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The Amarna Period

The Amarna Period

Author: Ian McConnell

Understand some of the stylistic elements of the Amarna Period

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Exploring the social, political, and religious changes that took place during the Amarna Period in Ancient Egypt.

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[MUSIC PLAYING] Hello. I'd like to welcome you to this episode of Exploring Art History with Ian. My name is Ian McConnell. And today's lesson is about the Amarna Period.

As you're watching the video, feel free to pause, move forward, or rewind as many times as you feel is necessary. And as soon as you're ready, we can begin.

Today's objectives, or the things you are going to learn today, are listed below. By the end of the lesson today, you will be able to identify and define today's key terms, explain some events that brought about the Amarna Period, describe some of the stylistic elements of the Amarna Period, and explain the return to tradition with Tutankhamun.

Key terms, as always, are listed in yellow throughout the lesson. First term is Aton, or spelled Aten-- A-T-E-N-- is the disc of the sun in ancient Egyptian mythology. Sunken relief is a design cut into the surface where there's no point or part higher than the surface itself. Ankh-- Egyptian key of life, or the key of the Nile-- a hieroglyphic of a looped cross with a handle. And monotheism-- the belief in one god.

Big idea for today is that the Amarna Period is a short period of time during the reign of the pharaohs Akhenaten, and is marked by major political, religious, and stylistic changes. Quick note. Today's lesson does feature required artwork which, is listed in purple.

OK, let's look at our timeline today when this takes place in history. As always 0 AD is highlighted as our reference point. Amarna Period, which we are looking at today, is a very short period of time. It takes place during the reign the pharaoh Akhenaten, which begins in 1353 BC and ends in 1336 BC with his death. And once again, the founding of the Roman Republic is shown as a reference.

Quick geography lesson. Today we're going to be looking at the locations of Amarna and Thebes. Here is modern day Egypt. Egyptian Empire at its greatest expanse. And we'll zoom in on the Niles so that we can take a look at Giza, Amarna, and Thebes.

Now, at the time that Akhenaten came to power, originally the capital was in Thebes. That's where his father Amenhotep III had it located. Akhenaten, when the things started to change, decided to move the capital to a new location of his choice, which he named Amarna.

Now, before we move ahead, let me take a moment to explain who Aton is. Aton was regionally a rather minor deity that took on the form of the disk of the sun. Not to be confused with Ra, who is the sun god. Under Akhenaten, Aton became the principal deity of a new sect within the Egyptian religion created by Akhenaten himself. The reason for the change? Well, nobody could say for sure.

So what influenced the Amarna Period? Well, it begins with the Pharaoh Amenhotep III. He was an eighteenths dynasty pharaoh. Naming his son Amenhotep IV, his successor, because Amenhotep IV's brother Tuthmosis who would have been heir had previously died.

And why do we care? Well, this is a major change, or this caused major changes politically, religiously, and stylistically. Amenhotep IV changed his name to Akhenaten, which was a nod to his favorite deity Aton, who was originally a minor deity, but he was now the principal deity of this new sect or religion. Now, this is an example of early monotheism, which is a belief in one god or henotheism, which is a belief that there is a principal god, but there also may be other minor gods.

Now, he moved the capital of the Egyptian Empire from Thebes to Amarna. And breaking with tradition of this time, the burial sites or the Acropolis for Akhenaten was on the east side of the Nile, as opposed to the West, which was traditionally on the west.

Now, why were all these things a big deal? Well, this would be, perhaps, analogous-- and this isn't maybe the best analogy but is an analogy that may work to help you-- to the president stating that from now on Christians are going to worship Saint Francis of Assisi as their Savior over Jesus. And then changing his name to President Francis of Assisi and moving the national capital to a new location outside of Detroit. You can imagine how that will go over today, so you can probably imagine how that you have gone or did go over back in Akhenaten's day. It was a bold move, to say the least, and wasn't met with overwhelming enthusiasm, particularly from the priestly class.

Adding fuel the fire, the stylistic elements were altered significantly as well. And this is the result of Akhenaten eliminating the traditional canon. Now, some of the stylistic changes included, or that we notice, are slanted downturn eyes, elongated face, and exaggerated facial features, frequent use of the ankh, the strange rendering of the pharaoh in a very androgynous way. As opposed to the masculine athletic figures we saw before, we find the pharaoh depicted with a narrow chest, thin arms, wide hips, big belly, and spindly legs.

