the here and now. Dennis Sporre notes that Amarnic art forms early on were more concerned with representing the uniqueness of a human being. “Amarna sculpture is highly lifelike, but it transcends the merely natural and enters the spiritual realm” (Sporre 50). Sporre further points out that the statuary of early Amarnic form alter the head to body proportions significantly compared to traditional Egyptian art:

In other periods, head and body proportions seem to be close to a ratio of 1:8. The total figure is thus nine heads from top to bottom. At Tell el-Amarna [Akhetaten], the total figure is seven to eight head lengths: in other words, the head is larger. Body proportions are also different. Arms are thinner and hands are larger. Abdominal and pelvic areas are emphasized in contrast to the focus on the shoulders and upper torsos of earlier periods. (Sporre 50)

The old conventions of traditional Egyptian art had been transgressed. Angular forms gave way to curvilinear. As Jack Hobbs notes, “stereotype yielded to naturalism, and subject matter became more personalized” (Hobbs 39).

The question still remains as to whether the abnormal representation of the king is due to illness or aesthetic taste. The striking features of Akhenaten in Early Amarnic form were described by Cyril Aldred:

The king was now represented with a receding forehead, a lined and haggard face, a long nose, thick lips, slanting eyes, a hanging overgrown jaw, and hollow cheeks. . . . His neck was shown as lean and arching, emerging from pronounced collarbones. . . . His breasts were prominent, his paunch pendulous, buttocks large, and his thighs inflated above spindle shanks. (qtd. in Reeves 147-48)

German Egyptologist Walther Wolf is quoted as saying that the Amarna style was one of “sick ugliness and nervous decadence” (qtd. in Reeves 149). While perhaps a bit harsh, the sentiment had been mirrored by many of his contemporaries. Akhenaten’s physical appearance in early Amarnic form may be seen as sick and ugly. The reason may be more due to heredity than aesthetic taste.

Several attempts have been made to determine the pathology of Akhenaten in an effort to determine whether the king had suffered from a hereditary illness that deformed him. Unfortunately, due to the fact that Akhenaten’s remains have never been found, an answer to this query is not easy to come by. Early medical diagnosis of Akhenaten’s physical condition was made by examining his image in relief and statuary. The deformities, so apparent in the art and so well noted by Aldred, were catalogued and a possible cause was determined. Originally, Akhenaten was diagnosed by modern medicine as suffering from Froehlich’s Syndrome, an endocrine disorder whose physical manifestations are similar to what we might note in the pharaoh’s artistic representation in Early Amarnic form (Reeves 149). Among these is the fact that Froehlich’s Syndrome occurs as a tumor in the pituitary gland and mainly affects secondary sex characteristics in men (Lorenz). The gonads or sex glands in men don’t function properly and “often results in infertility, a lack of sex drive, and feminine fat distribution” (Lorenz). This diagnosis, however, can be nullified in large part by two facts. First, victims of Froehlich’s Syndrome are typically mentally retarded; secondly victims of Froehlich’s Syndrome are typically impotent (Reeves 149). Akhenaten fathered (at least) six daughters and his capacity for public speaking and eloquent poetry is recorded on the many boundary stela he had erected around the city limits of Akhetaten.

Recent arguments suggest that Akhenaten may have suffered from the very rare Marfan’s Syndrome. Marfan’s Syndrome is a genetic disorder that strikes less than 1 in 10,000 people worldwide (Reeves 150). Furthermore, Marfan’s Syndrome affects neither intelligence nor fertility (Lorenz). The outward signs of Marfan’s are quite telling:

1) Tall stature, slender bones, long face, high palate, narrowly spaced teeth

2) Elongated extremities, slender spidery fingers and toes (arachnodactyly)

3) Arm span exceeds height

4) Spinal anomalies; exaggerated angulation of the neck and spine (kyphosis)

5) Curvature of the spine (scoliosis)

6) Congenital absence of one-half of a vertebra (hemi-vertebra)

7) Funnel chest (pectus excavatum) or pigeon chest (pectus carinatum)

8) Prominent shoulder blades (winged scapula), prominent clavicle (collarbone)

