I was super excited to see this pieces on display at the Neues Museum while in Berlin this past winter. But I couldn’t believe that the museum had it almost hidden away in a little alcove that everyone kept passing by to see the Nefertiti bust. 🙁
Art Historical Background
The cultural and historical context of this piece is what makes it so incredibly interesting for Egyptian art. Anyone who has seen the slew of Egyptian art in various museums around the world can immediately recognize that something is “off” about this piece, it doesn’t comfortably fit into the well-established canon. And that’s because Pharaoh Akhenaten doesn’t fit into this canon either!
Akhenaten rejected the polytheistic religion of Ancient Egypt in order to elevate one god, Aten (the sun disk), as the supreme god. (*Note, this is not a strictly monotheistic religion, with only one god, because some of the other traditional gods were tolerated, although their direct worship was not.) You can see Aten, the sun disk in the center of the art piece with the “living-giving” rays emanating from him ending in ankhs, the ancient Egyptian symbol of life. Aten is directly blessing the pharaoh and his wife, Nefertiti. (This is something the priestly class did not appreciate because their power was bypassed for the pharaoh and the pharaoh alone.)
Read more: Lesson Plan: Human Figure in Ancient Egyptian Art
Besides the huge shift in religion, there are some other notable aspects about this art piece. One thing that makes viewers uncomfortable is the “alien-like” bodies of the pharaoh, his wife, and their daughters. Their have extended skulls, long, lanky and soft bodies; nothing like the hard, masculine figure of other pharaohs, even the female pharaoh Hatshepsut!
There are many theories surrounding why we see this sudden (and short-lived) change in the eternal canon of Egyptian art. Perhaps the art is reflecting (and idealizing) physical deformities seen in the current pharaoh – I mean when you keep marrying your half-sisters its bound to happen, right!? AND/OR Akhenaten wanted to severely and visually separate his art from the polytheistic art that came before so perhaps this was a systematic and intentional change to demonstrate a new religion was in town. As it tends to happen in history, both answers in different ratios are probably correct.
In addition to the context and content, the scale of the piece also surprised me. I knew it was probably made for their domestic altar, but it was tiny! The fact that this was made for the home certainly lends itself to the “relaxed” air of seeing a king and queen literally playing with their children.
- BBC History: Akhenaton and the Amarna Period
- Khan Academy: Akhenaton, Nefertiti, and three daughters
- The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History: Art, Architecture, and the City in the Reign of Amenhotep IV/Akhenaten (ca. 1353-1336 B.C.)
- Heptune: Akhenaten
- Gardner’s Art Through the Ages: A Global View, 15th edition, pgs. 77
- The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History: Kings and Queens of Egypt
- Society for the Promotion of the Egyptian Museum Berlin: Amarna Period
- Gardner’s Art throughout the Ages: A Global History, 15th edition, pgs.
- Ancient Egypt: Kingdom of the Pharaohs by R. Hamilton, pgs. 87, 136-149
- The Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt, pgs. 74-79
- Exploring the Humanities: Creativity & Culture in the West by Laurie S. Adams, pgs. 41-63
- The Annotated Mona Lisa, 2nd edition, by Strickland: pg. 8-11
- Gateways to Art: Understanding the Visual Arts, pgs. 525
Next Time: #23 Tutankhamun’s tomb, innermost coffin. New Kingdom, 18th Dynasty. c. 1323 BCE. Gold with inlay of enamel and semiprecious stones.