Store Banner Desktop

Store Banner Mobile

Akhenaten depicted as a sphinx at Amarna, solar rays bathing him.

The Art of Amarna: Akhenaten and his life under the Sun

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

The Amarna period, roughly 1353-1336 BCE, introduced a new form of art that completely contradicted what was known and revered in the Egyptian culture.  The pharaoh Amenhotep IV not only changed his name from Amenhotep to Akhenaten, and the religion of ancient Egypt from polytheistic to monotheistic, but he also challenged the norm of Egyptian society by depicting his reign in a vastly different way from the rulers who came before him.  Previous to Akhenaten's rise to the throne, Egyptian art was stagnant, focused heavily on permanence both of the object and of the subject (most pertinently, the pharaoh) itself.

Relief portrait of Akhenaten in the typical Amarna period style.

Relief portrait of Akhenaten in the typical Amarna period style. Wikimedia, CC

When Akhenaten became the Egyptian pharaoh in 1353 BCE, he took it upon himself to change the standards of art and culture.  This was intended to aid in the solidification of the singular god Aten, as well as to separate the reign of Akhenaten from his predecessors.  What Akhenaten chose, however, for the artistic community was drastically different from what had once been.  Naturalistic physical features, familial affection, and the singular god Aten replaced the unrealistic human proportions, rigidity, and god-given leadership images of the past.  Before Akhenaten's time, the pharaoh in particular was routinely depicted with wide, broad shoulders, a strong body, and an emotionless, ageless face (Figure 1).  Always the standard royal headdress and false beard were depicted, and the posture appeared to be rigid and immovable—as though the pharaoh himself was immovable from the throne.  Each image was similarly crafted despite the age of the pharaoh, and forged in permanent mediums to endure throughout the ages.  These attributes spoke to the pharaoh's strength as a ruler and the longevity of his reign, and of Egypt.

Seated Statue of Hatshepsut, 18th Dynasty, ca. 1473-1458 B.C.E. New Kingdom Egyptian, from Western Thebes.

Figure 1. Unknown. Seated Statue of Hatshepsut, 18 th Dynasty, ca. 1473-1458 B.C.E. New Kingdom Egyptian, from Western Thebes.

Akhenaten, however, introduced a much more ambiguous form that broke away from the traditions of the past (Figure 2).  The portrayal of his body was feminine in nature, making it so that he looked quite androgynous—both masculine and feminine.  His torso became slim with hips seemingly wide enough for birthing, and his neck, face, and fingers were elongated.  Akhenaten did choose to maintain the beard and diadem of Egypt, as well as the crook of the pharaoh, but his imperfections were highlighted rather than hidden—as noted in his overly long forehead and pudgy belly. There are rumors that Akhenaten was a very sickly man and thus his elongated skull and rounded belly may be attributed to illness. These details included in the art introduced a new sense of realism that had not been present in the past.  Images of Akhenaten did not exude the strength of rulers past, making it all too easy to differentiate his images from those of his predecessors.

Akhenaten, 18th Dynasty, ca. 1353-1335 BCE. From the temple of Aton, Karnak, Egypt, Sandstone.

Figure 2. Unknown. Akhenaten, 18th Dynasty, ca. 1353-1335 BCE. From the temple of Aton, Karnak, Egypt, Sandstone.

The body of Akhenaten is further altered as his posture is much more fluid than had previously been seen in Egyptian art.  His artists attempted to focus on creating a more genuine vision of the pharaoh, breaking away from the traditional stationary depictions to show movement and emotion (see Figure 3 for comparison). 

Thutmose III and Hatshepsut, 18th Dynasty. Red Chapel, Karnak.

Figure 3. Unknown. Thutmose III and Hatshepsut, 18 th Dynasty. Red Chapel, Karnak.

Instead of rigidity, the focus of Amarna pharaoh art is on the depiction of Akhenaten as a good and kind father, active and actively playing with his children.  In Akhenaten, Nefertiti, and their children blessed by the Aten (Figure 4), Akhenaten is depicted with his famous wife Nefertiti and three of his children by her—two girls and a boy.  Both the pharaoh and his queen are with their children in a buoyant, upbeat manner rather than a strict, professional one, and they are, more importantly, interacting with them directly rather than through the traditional wet-nurse.  This emphasis on family relations was intended to show the ruler of Egypt as more interested in day-to-day activities and the brief moments of life rather than the eternal nature of his reign as his predecessors stressed.  By emphasizing the family, Akhenaten attempted to introduce to Egyptian culture the idea that the role of the pharaoh is secondary to the role of a father, as a good leader must be a good caregiver first.

Akhenaten, Nefertiti, and their children blessed by the Aten (Solar Disk), 18th century.  Relief from Akhetaten (Tell el-Amarna).

Figure 2. Unknown. Akhenaten, Nefertiti, and their children blessed by the Aten (Solar Disk), 18 th century.  Relief from Akhetaten (Tell el-Amarna).

In almost every known depiction of Akhenaten, there is a solar disk shown above him, a representation of the sun god Aten.  Though Aten existed in the Egyptian religion before the Amarna period, he soon rose to be known as the highest of all gods as Akhenaten attempted to erase all signs of the former pantheon and make Aten the lone god in the sky.  Moreover, pharaoh worship lessened tremendously in art (though was not removed completely), and was replaced by depictions of Akhenaten worshipping Aten, thereby displacing the idea that the pharaoh was a god in his own right.  With this new belief, depictions of Akhenaten were further distanced from images of the past as his role became more submissive to the will of the god, and thus his depictions were less leadership based.