9) Wide pelvic girdle

10) Deficiency and often localized distribution of subcutaneous fat

11) Hypermobility of joints, backward curvature of the knee in normal stance (genu recurvatum), flat feet

12) Abnormally elongated skull (dolichocephaly)

13) Chin protrudes beyond forehead when viewed in profile (prognathism)

14) Deformity of outer ears

15) Hypogenitalism

16) Connective tissue weakness and hernias

17) Defective development of tissue (muscular hypoplasia) and poor muscle tone (hypotonia) (Reeves 151)

Virtually all of the outward physical manifestations can be seen in the works of Bek and other early Amarnic artists, but only two are necessary to confirm a rough diagnosis (Reeves 151). If Akhenaten had been a sufferer or carrier of Marfan’s Syndrome, the effects on his family would have been serious. As Marfan’s Syndrome is genetic, any of his offspring could have been stricken with the ailment. Further, victims of Marfan’s Syndrome are susceptible to sudden death in consequence of a weak cardiovascular system (Reeves 151). Akhenaten died relatively young in his reign. Smenkhare died by the age of twenty-five. Akhenaten’s only known son, Tutankhamun, died mysteriously at a young age as well.

Additionally, Marfan’s Syndrome can cause “keratoconus (abnormally cone-shaped corneas, discernible in a number of the king’s representations)” (Reeves 151). Keratoconus can cause blindness and it is entirely possible that Akhenaten could have suffered partial or total vision loss (Reeves 151). The pharaoh had a well known desire to “see the gods” (Menetho qtd. in Reeves 151). If Akhenaten suffered from partial or total blindness, this may have been a literal wish. The devotion of Akhenaten to the Aten takes on a whole new meaning of we consider the possibility that the king was blind. The warm, luminescent rays of the sun might have been the only thing the king could have dimly perceived. Reeves argues that Akhenaten was an accomplished musician, a traditional vocation for the blind (Reeves 151). The blind also have a need for more tactile contact and physical intimacy. Bek’s relief sculpture The Royal Family (Appendix figure 5) illustrates the king’s capacity for intimate contact quite well. This rectangular stela is carved in sunk relief out of limestone and measures 32 centimeters high by 38 centimeters wide. The scene depicts Nefertiti on the right and Akhenaten on the left. The tell tale arms of the Aten radiate down from the deeply carved representation of the sun-disk at the apex of the work. The hands of the Aten hold Ankhs to the noses of the king and queen. In the arms of Akhenaten, he holds one of his daughters, perhaps Meritaten or Meketaten. Nefertiti balances another daughter on her knees while holding an infant (likely Ankhesenpaaten) in her left arm. The royal couple sit facing one another, their sandaled feet “resting upon hassocks” (Aldred 102). Akhenaten wears a short kilt with a sash, his paunch belly hanging over the waistline of his kilt. The princess that Akhenaten holds is naked except for an ear ornament (Aldred 102). He holds the princess close to his lips as though he was about to sweetly kiss her. The princess’ hand reaches out to touch her father’s chin and points to her mother with her other hand. Nefertiti wears a full robe with a sash and her characteristic tall crown (Aldred 102). The inscriptions at the top of the work name all three daughters and indicate Nefertiti as their mother as well as naming the Aten (Aldred 102).

Such intimacy between a pharaoh and child was unheard of prior to the Amarnic style. The manner in which they are presented is relaxed and informed. The solar rays of the Aten bestow life on a “louche-looking (sic) king. . . . The truthfulness of (the) piece is at best subjective” (Reeves 147). Reeves is quick to point out that given what we know of Amarna style, this is exactly how the king wished to be perceived – “as far from the reality of dictatorship as possible” (Reeves 147). Further, the work shows the concern a father seems to have for a child, relishing in perhaps one of the only ways he could perceive the love and affection of his daughter: touch.

