Comparing Akhenaten’s Amarna Period Art to Traditional Egyptian Art

The Amarna Period is characterized by religious and artistic innovation. Learn how to distinguish the main features of art from the reign of Akhenaten from earlier and later Egyptian art.

May 5, 2020By Nicole B. Hansen, PhD & MA in Egyptology, BA Egyptology
Statue of King Akhenaten
Statue of King Akhenaten

The Amarna Period is known for its religious iconoclasm. The pharaoh Amenhotep IV changed his name to Akhenaten to reflect his worship of a sole god, the Aten. He built a whole new capital and cemetery at the site of Tell el-Amarna in Middle Egypt. To go along with these religious and geographic changes, his reign is characterized by a significant change in the artistic styles, themes, and objects. This article highlights some of the most important changes in this period that will help you to distinguish Amarna Period art from that of earlier and later periods.


Depictions Of Akhenaten Show Him As He Was

Statue of Amenhotep III
Idealized figure of Amenhotep III, Akhenaten’s father


During most of ancient Egyptian history, royal depictions were highly stylized. While one pharaoh’s depiction might vary slightly from the next, they were far from lifelike representations of the king. The proportions and physique followed a long-established canon showing the king as fit and masculine. This meant that one pharaoh’s depiction was very similar to another, although each reign had its own characteristic features. When a new king came to the throne, artists didn’t even always bother to sculpt a whole new statue for the new pharaoh. Sometimes they would simply change the features of an existing statue slightly and replace the name engraved on the statue.


Statue of Akhenaten
Statue of Akhenaten


Depictions of Akhenaten, both in sculpture and relief, were a deviation from this standard. Akhenaten’s representations show him with an almost feminine body, with wide hips and breasts. His statues and carved relief depictions showed him with a drooping belly, long spindly arms, and a protruding chin. There is no doubt that this must have been how he looked in real life. Scholars have debated whether this was just the looks he inherited from his parents or an indication of some sort of disease. Marfan syndrome is the most commonly suggested disease. It is a genetic disease that produces such physical traits in men.


Not only was Akhenaten depicted in a natural manner, but other members of his family were sculpted in the same way. Women in ancient Egyptian art were depicted in a youthful and slim manner. Sculpture of his female family members shows them with wrinkled faces and the physical attributes of a woman who has given birth to multiple children.


Amarna Art Shows Only One God

relief of Ptolemy VIII worshipping deities
Ptolemy VIII worshipping deities at Kom Ombo Temple

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One of the most distinctive aspects of Egyptian iconography is the appearance of the king and others worshipping other gods and goddesses. They usually stand with raised palms or presenting incense and other offerings to the deities.


Akhenaten worshiping the Aten
Akhenaten worshiping the Aten


But not so for Akhenaten. Depending on who you ask, Akhenaten was either an iconoclast or the world’s first monotheist. He banned the worship of all gods besides the Aten, who was a representation of the sundisk. This affected iconography of the period, as only the Aten appeared in Amarna art. Sun rays usually extended from the sun to Akhenaten in these depictions. The tips of these rays either were hands or the Egyptian hieroglyph for “life”, the ankh.


Akhenaten Was An Iconoclast

damaged relief without Amenhotep III's name
Akhenaten hacked out the name of Amenhotep III and Rameses II restored it, albeit in lower quality glyphs


Egyptian kings weren’t religiously innovative. They worshiped the same pantheon of gods for thousands of years, even copying the same scenes and religious themes over and over. No one dared upset the established order.


While Akhenaten promoted the worship of the Aten, he had a particular hatred for the pre-eminent state god of the time, Amun-Ra. He initiated a systematic campaign in the fifth year of his reign to hack out the name and depictions of this god (as shown in the above image provided by Egyptologist curator at the National Museum Scotland, Edinburgh). However, other gods, references to multiple gods and references to Karnak, where Amun-Ra was the primary god, were the target of desecration as well. If you see the name or figure of Amun-Ra hacked out of a wall, you know it happened during the reign of Akhenaten and that the scene or text predates his reign. Sometimes the damage was restored after the pre-eminence of Amun-Ra returned, but the previous damage is still clear. You can tell it has been restored in two ways. The style of the restored portion is different and/or there is a slight depression in the stone in the recarved area.


He Built Temples from Smaller Blocks

talatat blocks used at karnak
Large size blocks traditionally used to build temples


Throughout Egyptian history, temples were built from large limestone or sandstone blocks that would have required multiple men and special tools to move. 


Akhenaten built temples out of much smaller and easily cut and moved blocks, approximately 27x27x54 cm, called talatat. The name talatat comes from the Arabic word for “three” and refers to their three palm width. 


