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Akhenaten the radical pharaoh

Updated on July 22, 2011

The Curious Case of Akhenaten

The art of Ancient Egypt is at once identifiable even to the non-historian. Proportions, poses and themes have changed little since the days of the Narmer Palate, one of the earliest pieces of Ancient Egyptian art to be found. There is one period in Egypt’s history though which separates from tradition. Shunning the ancient gods of his ancestors, the pharaoh Akhenaten briefly breaks from the Egyptian Canon, experimenting with proportions and the depiction of the human form. The artwork left behind from the reign of Akhenaten stands apart from the rest of Egyptian works, but is his shift in style really all that radical?

The first Egyptologists to examine Amarna described what they found as utterly vulgar and indecent. A feminine king with pregnant belly and breasts; family like no other with alien like heads that share intimate moments under the protective rays of the sun-disc Aten? These are things never so predominantly displayed in Egyptian art. Akhenaten’s experimentation with art however is not so different from the kings before him.

Akhenaten Worshipping the Aten

An illustration of a different relief showing Akhenaten and his wife Nefertiti worshipping the Aten.
An illustration of a different relief showing Akhenaten and his wife Nefertiti worshipping the Aten. | Source

Consider first the similarities of Amarna art to the trends in Egyptian Art that preceded it. Examining a famous limestone slab found in the royal tomb at Amarna, the royal family is shown paying homage to their deity the sun-disc Aten.[1] The King Akhenaten stands to the right of the slab before an offering table, holding up tribute to the sun-disc Aten. The grid lines still visible around his form indicate that the painting process was not complete, but it does reveal that the King’s figure occupies twenty squares rather than the normal eighteen of the established Canon. Behind the King stands his wife Nefertiti and their two daughters. Before the king is an offering table with tribute to the Aten which is in the sky. The Aten’s holy rays shine down upon the King and his family, offering them the sacred Ankh of life.[2]

This piece follows the established rules of hierarchy. The King, being the most important figure, is the largest, followed by his wife Nefertiti and then two daughters who are the smallest. This is a method that is found quite frequently in the in the 18th Dynasty. The fowling scene from the tomb of Nakht in Western Thebes shows the deceased in immensely exaggerated scale compared to the family members that sit beneath and stand behind him.[3] Therefore the matter of scale of the figures is not very unusual.

The King Akhenaten is shown presenting flowers to his deity the Aten. Kings depicted paying homage to a god can be traced all the way back to antiquity, and it is not always limited to Osiris or Re to whom the Pharaoh gives tribute. A relief scene from the temple of Montu at Tod from the 11th Dynasty shows King Nebhepetra Montuhotep with the goddess Neith offering bread to the god Montu, his patron god.[4] It is expected of the Pharaoh, who is to consider himself both the son of a god and a living god, to give honor to his divine heritage. To be shown doing so on tomb walls perpetuates the eternal offerings the king wishes to bestow on his godly father. Akhenaten is no different. Akhenaten considered himself both the child of the Aten sun-disc, and the living embodiment of the Aten. Thus to be shown making offerings to the Aten is a natural choice.

There is the attire of the royal family, not just their pose and actions, to consider as well. The royal wife Nefertiti wears the feathered headdress of a deity. In fact she is adorned with the same symbols that previously were worn by the god Amun-Ra, the very same sun god that Akhenaten tried to destroy during his reign and replace with merely the sun-disc. The headdress can clearly be seen on Amun-Ra in the relief work of King Senwosret, where in his chapel another god is shown leading Senwosret to Amun-Ra; and a second time on a limestone relief block from Karnak where Amun-Ra himself is leading Senwosret by the hand, feeding him the Ankh of life.[5] The feathers can also be seen on depictions of other gods, such as Ma’at and Osiris.[6] The sun symbol on Nefertiri’s head is also reminiscent of the solar disc associated with the god Horus, who even in falcon form balanced a sun-disc, perhaps even the Aten, on his head.[7] Is Nefertiti then being portrayed as a god incarnate herself? Royalty were always trying to assert themselves as living gods, as many Pharaohs, even Akhenaten[8] chose to be shown in the traditional pose of Osiris.[9]

The technique used to create the limestone slab in question is also very familiar. Sunken relief that was painted can be found all over Egypt through many different time periods. The technique, format and subject matter then have been shown to have their precedence in Egyptian Art. It is the stylized human figures of Amarna Art that has shocked Egyptologists for decades.

Almost all known depictions of King Akhenaten, both in Amarna and at Karnak, show him as defiantly feminine. He has bulbous hips; a protruding, pregnant belly; lack of musculature; a long slender neck; and a curvy face. Some speculate that because Akhenaten is the living embodiment of the Aten he must show himself as both the fatherly and motherly figure that the genderless sun-disc is. Other historians choose to believe in physical deformities that are being accurately portrayed. It is written that the king himself instructed the artisans as to the style he wished to be used. Throwing aside the speculations and theories let the figure of Akhenaten be compared across time to the artwork that came before. Let the kings of old be the judge as to whether Akhenaten was truly a revolutionary artistic minded individual or if he was merely a culmination of all the experimental trends that preceded him.