Another early period piece that demonstrates the intimacy of the royal family is the unfinished Royal Trio (Appendix Figure 6). This limestone statuette measures 13.5 centimeters high. While likely not carved by Bek, the work is still attributed to the Early Amarna style and clearly demonstrates the capacity/desire for touch between king and queen, and queen and daughter (Samson 22). The king and queen are backed by a plinth and step forward towards us on a limestone base. The princess figure walks slightly behind her mother. The head of the queen and her wig were apparently freed from the top of the plinth which continues behind the head of the king to perhaps support the royal crown (Samson 21). As is typical of early style, his clavicles are very pronounced and his torso and thighs are heavy and almost effeminate. The apron of his shendyt kilt has begun but was abandoned and remains unfinished (Samson 21). The left hand of the king is missing from the arm which hangs close by the body. His right hand extends and clasps that of his queen’s. Both Nefertiti and Akhenaten step forward on their left feet in an active pose. This design was more typical for a man than a woman (Samson 21). Above the breasts of the queen an incised line is evident, perhaps the boundary for the top of her royal gown. Nefertiti’s right hand swings behind her to catch the upraised left hand of her daughter. “The princess has been given her mother’s figure in miniature in a manner used by the artists during the early years of the new art when children are merely small adults, but there is no suggestion of clothing as on her parents…” (Samson 22). The left foot of the princess is forward in an active pose as with her parents. The right arm is missing as well as the head of the child. While this is an early piece, the concern for touch and intimacy is still clearly indicated. This variety of pose was not the norm prior to Akhenaten’s new art. The feminine characteristics of the pharaoh’s body, especially in regards to the hips, thighs, belly and breasts, is clearly accentuated but not nearly as much as the colossi of Akhenaten found in Karnak.

The Colossal Statue of Ikhnaten (Appendix Figure 7) is perhaps the best recognized image of Akhenaten in the world today. The statue is simply massive, standing over thirteen feet high. The colossi from Karnak are early period works and the new artistic elements in Amarna style are clearly evident here (Donadoni 106). The colossi were erected against great pillars and the “architectonic feeling is maintained by showing them in sheathe-like clothing and by treating the faces as a system of broad planes (Donadoni 106). This statue shows the king in his royal dress complete with ceremonial headdress and bracelets. He holds the royal scepters in his clutched hands. This is a significant change as Donadoni points out that ornaments and d├ęcor on prior works were little more than incised relief (Donadoni 106). Here, the ornamentation is carved with substantial, vigorous depth allowing for more dramatic effects of light and shade. Of course, the most telling element is the handling of Akhenaten’s body:

The face has been given an abstract expression, and the thinness of the torso emphasizes the pot belly and big hips. A physical type has been constructed which is the exact opposite of the classical Egyptian model – with its broad chest and shoulders, flat belly and lithe hips. The tangle of elements, the breaking of surfaces, sharp cuttings and energetic contours no longer confined to a single modulated line – all send the light charging back and forth in movements suggesting emotion and vitality.

(Donadoni 106)

While innovative, the colossi still cling to a semblance of Egyptian Classicism. They are stiff, frontal, and symmetrical. Akhenaten wears the obligatory royal costume, but this vision of kingship is shockingly different than the age old masculine ideal. The body is epicene with a long and languid head (Hobbs 39). The entire statue lacks the “sturdy cubic character indicative of Egyptian works” (Hobbs 39). Tansey further elaborates:

[The colossus] retains the standard frontal pose, but the strange, epicene body, with its curving contours, and the long, full-lipped face, heavily lidded eyes, and dreaming expression, shows that the artist has studied the subject with care and rendered him with all the physiognomical (sic) and physical irregularities that were part of the king’s actual appearance. The predilection for the curved lines stresses the softness of the slack, big-hipped body, a far cry indeed from the heroically proportioned figures of Akhenaten’s predecessors. In a daring mixture of naturalism and stylization the artist has given us an informal and uncompromising portrayal of the king, charged with both vitality and a psychological complexity that has been called expressionistic. (Tansey 79)

Tansey, quite obviously, opts for the idea of a natural expressionism – which the artist, Bek or whomever, rendered the king true to his actual shape and size. If the king were afflicted with Marfan’s Syndrome, and if that king desired a new realism in his art, it makes perfect sense that the early Amarnic style would emphasize the abnormalities of the king physique. This need for expressing the king accurately created a new sense of life and movement for artists. They now had to express “in swelling, curvilinear forms, their long-fostered naturalistic tendencies, thus far confined largely to the representation of animals” (Tansey 97). Now, that expression of naturalism was extended to the human figure as well due to Akhenaten’s willingness to experiment with artistic styles and Bek’s inherent skill with the chisel.

