The ancient Egyptian sandstone sculpture Akhenaten represents the notorious pharaoh, formerly named Amenhotep IV, who broke with religious tradition by worshiping the sun god Aten over all others. Created during the New Kingdom period between 1353-1335 B.C.E., the artwork belongs to a style named for a city he founded in Central Egypt for the followers of his monotheistic belief—Akhetaten, or Amarna (Davies 72). Amarna style, like Akhenaten’s new religion, was a brief break from a strict and enduring Egyptian tradition. (Akhenaten’s city was destroyed after his death in 1335 B.C.E.) Janson’s History of Art describes Amarna style of portraiture as “emphasizing naturalism in the body” (72). This post will explore the visual elements of Akhenaten using two styles of visual description—formal analysis and ekphrasis —as explained in Margorie Munsterberg’s Writing About Art. Analyzing and interpreting the visual features of Akhenaten will illuminate its distinct character as an artistic tribute to the controversial king and his religion.
Akhenaten measures 13 feet in height from bottom—the sculpture starts just above his knees—to the tip of his crown. Carved from sandstone, the larger-than-life figure possesses a weighty earthiness, a solid, ample presence for all who stand before its imposing form. However, the block-like angularity typical of Egyptian sculptures has been cast off: Akhenaten emphasizes the king’s character in its striking facial features, soft shoulders and slightly rounded belly. The figure is long, stretched high, yet, curiously curvaceous.
The viewer’s eye falls on three central areas of focus: first, the horizontal gash of belly button in the gentle mound of belly above a belted kilt that smoothly spreads out in lines radiating from the center of the hips; second, the crossed wrists at the solar plexus marked by a thick bracelet that separates the kings two fists, fingers balled to the chest; and finally, the bridge of the long, sloping nose and beard piece framing plump and ever-so-slightly upturned lips. An interplay of angles and curves envelope these three focal points. The top of his crown is shaped like a mound of earth. The lobes of his headpiece spread like a drooping fan around his face. The angle of his shoulders falls to narrowed waist, and the soft belly rides an ample curve of hips. Yet, at the center there is a lean look to the king created by a long face, slender arms and chest accentuated with two crossed sticks held in a way that makes them look like exaggerated, protruding clavicle bones. This symmetrically balanced assemblage of shapes composed of tender body parts and simple costume around a strong vertical axis are striking in the duality they suggest: stretched up and weighted down, linear but round, soft yet strong, massive and still tender.
He is Akhenaten, ruler who took Aten’s name as his own and grew his form to contain the all-encompassing powers of the one god who animates and generates life. The sun radiates from his pelvis in thin lines from his kingly womb—life-giving center imbued with mystical forces of the rising day. He carries two whips crossed at his solar plexus, gathering his strength at the heart of his benevolent yet powerful form. He peers through half-moon eyes framed by high brows and gently smiles at his own good fortune: He is being complete. He is man and woman; he is man and god, stretched high and turned golden by Aten’s own rays. The lip of his crown receives the heaven’s blessed light. His soft belly is all earthly desire. His towering form gathers Aten at his back, casting a shadow upon his great city.
The artist of Akhenaten is not identified, but one can imagine his hands were set free from ancient Egyptian artistic conventions and emboldened by his ruler’s passionate break from religious tradition. The result is a sculpture that captures the monotheistic devotion that the king and his followers brought to the city of Akhetaten, “horizon of Aten” (Davies 72). Akhenaten, with its androgynous form, joins all life forces into one and places it literally and symbolically on the horizon of the earth and the spirit.
Davies, Penelope J.E., et al. Janson’s History of Art: The Western Tradition. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 2011. Print.
Munsterberg, Margorie. Writing About Art. writingaboutart.org, 2008-2009. Web. 18 Jan. 2015