Akhenaten’s full protruding belly and bulbous hips, as well as his prominent breasts, can signify fertility. If the king is fat the land must be rich with wealth and fertile crops. Similar traits can be found in the offering chamber of the mastaba of the official Idu at Giza from the 6th Dynasty.[10] The doorjambs of this chamber show an idealized youth opposite a more aged and wise man that is shown with sagging skin, a pendulous breast and enlarged waistline. This is to be a realistic image of Idu who has grown fat and prosperous in his old age. To show a ‘fertile’ waistline and breast though an actual largeness of the stomach or chest was not always needed. During the First Intermediate Period in Thebes different styles to express this fertility were experimented with. As seen in a limestone stela of the official Maaty during this time period rather than expand the stomach, fat folds on a normally proportioned and otherwise idealistic figure were added.[11] Akhenaten is shown once in this way in the family stele.[12] Maaty’s breast however still protrudes more than that of a normal male figure. Rather than abstract the form of a fertile body though Akhenaten prefers to beautify it with curvaceous forms, showing all the fatness of fertility without the sagging skin of age.

Later on in Akhenaten’s reign he will allow a shift from an idealized youthful yet fertile beauty to a more realistic style, as seen in the statuette of his wife known as “Tired Nefertiti.” In far contrast to her beauty immortalized in her famous bust[13] the statuette shows Nefertiti in obvious old age. Her face reveals wrinkles and the skin of her body through her sheer gown seems to be sagging. This unflattering realism is seen previously during the reign of Senwosret. In a statue from the 12th Dynasty King Senwosret, while maintaining his idealized youthful body in a black granite statue found at Deir el-Bahri, the King clearly has an aged and highly individualized face.[14] Amenehet also follows this trend of adding age to his portraits for the sake of showing the experience that comes with age.[15]

Tired Nefertiti


Akhenaten’s gender ambiguity also has precedence with the renowned case of the female Pharaoh Hatshepsut, who struggled with portrayal and roles of gender her entire reign. Asserting her role as king, which was traditionally a position held by males, Hatshepsut often was portrayed with the classical beard of the Pharaoh, as well as the Nemes headdress and other potent symbols of kingship. Hatshepsut went so far as to depict herself as entirely male in some cases,[16] while at other times she opted to maintain some feminine qualities, be it a smooth and curvaceous face, breasts or an entirely female pose.[17] Whether Akhenaten through chosen lack of musculature and slender, curving body was deliberately trying to showcase himself as female or simply exaggerating his swelling fertility cannot be known.

One of the last shocking and most unexplainable feature of Amarna art is the intimate depiction of family. In most pieces depicting the King and his wife their daughters are also sure to shown in some small role. In most instances they stand behind their parents as little figures aiding in the praise of the sun god.[18] It is the famous limestone relief showing Akhenaten, Nefertiti and three of the their daughters sitting informally under the rays of the Aten that most puzzles scholars. Some of the Egyptian tradition remains intact however. Akhenaten is facing the dominant direction, and the scale of the children is diminished despite their ages.[19] Curiously though Nefertiti maintains the same scale as her husband, signifying and equality with the queen that was previously reserved only for the gods, once again questioning Nerfertiti’s god like status in the cult of the Aten and Amarna itself. The handling of the children is atypical as well. Previously in Egyptian Art children are shown in well ordered fashion, either standing beside or underneath their parents.[20] In the case of royal children they were often shown sitting on the laps of their regents, such as in the case of Neferura, Hatshepshut’s daughter on the protective lap of Senenmut[21] and the young King Pepy the second on his mother’s lap (6th Dynasty.)[22] While one of the daughters of Akhenaten sits on Nefertiti’s lap it is in a loose pose with the daughter pointing towards her father while leaning back to look at her mother. This is different from the static sitting poses seen before. Another of the daughters sits in a strange position upon Nefertiti’s shoulder. The oldest daughter, held up to receive the blessings of the Aten as Akhenaten kisses her, points back towards Nefertiti and the other sisters, actively connecting all of the figures in the scene together and interacting in a strangely human way. The intimacy of Akhenaten’s family seems to connect to previous renditions of the divine families of the gods, such as with the statuettes of Isis gently suckling the infant Horus[23], or King Wenis in the embrace of a goddess offering him her breast.[24]

The Royal Family at Amarna


Despite the differences that can be found in the artwork left behind in Amarna and Karnak,

“Akhenaten did not alter a single convention of traditional Egyptian drawing. The human figure continued to be rendered by the artist in precisely the same visual terms as had persisted from archaic times when Egyptian art crystallized out at a conceptual stage of its development in the service of the divine king, and adhered to the same conventions. Akehnaten’s innovations were mostly in the choice of subject-matter: style remained unchanged in its fundamentals and consisted in the faithful acceptance of all the old conventions with the willful distorting of some of them.”

(Aldred, C. 1968. Akhenaten: Pharaoh of Egypt – a new


In other words, while his monotheistic religion may have shook the ancient world, the subject matter of Akhenaten’s artwork is not radically different, and the shift in style is rather the culmination of hundreds of years of exploration in the realm of Art by all those who preceded him.

My Wonderful References

References Cited:

Aldred, C. 1968. Akhenaten: Pharaoh of Egypt – a new study. New Aspects of Archaeology. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company.

Hamilton, Robert. Ancient Egypt: The Kingdom of the Pharaohs. Bath, UK: Parragon Publishing, 2007.

[7] Page 66,

Hodge,Susie. Egyptian Art. New York: Metro Books, 2008.

[12] Page 45, [19]46,

Robins, Gay. The Art of Ancient Egypt. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2008.

[1, 2] Page 148, [4]96, [5]100, [8]153, [10]76, [11]84, [14]112, [15]113, [16]128, [17]129, [18]150, [20]73, [21]145, [22]66

Silverman, David P. Ancient Egypt. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

[3] Page 96, [6]130, [9]110, [13]88,


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