March 27, 2000
Survey of Art History I: Western art from Prehistoric through the Middle Ages
DR Carol Bishop
Comparison of the visual style, religion and beliefs of the Armana period with other periods of ancient Egypt through art images.
For more than a thousand years dynastic Egypt had elaborated its religious rituals and array of gods, raising monumental temples and statues to their sustained glory. The consolidation of dynastic power was partly written in the remarkable degree of artistic continuity that ranges over art and architecture produced during scores of prior Pharaonic reigns. But Akhanaten had a very different idea. He wiped nearly all of it away.
During the Amarna period, the Egyptians did not just tamper with a thousand years' worth of existing temples, palaces, statues and monumental reliefs. Akhenaten started from scratch. But this overhaul was, perhaps, essential in order to reflect a cataclysmic change (Knight)
One effect of this new period is the relaxation of the Egyptian preoccupation with death and the hereafter and a correspondingly greater concern with life on earth. This change is reflected on a different attitude toward the representation of the human figure. Artists aimed for a new sense of life and movement (Gardners' P. 91)
The temples in Armana were markedly different. Traditional temples (Image 1) had a series of chambers leading to a holy center where carved statues of the gods were kept. Because the god Aten was the sun disk, the temples dedicated to him (Image 2) had no roof, so the sun's rays could shine in. (Rauzi). The depiction of the sun's rays reaching into the inner courtyard of a temple shows that buildings were treated three-dimensionally. Previously restricted interior spaces and palaces as well as the activities that took place within them were open to the viewer for the first time in Amarna (Fred, Markowitz, and D'Auria P. 121).
All these new temples, tombs and palaces meant an abundance of new art. Concurrent with the religious changes there was dramatic shift in artistic style. The stiff, square-shouldered physiques became softened and, in some cases, even paunchy. Some facial features became more naturalistic, but also more stylized. This was expressed in swelling, curvilinear forms; their long fostered naturalistic tendencies, thus far confined largely to the representation of animals, were extended not only to the lowly human figure but, to nobility as well (Gardner's 91). A colossal statue of Akhenaten, about seven feet tall, is a striking example because it retains the standard frontal pose, but the epicene body, with its curving contours and the long, full lipped face, heavy lidded eyes, and dreaming expression shows that the artist rendered him with all the physical irregularities that were part of the Pharaoh's physical appearance. This was unthinkable during the old Pharaohs (Image 3) In the preceding kingdoms to the Amarna period, the continued reproduction of block or square statues portraits was a very much used pattern (Image 4).
The art of sculpture in Armana reached a new height. The severe and constricted stylization of the Old Kingdom and the bitter realism of the Middle Kingdom were replaced with a courtly style combining a sense of nobility with a careful attention to delicate detail. Begun in the reigns of Hatshepsut and Thutmose III, this style reached an innovation in the time of Amenhotep IV that was never again equaled in Egypt. The portraits of their rules were infused with grace and sensitivity, as were depictions of the nobility.
During the Armana period the art of painting came to dominate the decoration of private tombs. The necropolis at Thebes (Image 5) is a rich source of information on the slowly changing artistic tradition as well as vivid illustrations of life at the time.
Another artistic cannon broken during the Amarna period was the depiction of the royal family in domestic settings. Akhenaten and Nefirti play with their children in some carvings and worship in the embracing rays of Aten. The sun's rays actually turn into little hands reaching out to the royal family. (Image 7) This contrasted strongly with the traditional formality in the representation of nobility.
The medium of painting made possible a wider range of expression than sculpture, allowing the artist to create colorful tableaus of life on the Nile. Officials are shown inspecting the exotic tribute brought to Egypt from al parts of the known world. The crafts of the royal workshops are depicted in meticulous detail. Illustrating the production of all manner of objects, from massive sculptures to delicate jewelry. Funerary rites are illustrated from the procession to the tomb to the final prayers for the spirit. One of the standard elements in Armana tomb painting is a representation of the deceased hunting and fishing in the papyrus marshes, pastimes he would have wanted to enjoy throughout eternity (Image 8).
The impact of the decorative impact of the Armana period are best represented in the funerary items from the tomb of Tutankhamen, in which rich material, such as alabaster, ebony, gold, ivory and semiprecious stones, ere combined in objects of extraordinary beauty and artistry. Even the pottery of the New Kingdom partakes of this rich love of decoration, with brilliantly painted surfaces employing mainly floral motifs (Image 9).
From the evidence of tomb paintings and the decorative arts, the Egyptian artist of the Armana period took particular delight in a richly colorful life. In conclusion, the changes introduced during the Armana period by Akhenaten caused a great artistic upheaval that made Egyptian art more accessible to the masses and managed to demistify its rulers much to the chagrin of traditionalists.