Talatat blocks showing Akhenaten
Talatat blocks showing Akhenaten, used at the Karnak Temple complex


He used these for the buildings he constructed at the Karnak Temple complex. Because they were so portable, after he died, subsequent kings dismantled his buildings and used the blocks as filler for pylons. In the 20th century, excavators found these reused blocks. Egyptologists carefully studied the jumbled mess left behind and scattered to museums across the globe. They have been able to partially reconstruct on paper at least eight Amarna period temples that stood at Karnak. Talatat were also the main building stone at Tell el-Amarna.


His Wife and Children Played An Outsized Role in Iconography

Rameses II’s wife and son
Rameses II’s wife and son appear in miniature next to the feet of his statue in front of his temple at Abu Simbel


Queens and royal children tend to have a subordinate role in Egyptian art, not appearing as frequently as their ruling spouses or fathers. When they do appear at all, artists render them at a much smaller scale.


Akhenaten, Nefertiti and three of their daughters
Akhenaten, Nefertiti and three of their daughters


Akhenaten, on the other hand, gave special prominence to his wife Nefertiti and their children. They were depicted in a natural relative size to him. In fact, Nefertiti appears twice as frequently as Akhenaten in talatat scenes and there was even one temple where only she and her children appeared.

Scenes in Temples Showed Daily Life

Seti I in a battle scene
Seti I in a battle scene from Karnak


Major temples of the New Kingdom have two major types of decoration. The inner portions of the temple tend to have ritual scenes involving the gods. The outer areas accessible to the public have massive displays and records of the ruling pharaoh’s military conquests.

Talatat blocks showing kitchens
Talatat blocks showing kitchens, pantries and craftworking


Many of the scenes carved into the talatat are like neither of these. They show mundane scenes of daily life. One talatat scene even shows a man sweeping a floor with a palm frond!


Private Tombs Scenes No Longer Showed Daily Life

Traditional funerary scene
Traditional funerary scene from the tomb of Ramose, pre-Amarna


Private tombs of early Dynasty 18 are characterized by an emphasis on scenes of daily life such as agriculture, food production, and crafts.


The new theology of the Amarna Period changed all that. Gone was the emphasis on daily life and in came religious zealotry. Considering that daily life scenes suddenly appeared in temples, this is a rather perplexing change.


In the post-Amarna period, the number of daily life scenes remains significantly lower in private tombs. However, they were replaced by more scenes of the deceased tomb owner in the afterlife. Perhaps the people of this period felt a need to emphasize their devotion to the traditional religious order that had been overturned by Akhenaten.


Depiction of Akhenaten from Ramose’s tomb
Depiction of Akhenaten from Ramose’s tomb, with his and Nefertiti’s figure having been hacked out after his reign was over


The tomb of Ramose at Thebes (TT55) provides the best example of the sudden shift in artistic styles among the populace in response to the ruler’s religious revolution. Ramose was the vizier of Akhenaten’s father Amenhotep III and continued in the position during his son’s reign. As was common among both royals and officials, Ramose built his tomb for a number of years. Initially, the style was traditional but he abruptly changed the decoration to feature Akhenaten and worship of the Aten.


Because The Amarna Period Was Short, Lots Of Color Remains

The painted bust of Nefertiti
The painted bust of Nefertiti


We often think about Greek statuary as pearly white or Egyptian temple walls as a uniform tan color. But what not many people know is that ancient art in Egypt and elsewhere usually was painted in riotously garish or bright colors that have faded with time. Egyptian temple walls, royal palaces and statuary were no exception. Most statuary from ancient Egypt only retains its natural stone appearance. But the most iconic piece of Amarna art, the Nefertiti bust currently housed in Berlin, is fully painted. The bust was excavated in the workshop of the artist Thutmose, who sculpted Akhenaten’s entire family in a naturalistic way. Tell el-Amarna was occupied for such a brief period and abruptly abandoned upon the death of Akhenaten.


Cornflowers from the floor of Akhenaten’s palace
Cornflowers from the floor of Akhenaten’s palace


Just like the bust of Nefertiti, the quick removal of the talatat blocks from the elements also preserved much of the color on them. In addition, Akhenaten’s palace at Amarna is one of the rare instances where the painted plaster floors, decorated with nature scenes, are preserved.


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By Nicole B. HansenPhD & MA in Egyptology, BA EgyptologyNicole B. Hansen received her PhD and MA in Egyptology from the University of Chicago and her BA in Egyptology from UC Berkeley. She worked for the Giza Plateau Mapping Project at the Giza Pyramids and for the Theban Mapping Project’s Cairo office. She taught courses on Egyptian art, language and culture at the University of Chicago, the American University in Cairo and Amideast. She has a special interest in the continuity of ancient Egyptian culture until the present day, animals, medicine, magic and culinary history and lives in a village in Luxor a short distance from the archaeological sites.