What's particularly interesting is that the stylistic elements are found predominantly in representation of Akhenaten and his children, but not the queen. And this has led some, like the Canadian scholar Alan Burridge to pose a theory in 1995 that these are actually realistic depictions of the physical abnormalities associated with Marfan syndrome. Now, this could also explain why only the children are shown in a similar way, because Marfan syndrome can be passed down to children. It's an interesting theory. Regardless of whether or not it's correct, the Amarna Period definitely exhibits short-lived, but major stylistic changes from what we've seen before or since.

Now, here's an example of an ankh. It's a frequent symbol seen in the artwork from the Amarna Period. The symbol wasn't something created during the Amarna Period, but its roots go much further back. But it was a common design element during the Amarna Period. And it's a symbol in hieroglyph that means "life" or "eternal life." This particular example is a mere case from the tomb of Tutankhamun, who we'll explore in a few moments.

Now, these next images are important examples from the Amarna Period. We begin with an example of sunken relief in this image of the Pharaoh Akhenaten with the Queen Nefertiti and their children. Now, the most interesting thing about this relief is its subject matter. What's unusual about the subject matter is its lack of formality.

We're seeing in an intimate scene of a family moment. Two of the kids are swarming around on the queen, while the third is being petted on the head by Akhenaten and is pulling him in for a kiss. And the event takes place under the watchful gaze of Aton, the sun disc, sending rays of light upon the family, each one ending in an ankh, the symbol of life.

This next image is a colossal image of the pharaoh Akhenaten. And here you can get a better view of the unusual stylistic elements I was referring to earlier. This is a different sculpture of the pharaoh. Notice the large ear. And this is another physical abnormality of Marfen syndrome, one of many possible clues which led to Alan Burridge to develop his theory about the connection with Akhenaten. Again, it's only a theory and one of the many theories related to possible diseases that may explain the unusual appearance. Interesting to consider, though, as a possible explanation for the unique set of features we see in the depictions of the pharaoh and his family.

The last images a bust of the Queen Nefertiti and is a striking contrast to the representations of the Pharaoh Akhenaten. It's thought to be a rather faithful representation of the Queen's actual appearance, as opposed to the stylized images we've come to expect from the art of ancient Egypt. Usually these types of realistic depictions were reserved for common people, not members of royalty. But with the abolishment of the canon, artists may have had more freedom in the way they represented members of the royal family.

The dream, if you can call it that, wasn't the last. Eventual secession of Akhenaten's son Tutankhamun, informally known as King Tut, the major changes of the Amarna Period began to fade away. And even Tut's name reflected the change. Originally, he was called Tutankhaten-- A-T-E-N at the end after his father-- but changed it to Tutankhamun with the return of the priestly class of amun, who is Ra. So even the name change suggested that they're moving away from the Amarna Period. He also moved the royal court back to Thebes.

Now, this is probably one of the most recognizable artifacts from ancient Egypt. It was discovered in the early 20th century. The tomb was largely untouched, which gives us a fantastic opportunity to see the burial chamber of the pharaoh the way it would've looked at its time. The mask and painted chest piece you see on the right is gold inlaid with enamel and semi precious stones and would have rested over the body. And it gives us a stylized interpretation of the pharaoh's appearance.

You can sort of see how the realism of the facial features retain some the qualities we saw in Amarna the Amarna Period. And let me zoom in here, so you can see what I'm talking about. But there's a marked shift toward the traditional stylistic elements that came before the Amarna Period. Notice how things kind of stiffened up.

It also shows a rather young pharaoh. Tut's reign was short lived. He died when he was 18 years old.

That brings us to the end of lesson. Let's take a look at the objectives to see how we did. Now that you've seen the lesson, are you able to identify and define today's key terms?

Can you explain some events that brought about the Amarna Period? Can you describe some of these stylistic elements of the Amarna Period? Can you explain the return to tradition with Tutankhamun?

Big idea for today is that the Amarna Period is a short period of time during the reign of the Pharaoh Akhenaten and is marked by major political, religious, and stylistic changes. There you go. Thanks for joining me. And I'll see you next time.


Image of Egypt Map Creative Commons; ; Image of Bust of Nefertiti, Photo by Philip Pikart, Creative Commons, Image of Akhenaten, Creative Commons, Image of Akhenaten, Nefertiti, and Their Children, Creative Commons,,_Nefertiti_and_their_children.jpg Image of Death Mask of Tutankhamen, Creative Commons, Image of Akhenaten, Creative Commons, Image of Ankh from Tomb of Tutankhamun, Public Domain,


Terms to Know

Egyptian key of life or the key of the Nile, a hieroglyphic of a looped cross with a handle.


Or Aten, is the disk of the sun in ancient Egyptian mythology.


The belief in one god.

Sunken Relief

A design cut into the surface where there is no point or part higher than the surface itself.