Thutmose and Late Amarnic Style

Eventually the extremism of Early Amarnic Style lessened and was replaced by a softer and more subtle art form. Cyril Aldred believes the primary reason for the change in the visual arts may have been due to the death of Bek and the elevation of Thutmose to the position of chief artisan (Reeves 149). While Bek is important for his innovative style (and rightly so), no sculptor in Egypt is more revered than Thutmose. Thutmose’s workshop was excavated by the Germans in 1912 (Reeves 157). While what many would consider the valuable artifacts (jewels, money, or furniture) had been cleaned out centuries before the discovery of the workshop, what remained behind was of significant interest. What remained were the plaster casts and molds of countless heads, hands, and feet of various members of the royal family at Akhetaten (Reeves 157).

The process of molds and casts would have been well known to most artisans of the day, having been passed down for generations from royal embalmers (Bille-de Mot 94). How, exactly, were these molds made? Are they molds from sketches in clay? Are they molds made from pre-existing stone sculpture, or could they be molds taken directly from a human face? Eleonore Bille-de Mot believes they must be molds taken from a human face as they are not truly works of art but instruments of art-work (94). It is possible, and hypothesized by Bille-de Mot, that the use of these realistic, molded models leads to more realistic forms in Amarnic art (95). Were, in fact, these molds made from a living subject? Bille-de Mot lists reasons why the molds located in Thutmose’s workshop likely came from a living model.

1) The molds/masks in Thutmose’s workshop only have a rough subject of the ears. It was impossible at the time to make a mold of the ear without damaging the ear.

2) Ears as they appear on death-masks (i.e. Tutankhamun and Nefertiti) are entirely complete.

3) Tendons and tensed muscles can be seen with the masks made from a living subject, as is the case with the masks found in the workshop.

4) Molds and masks made from the dead have the eye completely open. This is not the case in Thutmose’s workshop masks.

5) Firm modeling of the cheeks and forehead betray the spatula that was used to smooth out the plaster on a living figure (Bille-de Mot 96)

One of the most famous discoveries at Thutmose’s workshop is the series plaster

masks of Akhenaten himself. The Mask of King Akhenaten Series (Appendix figures 8a – 8d) is a monumental find because it allows us to perceive the reality of the pharaoh’s face and to better understand the extent of his deformities, if indeed he even had any. Eleonore Bille-de Mot is quick to point out that the plaster mask(s) of Akhenaten were created while the king was still living. She notes the linen covering the head and the nape of the neck of the king (Bille-de Mot 117). Further, the anatomical detail is ultra-realistic, including the accentuation of the sterno-mastoid muscle (visible when the head is thrown back), the projection of the jaw from having the head thrown back, and the fact that the ears are set at the correct height yet slightly back and down, as they would be if one’s head was thrown back while making a plaster cast (Bille-de Mot 117). Further evidence points to the eyes having been retouched and the eyelids are formally stylized (Ibid. 117). Furthermore, the skin about the mouth has been smoothed as if by a spatula (Ibid. 117). But what of the over-exaggerated features we associate with the king as in the colossi? Eleonore Bille-de Mot points out that there is evidence of a thinning of the form which might signify a sort of premature aging on the part of the king (117). This very likely could indicate the sickly condition of Akhenaten due to Marfan’s Syndrome but still proves inconclusive.

