ANCIENT EGYPT | Akhenaten and Amarna art

By “Amarna art” is meant the artistic production of Egypt created by Akhenaten, a sovereign belonging to the 18th dynasty. We referred to him as a revolutionary, heretic, monotheist, deformed and certainly an innovator, that not even the damnatio memoriae to which he was subjected was able to erase from the pages of history; indeed, today he is one of the most famous pharaohs of Egypt, along with Tutankhamen.
In Egypt, during the New Kingdom, there was a radical change in the religious field. Amenhotep IV carried out a reform in order to diminish the power of the god Amun and his priests, since they, thanks to the prestige and wealth gained, had become an intolerable alternative to the pharaonic power. This led Amenhotep IV to prefer Aton, the solar disk; in his honour, therefore, he changed his name to Akhenaten, “the one who is pleasing to Aton”, and founded newly in Tell el-Amarna, far from Thebes, a new capital, called Akhetaton, “Aton’s Horizon”.

 

The new rules of Amarna art

His reform also affected the artistic field: new forms of expression were imposed, far from tradition, aimed at realism (an example is the Bust of Queen Nefertiti, whose serene beauty has been shining for centuries, preserved in Berlin) and the representation of scenes of domestic life of the royal family (such as the limestone stelae, also in Berlin, depicting Akhenaten, his wife and three daughters). These scenes were a real novelty: until then, in fact, they had been judged far too intimate to be reproduced on the walls of public buildings.

As time went by, the realism of the Amarna style became exaggerated, pushing the physiognomic features to the point of deformity. The colossal statue of Akhenaten, from the temple dedicated to Aton in Karnak and currently housed in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, exemplifies the new artistic rule: it has an unnaturally elongated head on a long slender neck, a face with fleshy lips, almond-shaped eyes, sunken cheeks, cheekbones, nose and chin pronounced; finally, the body with a narrow torso, relaxed belly, wide hips and thighs and thin calves.
Some scholars, assuming that the artists, in the realization of their works, had based themselves on the real aspect of Akhenaten, had assumed that he suffered from pathological problems and congenital deformities, found, precisely, in the lengthening of the limbs and skull.
The alteration of shapes and lines shows Akhenaten’s innovative intent; however, this did not have devastating effects on the rendering of the figure, which, even though it appeared unbalanced, drew inspiration from a fertile creativity and unusual stylistic solutions, which did not depend on any rule. The freedom of expression that the Amarna artist had led to broaden the stylistic paths and themes of representation, including references to royalty, as well as moments of daily life and intimacy of the royal family.

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Bust of Nefertiti (Neueus Museum, Berlin)

Colossal statue of Akhenaten (Egyptian Museum, Cairo)

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