Akhenaten was an anomaly in Egyptian history, and not one theEgyptians were particularly proud of. In this Akhenaten homeschool lesson we will be looking at what made him so different, as well as looking at how he changed the nature of art, specifically relief work during his reign.
Amenhotep IV, The Early Years
Akhenaten was born Amenhotep IV and became reigning Pharaoh between 1353-1336 BC. Son of Amenhotep III, he wasn’t destined for the throne. That job fell to his brother, crown prince Thutmose. However, after the death of Thutmose, Amenhotep IV became his father’s heir.
It is thought that there was a period of coregency with both father and son ruling together. Regardless, it seems Amenhoptep IV came to rule at around 1353 BC. There is much evidence that suggests Amenhotep IV believed in many gods, just like all the Pharaohs who came before. He is pictured worshipping many gods and inscriptions point towards a Pharaoh to whom the traditional gods held significant importance. In addition, the high priest of Amun was still in situ during Amenhotep’s first four years at the throne.
A Change of Name
It was in his fifth year of rule that Amenhotep seemed to change the course of his belief system, a belief system which was entrenched in Egyptian history. Whilst Amenhotep continued to be seen to worship all Egyptian gods, there were indications that he was prioritising Aten. He began to build temples exclusively for the worship of Aten. However, the main change was in his name. At the end of his fifth year of rein, a stela at Akhetaten indicated he had a change of name from Amenhotep IV to Akhenaten.
The name change signified him breaking his devotion to Amun and transferring it to Aten, with his new name meaning ‘in service to Aten’.
This was huge!
Egypt was famous for its sophisticated religious structure of gods and goddesses, and now the greatest ‘god’ of all, their Pharaoh, was telling the Egyptians that from now on, they would need to worship only one god – Aten.
Needless to say, they were not impressed! In fact, they were horrified, scared what the old gods would say.
Regardless, Akhenaten and his wife Nefertiti, ploughed on. For a country so entrenched in its religion, rituals and rules, Akhenaten’s point of view was difficult. In fact, it is thought he was one of the least popular Pharaohs. He made many changes. The change we will be focusing on during this Akhenaten homeschool lesson is the change he made to how he, as a Pharaoh, is portrayed in art, specifically relief art.
Akhenaten Warts and All
Over the years, Egyptian artists had become more and more rule based. Most Egyptian art of the past reflected a style known as frontalism. Frontalism requires Egyptian artists to adhere to very specific code for producing art. This code dictates that the figure’s head is shown in the side view, whilst the body is shown in the front view. This means the art in ancient Egypt was very formal, stiff and impersonal. However, there was a type of unity over the ages which was very characteristic of Egypt.
Akhenaten insisted that he be shown as he was in real life. This meant his rather large nose and chin needed to be included as is rather than smoothed away. He wanted to be instantly recognisable, rather than one of many very similar looking Pharaohs. In fact, he went one step further. He did not want the formal poses of times gone by. Instead, he insisted the artists to create real representations of him and his wife playing with his children:
Worse yet, he outlawed the representation of the many gods. This meant none of the familiar god-heads be shown such as the cats, crocodiles, hawks and jackals. Instead he ruled that only Aten be represented by a singular orb of the sun. Rays were to extend out with hands. These rays needed to be touching each member of his family. Akhenaten wanted his family with Aten beaming down overhead.
Akhenaten Homeschool Lesson: Replicating the Relief
We decided to attempt to recreate the above relief, with Akhenaten and Nefertiti holding three of their rather alarming looking children. We rolled out the clay and cut it down to a square block. Using all the tools available to us we began carving.
Oh. My. Goodness.
We were at it for over three hours. My back and my neck were cramped, and I had no feeling in my hands…
And this is all we managed to create:
This was SO hard! I completely have a new appreciation of the artists of his time. We were working on fairly soft clay with hard tools which carved into the clay with relative ease. They had to carve blocks of hard stone with tools made from bronze. It was hard going for them! I am almost embarrassed by our own paltry efforts.