Echoes of Eternal Egyptian Art: Effulgence and Beyond at Amarna—Part II
Egypt witnessed religious and cultural upheaval on an unimaginable scale when Pharaoh Akhenaten assumed the reins of power and declared the Aten as the supreme god. One of the noteworthy contributions of this king can be had from his determined deviation from forms of art that had governed the land from time immemorial. The resultant innovations ranged from the purely bizarre to the truly sublime—and these influences stretched into the Ramesside Period as well. The Amarna era stands out not merely for its capacity to create shock and awe down to this day; but because this manner of art was a reflection of the mindset of a king who wished to shed the shackles of stodgy convention.
Detail of guests at a banquet scene from the tomb of vizier Ramose (TT55) who served under both Amenhotep III and Akhenaten. As a result, this unfinished tomb which is notable for its high quality art in both the traditional and Amarna styles, gives Egyptologists evidence of the different stages of carving and decorating a tomb. New Kingdom, 18th Dynasty. Sheikh Abd el-Qurna, part of the necropolis in West Thebes.
Enter Amarna Art
Amarna art is full of detailed observations of the beauties of life—be it animals, birds or plants; and of course, human beings. Before the innovative art of this period, groups had been shown when necessary, but each individual performed his own action. There was no great sense of communication between them. Even married couples stood with their hands raised, looking off into the distance, independently. This gave way to representations of Akhenaten and his family in tender moments of togetherness—a sight never before witnessed particularly in royal portrayals.
The Amarna artistic canon of 20 squares, as opposed to the earlier school that employed the traditional 18-square grid, that incorporated two more rows to lengthen the torso and neck, was path-breaking. One of the marked deviations of art in this period was in the illustration of hands and feet. Traditional Egyptian relief rendered both feet as seen from the inside, with the big toe closer to the viewer.
Detail of the so-called ‘Princesses fresco’ from Akhetaten (modern El-Amarna). This fragment of wall painting is the lower part of a scene depicting Akhenaten and Nefertiti relaxing with their daughters, two of which are sitting casually on floor cushions in the foreground. The painting was excavated by Sir William Flinders Petrie in the 1890s. Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.
William H. Peck and John G. Ross explain the power and majesty of millennia-old artistic forms that the ancient Egyptians had adhered to heart and soul, before Akhenaten’s religious and artistic revolution brought about sweeping changes, “The typical view of the world as it is expressed in Egyptian art is one which accords with the Egyptian view of the universe. The Egyptian believed himself to be a part of the universe, of an order set down by the gods. For him to arrive at the kind of personal view which was necessary for a perspective drawing or painting he would have had to break with this established order. It was really only in the handling of details that the artist could rely on his own view of natural phenomena. All else was dictated for him. It is only through the medium of drawing that we are able to gain some appreciation of the individual differences of artistic perception.
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In this fragment, King Akhenaten offers an olive branch to the Aten. The slender, almost sensuous hand appears to be caressed by the hands of the sun’s rays. Amarna Period. Hermopolis (Ashmunein; Khemenu). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. (Public Domain)
“The finished product which most of the drawings served would have had far less individual character. It is certainly true that quality varies from one Egyptian work of art to another, but this is not so much a function of individual vision as of the particular skill of the artist in rendering the design in the 'correct' way. When Egyptian art is dismissed for not changing over three thousand years the reason for its existence is completely misunderstood. The artist was not intended to be an innovator. His role was to translate the Egyptian view of the world into graphic forms, following the canonical rules and working with an aspective vision.”
Various portraits of Amarna royalty in different materials display elongated heads and large skulls. Research, especially after the discovery of Tutankhamun’s mummy, has revealed that this style was grossly exaggerated. (Photo center, top row: Dmitry Denisenkov CC BY-SA 2.0)
Age of Experimentation
In Amarna art, however, artists began to experiment with more accurate representations, first in tomb painting, and then in sculpture and relief. Fingers and toes were depicted as slender and were carefully detailed to show even the nails. Subjects were represented with pronounced facial features accompanied by folds on the skin, as well as lowered eyelids. In the new human form, the subject had more fat in the stomach, thigh, and breast regions; while the torso, arm, and legs were thin and long like the rest of the body. Individuals were also illustrated with elongated heads. Members of the royal family were portrayed near-identical to Akhenaten during this period, particularly Nefertiti.
This fragmentary statue made of indurated limestone represents a vizier from the Amarna Period. Columns of inscription refer to the “beautiful light” and the “sole sun of the one who lives seeing him” — language that clearly signals the Amarna religion. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. (Public Domain)
Instead of separate registers moving in linear progression, some whole walls contain single compositions of palaces and temples. And, there is action all around. Militaristic depictions are largely missing, especially of the pharaoh smiting his enemies. Also conspicuous by their absence were the various gods and goddesses to whom Egyptians looked up to from birth to death and beyond. What one saw instead were the royal couple and their children adoring the Aten with offerings of different kinds. Scenes that comprised the temple decorations at Akhetaten were planned on a monumental scale and often covered entire walls, enlivened by smaller vignettes or subsidiary figures.
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Such scenes are extremely rare in Egyptian art; in fact, these constitute the only examples of a king and queen sharing intimate moments. But, when Akhenaten came to the throne he dictated the course of art—the results are staggering as they are impressive. Neues Museum, Berlin and Brooklyn Museum.
Different and Divergent Phases
Art in Amarna can be divided into its early, middle and late phases. The first kind depicted the royals in the centuries-old stylized forms, which lasted for a very short while. The second, was the often bizarre, exaggerated (and realistic) Amarna style: this phase dominated Akhenaten’s 17-year rule; while the third was a return to the old forms of representation, which can be evidenced in examples from the last few years of this pharaoh’s life.
A very interesting point to note is that for the first time ever, a Great Royal Wife, Nefertiti in this case, was shown in equal dimensions as her husband, the pharaoh, in royal portraiture. Even Amenhotep III the diplomatic genius had generally shirked from depicting his wife, the powerful Queen Tiye, as an equal—except, perhaps, in the (now) reconstructed rare dyad statue at Luxor Temple complex. But, no one can deny that women were accorded pride of place by Akhenaten.
The Brooklyn Museum states that the unusual, elongated skull shape often used in portrayals of the royal family “may be a slightly exaggerated treatment of a hereditary trait of the Amarna royal family”, given that “the mummy of Tutankhamun, presumed to be related to Akhenaten, has a similarly shaped skull, although not so elongated as [in typical Amarna-style art]”.
During the Amarna period, artists portrayed the king and queen as beings who combined male and female traits. The ruler’s gender-flexibility ensured the fertility of the earth and all living creatures. Here, the distended belly of the pharaoh reveals that he is pregnant. Limestone, paint, gold leaf. Brooklyn Museum. (Image: Brooklyn Museum)
In the final years of his reign, a sea change occurred in depictions of Akhenaten, even in three-dimensional art; when his features became softer, rounder, and plumper. In more ways than one, it signaled the end of the characteristic phase of Amarna art; and along with the cessation of that peculiar art form which had reached its zenith under Akhenaten – much like the midday sun – the curtains came down on an era of religious experimentation by the king.
[Special thanks to Dr Victor Solkin, Heidi Kontkanen and Margaret Patterson for granting permission to use their photographs. The public archives of the Metropolitan Museum of Art can be accessed here.]
Top Image: Foreigners accompany a triumphal procession of the King; design by Anand Balaji (Photo credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York); Deriv.
By Anand Balaji
Independent researcher and playwright Anand Balaji, is an Ancient Origins guest writer and author of Sands of Amarna: End of Akhenaten.
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