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Here’s how this Pharaoh turned ancient Egyptian art upside down

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Akhenaton

In Ancient Egypt, individuals were governed by strict religious and social guidelines. This can clearly be seen in the hard work that reflects in the enormous temples and pyramids across the banks of the Nile.

However, during the reign of the Pharaoh Akhenaton, more commonly known to English speakers as Akhenaten, there was a sharp break away from the traditions that governed Egypt during the era of his predecessors as well as his successors.

The drastic change was mainly due to his different religious views which centred around one deity, Aton (or Aten), or what is today known as monotheism.

Akhenaton ruled for some seventeen years. His reign ended with his death sometime between 1336 BCE and 1334 BCE.

His religious views caused him to rebel against the powerful temple priests and move from Thebes – present-day Luxor – to a new capital city that he constructed further down south, in present-day Minya. This was the abode of Aton, a sun god, and he named it Amarna.

The changes that followed during the era of Akhenaton were felt in the daily lives of Egyptians. However, today this can only be seen through the sculptures and architecture that he built.

The art that was produced during his reign – referred to as Amarna Art – has more naturalistic and expressionistic features compared to other Ancient Egyptian eras.

The conventional sculpting techniques that Ancient Egyptians held so dear attempted to show the most representative aspects of each element in the scene, rather than mimicking a realistic view of things. Each object was portrayed from its most recognizable angle, which is why human images showed the legs, waists, and limbs in profile and faces and shoulders from the front.

In contrast with the sharp edges and precise proportions of conventional art of the time, Amarna Art is characterized by a sense of movement enhanced by three-dimensional edges. Sculptures of individuals showed elongated and narrow heads and necks, with inclined foreheads along with a prominent chin, large ears, full lips, and half closed eyes that soften the expression.

Representations of the human body showed more imperfections, perhaps in deference to Aton. 

Regardless of the gender of the subject, individuals had voluptuous hips and thighs, and plump breasts, while the torso, arms, and legs remained thin. Hands and feet were illustrated as long and slender with details that showed the nails.

Another distinct feature of Amarna Art, conceivably because Aton was often associated with the sun, is that it portrayed women and men with significantly darker skin tones compared to the usual red shades of the skin at the time.

Along with the new style came different themes. The sun casting rays on the royal family is a recurrent motif in the art produced during this period. Meanwhile, previous religious beliefs like the journey to the underworld are entirely absent in Amarna Art. The representation of family seemed to become more intimate with images of the royal couple kissing and giving each other flowers, Akhenaton kissing his son, and children playing with his wife, Nefertiti.

Viewing Akhenaton as a heretical king, Egyptian monarchs later attempted to wipe out traces that were left of him, abandoning the site of Amarna. This led to the late discovery of his art and architecture. However, the drastic transitions that Akhenaton ordered his sculptors to make continued to influence later periods in a slight yet significant way.

Click here for an original version of this article

Yasmin Helal

About Yasmin Helal

Having lived in the GCC, Sri Lanka, Egypt, Iraq, and Iran, Yasmin is a journalist who enjoys writing travel and culture features.

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