Akhenaton Religion and Art

December 25, 2013 at 11:08 pm (Art History) (, , , , , )

The Amarna Period was characterized by governmental and religious reforms with artistic implications that both challenged traditions and defined an era.  Only through luck and perseverance has any evidence of this obscured age been unearthed.

During the eighteenth dynasty, a line of warrior pharaohs reclaimed and expanded Egyptian lands, creating the largest Empire in history.  After the dust had settled[i], the new pharaoh, Amenhotep[ii] III, faced a time of peace and prosperity.  Unfortunately, this security was potentially threatened by the powerful, nearby civilizations of Babylonia, Assyria and Mitanni.  Fearing war, Amenhotep III began diplomatic correspondence with the other Near East rulers.  In 1887, an Egyptian peasant woman found a collection of clay tablets outside the city of Amarna, which were found to be these letters.  According to the tablets, the surrounding lands bestowed the Pharaoh with extravagant gifts and beautiful, royal brides.  The subordinate nations were continually at his mercy because they coveted Egypt’s gold.  Employing his vast riches, Amenhotep III began a substantial building program, which demonstrated his wealth and dominance.  The majority of his focus was on the temple of Amen-Re, the god with whom he attributed most of his success.  The pharaoh chose a Nubian commoner, Tiye, as his queen and they produced two sons, Crown Prince Thutmose and Amenhotep IV.  Eventually, the wealth of the priests of Amen-re rivalled that of the pharaoh and he shifted his focus to Aton, the sun disk.  Amenhotep III died about 1353 BC and his empire was passed on to his only surviving son, Amenhotep IV.

Near the start of his reign Amenhotep IV encouraged a revolutionary shift in artistic style from formal and rigid to “sensual and full of movement (David 2002).”  The limestone relief, A Royal Hand[iii] displays the expressive form and movement characteristic of this period, while A Field of Barley[iv] emphasizes the naturalistic rejection of traditional Egyptian art.

Royal Hand

Royal Hand

Field of Barley

Field of Barley

Representations of the pharaoh, such as the Colossus of Akhenaton from Karnak[v]exhibit distorted and androgynous features believed to reflect the “sexless sun disk (Kleiner 2010).”  These cultural innovations were the first indication of the radical religious changes the pharaoh would introduce.  Considered history’s first monotheist, Amenhotep IV declared Aton, the chosen god of his father, the only true god.  He took the name Akhenaton[vi], closed the temples of the rejected gods and left the capital of Thebes for the barren, desert lands of Amarna.  The new capital[vii] was built on a grand scale with four palaces, wide-open spaces and an airy temple to Aton (David 2002).  In order to expedite construction, Amarna architects used small relief-covered blocks rather than large stones (Press 2007-2013).

Colossus of Akhenaton

Colossus of Akhenaton

The Pharaoh took a primary wife known as Nefertiti[viii].  A royal bust[ix] depicting her beautiful likeness epitomizes the pinnacle of Amarna style.  Her “serpentine neck,” heavy eyelids and elongated head “meet the era’s standard of spiritual beauty (Kleiner 2010).”  Like Akhenaton’s mother, Queen Tiye, Nefertiti shared equal prominence with her husband[x].



There are written records of his professed love for her and the family dynamic shown in a stele of Akhenaton, Nefertiti and three daughters[xi] expresses a “rare intimate look at the royal family in a domestic setting (Kleiner 2010).”

Akhenaton, Nefertiti and two daughters

Akhenaton, Nefertiti and two daughters

Another relief, Two Princesses[xii], rendered the royal daughters in an informal embrace (Art 2000-2013).  This recorded sensitivity and humanization of royalty is also central to the art of Amarna.

Two princesses

Two princesses

Thriving in his new capital, Akhenaton created a new type of hymn praising the god Aton.  One example, which was carved above the city, recognized the sun disk as the creator of the world and contained lines potent enough to survive through the Christian bible (David 2002).  In the midst of Amarna’s glory and for uncertain reasons, Akhenaton set aside peaceful praise of Aton in favor of vehement persecution of all other gods.  He had all mention of Amen-re destroyed, including the excision of the start of his father’s name from all tablets and monuments (David 2002).  A yew wood bust of Queen Tiye[xiii]was also altered to cover polytheistic references (Kleiner 2010).



Some sources believe that Nefertiti may have died suddenly or fallen out of favor just before this time; however there is conflicting evidence that suggests she was still at her husband’s side.  Certainly, the pharaoh was plagued by the death of his mother and one of his daughters (David 2002).  During Akhenaton’s tyrannical campaign for religious purity, the Empire’s lands fell under the control of Hatti[xiv].  The loyal rulers, once appeased by the previous pharaoh, wrote begging for assistance and were ignored.  In 1336 BCE, with the nation on the verge of collapse, Akhenaton died.  Both his city and his religion were abandoned in favor of tradition.

Tutankhaten[xv], Akhenaton’s son by a minor wife, rose to power.  Due to his young age, he was exploited by traditionalists eager to restore order to the empire.  They quickly amended his name to reflect conventional religious values.  The young pharaoh, now Tutankhamen[xvi], issued a decree blaming his father’s rejection of polytheism for the recent chaos.  Hastily, the Egyptians set forth to rebuild the temples of the forsaken gods and the pharaoh attempted to restore the diplomatic relations damaged during his father’s rule.  Tutankhamen died suddenly at age nineteen.  The legacy of his short reign was established by the discovery of his nearly undisturbed tomb in 1922[xvii].  The treasure within was the most lavish ever discovered.  Tutankhamen’s innermost coffin[xviii]is a shining example of a return to traditional Egyptian art.

Innermost Coffin of Tutankhamen

Innermost Coffin of Tutankhamen

Unfortunately, the pharaoh’s rejection of Aton and embrace of convention did not succeed in entirely absolving him of his father’s mistakes.  The minute size of his tomb revealed not only the suddenness of his death, but the nation’s attempt to suppress the memory of such a “heretical” period (David 2002).  In the wake of the boy pharaoh’s death, nearly all references to Aton, Akhenaton and his family were removed from sight, chiseled away in the same fashion as the earlier elimination of Amen-Re.

Though evidence of Akhenaton’s reign was concealed, his failures were remembered and most his innovative influences died with him.  Much of what we theorize today has been gleaned from the Amarna Letters and the abandoned ruins of his desert capital.  It is fortunate that the unfinished city was left to crumble undisturbed and that relief-carved blocks pioneered by Amarna architects were often recycled and used in other projects.  Because some phrases from the pharaoh’s hymns to Aton have permeated the Christian bible, it possible to believe that the monotheistic sects of the Near East may have been influenced by his ideas.  The collective shame of Egypt actually led to the preservation of Amarna works, which remain relevant and fascinating to art historians due to their originality and uncommon beauty.

[i] Around 1386 BCE

[ii] Amun is pleased

[iii] New Kingdom, 18th Dynasty, ca. 1349-1336 BCE

[iv] New Kingdom, 18th Dynasty, ca. 1349-1336 BCE

[v] 1353-1335 BCE

[vi] Effective for Aton

[vii] Known as Amarna or Akhenaton

[viii] A beautiful woman has come

[ix] 1353-1335 BCE by Thutmose

[x] Sometimes debated due to variances in hierarchy of scale

[xi] 1353-1335 BCE

[xii] 1349-1336 BCE

[xiii] 1353-1335 BCE

[xiv] Present day central Anatolia, Turkey

[xv] Living image of Aton

[xvi] Living image of Amun

[xvii] By Howard Carter

[xviii] 1323 BCE


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