Ikhnaton with an Offering Tablet (Appendix Figure 9) further distorts the Marfan’s mystery. This late Amarnic piece stands 15 and ¾ inches high. It is fashioned from limestone and affixed to an alabaster base. The band from the front of the crown is missing, and likely would be if they were made of gold. The king carries an offering tablet before himself; however the figure is not active. One foot is not displaced in front of the other to show implied motion. Strangely, the feet are placed close together, a trait more characteristic of women in sculpted form than men (Donadoni 109). The feet are also sandaled, very informal for a king to wear in such a stately pose (Ibid. 109). The statue is painted in an ochre-yellow hue, another convention more likely attributed to a woman’s representation (Ibid. 109). With the feet so close together, the supporting base of the composition has been reduced to the point of near instability. The tell-tale paunch of the belly, hips, and thighs still exist, but the neck is no longer elongated and the limbs are not as spindly as we see note in Early Amarnic form. Further, while contemporary convention indicates this to be a statue of Akhenaten, Donadoni does point out that this statue is PROBABLY the king.

The highly polished, brown quartzite Princess (Appendix Figure 10) is another late period piece that smacks of realism and which might also indicate the presence of Marfan’s Syndrome. The most obvious characteristic of this piece is the curiously elongated head with the bulges in the “parietal areas, its slight division between the muscles under the occiput (sic), and its indication of the vertebra at the back of the neck” (Aldred 160). As indicated, one of the many signs of Marfan’s Syndrome is an elongation of the skull, called dolichocephaly. Many of the other busts of the other princesses contain this same peculiarity to their heads in both Early and Late Amarnic styles (Aldred 109). Furthermore, the idea that this might have been the common skull shape for Egyptians living in this time period has been debunked by the medical research of Dr. Derry, who unearthed and examined Egyptian skulls from all eras and never found this shape to be the norm (Bille-de Mot 121). Furthermore, the elongated head would not likely have been made to affix a headdress to. Amarnic sculptors were sticklers for detail and typically used a tenon to affix the headdress to the skull or bust (Bille-de Mot 121). Through research and examination of fragment paintings in the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford, it has been decided that the princesses indeed had distorted heads, and that their heads “own a few straight hairs; there is no sign at all of a headdress” (Bille-de Mot 121). Furthermore, the medical examinations of Tutankhamun and Amenkhkere (a relation to the princesses) show that that royal family had a tendency to be the “platycephalic type” (Bille-de Mot 121). In addition, the Mitannians, the progenitors of Queen Nefertiti’s bloodline, had a “dolichocephalic and elongated skull, flattened at the back and slightly indented towards the middle” (Bille-de Mot 122). This is exactly what we see with the Princess figure. The strange shape of the head was likely natural. The fact that Early Amarnic form seems to prefer exaggeration to Late Amarnic form is no exception. In both periods, the elongation of the skull is shown in relief, statuary, and painting. The only true difference is the amount or severity of exaggeration.

Arguably, the most famous piece of Late Amarnic art that came from the workshop of Thutmose is the Bust of Queen Nefertiti (Appendix Figures 11 and 12). This limestone bust is 50 centimeters tall and is easily one of the most recognized figures in all of Egyptian art. The bust is a polychromatic work, one which Thutmose is able to convey the grace of the neck as it bends under the weight of the tall crown she wears (Bille-de Mot 120). The headdress sets off the nape of the Queen’s neck and serves to accentuate the delicate curves of the eye, lips, cheeks, and brow. The execution of the piece is bold and leaves out the tendon of the throat while keeping the eyelids at full-stretch, adding to the sweetness of the figures expression (Bille-de Mot 120). One of the oddest features is the single completed eye of the bust. Contrary to popular belief, the other eye did not fall or pop out. Professor Borchardt believes the left socket of the bust was left out intentionally – left empty to perhaps instruct young apprentices of Thutmose in a lesson on the technique of creating and polishing the eye in a bust (Bille-de Mot 120). The grace and beauty of the piece is stunning. Richard Tansey notes that the bust of Nefertiti:

…exhibits . . . [an] expression of entranced musing and an almost mannered sensitivity and delicacy of curving contour. The sculptor may have been deliberately alluding to a heavy flower on its stalk by exaggerating the weight of the crowned head and the length of the almost serpentine neck. One thinks of those modern descendants of Queen Nefertiti – the models in the fashion magazines, with their gaunt, swaying frames, masklike, pallid faces, and enormous, shadowed eyes. As the modern mannerism shapes the living models to its dictates, so the sculptors of Tell-el Amarna [Akhetaten] may have had some standards of spiritual beauty to which they adjusted the likenesses of their subjects. Even so, one is made very much aware of the reality of the queen through her contrived mask of beauty, a masterpiece of cosmetic art. The Nefertiti bust is one more example of that elegant blending of the real and the formal that we have noticed so often in the art of the ancient Near East.