Although the Amarna period did not last long after Akhenaten's death around 1336 BCE, this period was undoubtedly one of the most intriguing and significant in Egyptian history.  The shift of the divine structure had an astonishing effect on the way the culture was depicted artistically, thus creating a terrible backlash when Akhenaten's son, Tutankhamun, came to the throne a short while later.  Not only did Tutankhamun attempt to erase his father from Egyptian history, but he shifted Egyptian art back to the old ways so quickly and harshly that many objects from the Amarna period were lost or destroyed.  His haste was to the relief of the Egyptian people, but to the incredible disappointment of modern Egyptologists and art historians.  Much of Akhenaten's motives are now lost, thus creating a widespread fascination and appreciation for the brief period while it lasted.

Top image: Akhenaten depicted as a sphinx at Amarna, solar rays bathing him. Source: CC BY 2.0

By Riley Winters


Amarna: Ancient Egypt's Place in the Sun." Penn Museum. Accessed January 1, 2014.

Dodson, Aidan. Amarna Sunrise: Egypt from Golden Age to Age of Heresy (Cairo: The America University in Cairo Press, 2014.)

Erhardt, Michelle. "The Amarna Period." Class Lecture, Fine Arts 201 from Christopher Newport University, Newport News, VA 23606, September 2013.

Kemp, Barry. The City of Akhenaten and Nefertiti: Amarna and Its People (New Aspects of Antiquity) (London: Thames & Hudson, 2014.)

Smith, W. Stevenson. The Art and Architecture of Ancient Egypt (Connecticut: The Yale University Press, 1999.)

Watterson, Barbara. Amarna: Ancient Egypt's Age of Revolution (USA: Tempus, 2002.)




Akhenaten was before his time! The priesthood of Amun, seemed to have had a problem with the Pharaoh, Akhenahten, and his flagrant display of this field of engineering through the creation of a city dedicated to technology. This city included outside displays of the magical powers of Aten. A power that was well known centuries prior to that city's building. Tutankhamen's, adviser, Horemheb, had convinced the boy King that all the displays of this technology needed to be removed.

A Cleansing that began with the purging of the city, called, the Horizon of Ah-ten, in which the Pharaoh, Akhenahten, and his queen Nefertiti, loved the pomp and ceremony where they would bask in as the queen Nefertiti, showed off the power of this technology, therefore, when Horemheb, became pharaoh, he took great pleasure in the disassembling of the city's displays, even to the point of hiding the stones inside the Pylon of Karnack . However, centuries later an earth quake would shake and crumble Horemheb's pylon to reveal the stones of that forgotten city, thousands of jumbled stone blocks that held a lost technology.

Henri, Chevyer started the excavation of the Horemheb pylon in 1926, even so, those thousands of stones remained disjointed without a cipher for many years. However, in 1965 a group of archaeologists, including R. W. Smith began a program, to reassemble a representation of that city through photographs and a computer referencing programs. A curriculum, that would reveal the secret power, that belonged to the Aten enigma.

This giant jigsaw puzzle showed Aten with three attributes, first light, secondly, heat and thirdly, in this case the Ankh’s true representation, a simple mirror. Mirrors that were used to reflect the light of the sun: and when those mirrors were used in conjunction and their reflected light was redirected to the same point, it produced, heat, which was Aten's, second attribute, A technology that is now known as solar furnaces, these mirrors were made of gold or of copper with a silvery, mercury finish. Reflectors that were common in other technologies of Egypt, such as in their communication system, and these mirrors were a powerful tool in Egypt's concealed science. The city of, Aten was a problem for, the priesthood of Amun, the city, revealed too much knowledge that belonged to Egypt's elite ,

Miraculously, the reassembled blocks of that dismantled city showed, that the heat of the, Aten system had many uses. However, it was an exchange student to Egypt from Syracuse, by the name of Archimedes, that would show the power of Aten to the world, especially the Romans. Archimedes is said to have, “single handedly defended the city of Syracuse” in 212 BC, by constructing a system that is now called solar furnaces. Mirrors that were used to focus the Sun's light by more than one thousand fold onto the Roman ships. Today the power of, Aten has gone high tech and is used too create electrical power out of thin air.

Akhenaten Reputation Redeemed, Egypt proposes 1.8 GW Solar Energy Project.

Akhenaten almost certainly forms the basis of the Oedipus story.  The art depicted him accurately, with a body strangely deformed with swollen legs and unusual hips.  His son Tut had the same features.  

Oedipus means swollen foot.  Velikovsky wrote a book on it.  


Velikovsky also argued for the Amarna period around 500 years later in history, which would have put Akhenaten's monotheism in line with the emerging monotheism in Judaism, which moved from monolatry to monotheism at about that time.  It seems strange that a change in religion in Egypt, the most powerful nation near Israel, would have had no effect on the Hebrews for a long time.

Tom Carberry

Akhenaten was unique, for sure. Interesting aspects of his life are captured in two books by Savitri Devi, "Son of the Sun" and "The Lightning and the Sun." It's a shame there was such a reaction against him by his successors who almost managed to obliterate him from history, for he is one person I'd love to know more of what his religious ideas/philosophy was.

I was actually Akhenaten in my previous life

And you should probably get back on your medication.


Riley Winters's picture


Riley Winters is a Pre-PhD art historical, archaeological, and philological researcher who holds a degree in Classical Studies and Art History, and a Medieval and Renaissance Studies minor from Christopher Newport University. She is also a graduate of Celtic and Viking... Read More

Next article