(Tansey 97-98)

What Amarna Accomplished: Then and Now

The vast array of books and websites and articles that deal with Amarnic Style tend to use the same terms to describe it: naturalistic, humanistic, realistic, and expressionistic. What is clear is that there was a loosening of conventions in painting and sculpture with the rise and fall of the Amarna style. It marks a break too revolutionary, too abrupt, and too emphatic to permit us to conclude that the style was simply a local, native flowering of forms and expressions (Tansey 99). The art of the Amarnic Age broke from the traditional forms in both style and subject matter. The king was shown in everyday situations rather than in posed or formalized positions. The rigid, official symbolism had been sloughed off in favor of a more humanized symbolism. What we see in Amarnic art is the need and desire to use all artistic means to express the relationship between god and king as well as king and family. The value placed on daily life and the intimacy shared between a family is that which makes the work of Amarna so modern in feeling; it is what serves to plant “the seeds for later Egyptian art” (Donadoni 106).

Eleonore Bille-de Mot in her book The Age of Akhenaten summarizes the best attributes and the technical innovations that Amarnic form proffered. Painters and sculptors that lived and worked in the years preceding the Amarna heresy, had attempted to capture nature in a state of flux, understanding the fluid nature of momentary attitudes (Bille-de Mot 43). Unfortunately, the exercise of this understanding had been limited to the creation of animal images, for casting images of people, whether royalty or not, had been the victim of its own stiff, static, and unmoving tradition. Amarnic art liberated the artists of its time, allowing them to be free to capture the natural effects in nature regardless of subject (Bille-de Mot 43). Under Akhenaten’s patronage, “painting and sculpture attained an unprecedented purity and delicacy” (Ibid. 43). At its zenith, Amarnic figures seem to be the very embodiment of an idealized and exquisite beauty, yet still they seem somewhat listless, being frozen into exquisite expressions (Ibid. 44). Amarnic art, then, “is of a remarkable quality, neither unskillful nor caricatural (sic), instead of imitating nature, it offers a new formal stylization, expressionistic rather than naturalistic” (Ibid. 44).

For the previous 1000 years, age-old conventions of traditional Egyptian art had thrived, but the expression of their imagery was due in large part to the objects they had committed to memory, not by the actual appearance of the object to the eye. Amarna artists struggled to “express a visual perception, a direct observation of the appearances of nature, a likeness and a symbol” (Bille-de Mot 92). As a result, Amarnic reliefs and paintings were not represented in rows that were broken up by the angles of a room, as we note with traditional Egyptian art. Indeed, Amarnic forms of relief or painting ran continuously over an entire wall, often crossing angular barriers (Bille-de Mot 92). Thus, to be a viewer of Amarnic reliefs was to be immersed into them.

Amarnic art stresses a unity of composition. It also stresses a unity of action. Amarnic works reveal a gentle balance between innovation and the desire for harmonious beauty (Bille-de Mot 92). The people in Amarnic works are linked by psychological elements; though each individual in a work takes a role in a unified event, they are all individually differentiated. Princesses can be represented as differently from one another as Akhenaten might be rendered differently from Nefertiti.

Technical Innovations

Besides being revolutionary in its depiction of individuals, Amarnic art was also revolutionary in some of the technical means designed to execute the works. Many of the low reliefs utilized incrustations of colored stones to give more life to the image (Bille-de Mot 120). The use of this colored stone would have been a natural complement to images that were meant to be viewed by the warm, golden rays of the Aten. Further, this peculiar technique became quite popular. As it turns out, the location of Akhetaten was situated close to a quarry that was bountiful with crystal limestone, a curious type of limestone that was unique to that region (Bille-de Mot 120). The crystal limestone helped to reproduce the white linen robes on a figure, while the yellow or red jasper that was used helped to create flesh tones (Ibid.120). This was taken even further in relief works made from quartz sandstone. The warm colors of the stone and the addition of crusted jewels created warm colors that imitated “sun-browned skin amazingly well” (Ibid. 120).

Another technical innovation curious to Amarnic art was the technique used in creating statuary. Many statues were carved from the skull up. The slender and graceful necks so closely associated to this style were often added to the composition later and made unusually long so they could be inserted into the limestone body (Bille-de Mot 120). Furthermore, the statues may have been put together by multiple artisans, as is hinted at in the writings of Diodoros (Ibid. 120). It is likely that all necessary parts of a statue were transported or assembled at the same place. This would have simplified the question of transport, and serves to explain why only head, hand or feet were created at the studio of Thutmose and not bodies.

To truly study and appreciate the art of ancient Egypt, one must be careful to not omit the study of the Amarnic Period of art in Egyptian history, nor neglect to study the charismatic and revolutionary pharaoh who was responsible for not only wholesale changes in the culture and customs of the Egyptians he ruled, but also the abandonment of age old religious and artistic conventions. Akhenaten introduced a range of radical new concepts to the Egytpian people: monotheism, expressionism, family intimacy. While his reign was short compared many of his peers, his legacy is one that has outlived even the long reigns of Zoser, Ramses, and Amenhotep. Following his death, Amarnic forms withered and died and disappeared from history. This is partially due to the shifting sands of Egypt and partially due to the backlash against his rule by the eventually renewed priests of Amun and their zealot king Horemheb. Later generations tried to erase Akhenaten from history by defacing his monuments, demolishing his great city, and striking his name form the official record of Egyptian King’s. Their victory was hollow at best. With the advent of modern archeology and Egyptology, the curious nature of the heretic king came to light. Today, more research has been done to unearth, uncover, and unravel the mysteries of this enigmatic pharaoh and his unique vision of art and religion than any other pharaoh, even Tutankhamun. Here, some 3000 years following the rise to power of a proto-revolutionary pharaoh is that same pharaoh finally taking his place in the pantheon of great men in history. His vision is pondered, his poetry analyzed, and his true nature given reams of paper on which to hypothesize and query. Akhenaten would likely agree that it is about time.

Works Cited

“Akhenaten – The Glory of the Aten”. February 4th, 2003.


Aldred, Cyril. Akhenaten and Nefertiti. The Viking Press, New York. 1973.

Bille-de Mot, Eleonore. The Age of Akhenaten. McGraw-Hill Book Company, New York. 1966.

Donadoni, Sergio. Egyptian Museum: Cairo. Newsweek’s Great Museums of the World Series.

Carlo Ludovico Ragghianti, Editor. Newsweek, Inc. 1969.

Encyclopedia of World Art. Volume IV. Robert W. Crandall, Editor. McGraw-Hill Book Company,

New York. 1961.

In Search of History: Akhenaten, Egypt’s Heretic King. VHS Documenatary. A and E Television Inc.


Hobbs, Jack A. and Robert L. Duncan. Arts, Ideas, and Civilizations. Second Edition.

Prentice Hall, Englewood, New Jersey. 1992.

Lorenz, Magaera. “The Mystery of Akhenaten: Genetics or Aesthetics?”. 1996. January 22nd, 2003.


Reeves, Nicholas. Egypt’s False Prophet: Akhenaten. Thames and Hudson Ltd. London. 2001.

Rempel, Professor Gerhard. “Akhenaton: Ancient Revolutionary”. December 28th, 2002.


Samson, Julia. Amarna: City of Akhenaten and Nefertiti. University College, London. 1972.

Sporre, Dennis J. The Creative Impulse: An Instroduction to the Arts. Sixth Edition.

Prentice Hall, Englewood, New Jersey. 2003.

Tansey, Richard G., Horst De La Croix and Diane Kirkpatrick. Art Through the Ages.

Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich College Publishers, New York. 1991.

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