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The Ancient Egyptian Reliefs of the Amarna Epoch

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Since its beginning the human culture develops as the complex of interrelated fields of social activity. In this regards, art as one of these fields, cannot be understood as some separate phenomenon which does not depend on others. Besides, it is necessary to underline that the traditional materialist approach which interprets the reality as based only on the economic part of life is also incorrect. There are many factors that determine the vectors of development of each civilization. Thus, the Ancient Egypt is not an exception and appearance of its art in traditional for Egypt forms was determined primarily by the geographical position of the country. According to John Winckelmann, the famous researcher of the history of art, the land of Egypt was unified by the river Nile that was the sole source of life. The climate allowed to live in comfortable conditions, besides, in order to survive people had to live together near the water. It caused the fact that “Egypt enjoyed in a greater degree than other kingdoms tranquility and peace, by which the arts were brought into being and nurtured” (Winckelmann 195). Other significant causes of Egyptian art development were “the dense population of the country, and the power of their kings” (Winckelmann 195). Certainly, when the society prospers and feels the strong hand of the ruler above it, there is no reason for any great tumultuous circumstances that can become the characteristic tendency. That is why, the ancient Egyptian society had a historical possibility to create and develop its special art traditions. It was started with the needs of some votive figures and images that could satisfy religious purposes of the Egyptians (Winckelmann 193). In such way, the sacral art was the first step from which started the process of the art tradition statement. All of the factors stated: geographical, social, political and religious were actual not only at the very evolvement of the Egyptian art, but in much later times as well. It is particularly true for the Amarna epoch which revealed a huge creative potential of the Egyptian artists and can be understood as a revolutionary epoch.

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The Amarna epoch of the Egyptian history is traditionally connected with the name of pharaoh Akhenaton whose reformative activity in the field of religion had to changed (and actually changed for a short term) the Egyptian society. Akhenaton coerced his people to worship only one god – Aton (the disc of the sun), in lieu of the multiple traditional Egyptian gods one of which Aton was earlier (“Amarna Style”). Every city had its own pantheon and the main gods of the state represented the separate nomes and city-states of which consisted the Egyptian state. In such way, the pharaoh neglected t polytheistic traditions and tried to make the new monotheistic religion the only state religion of Egypt. Such initiative was partly introduced in order to unify the religious system of the land was denied shortly after the death of the pharaoh-reformer. Akhenaton's actions were interpreted as the blasphemy and his capital in Tell el-Amarna (that is why the epoch is called the Amarna one) was ruined in order to destroy the memories about his reign. It is the main cause that the contributions of the Amarna epoch were not effectively developed and used after Akhenaton died and the changes he introduced lost the power. Besides, the epoch of the specific Amarna style is very interesting as an art phenomenon, especially the reliefs that represent the specifics of understanding the relationships between the humans and the god (Aton). Also, they show the changes that took place in depicting human body and human activity. The main innovations of the epoch can be understood as realistic and liberal tendencies in Egyptian art that are closely connected and interrelated with the political, social and religious changes mentioned.

Before the religious reform, gods and pharaohs were traditionally depicted on the reliefs face-to-face. In such way, was stated the divinity of the person of pharaoh and his indisputable superiority over the other people who were depicted much smaller than their sovereign in order to underline their humility. The chaotic composition of the predinastic period was changed into structured and strictly hierarchical composition that played both religious and political function (if they could be separated each from other in Ancient Egypt) (Davis 404). During the times of Aton reign, introduction of the only god changed the composition of the reliefs. The god, depicted as the disc of the sun, with the rays represented by the thin hands, was traditionally posed above the other figures of the relief. Whitney Davis claims that two compositional tendencies were characteristic for the Amarna style: the triangular and the circular ones. Both of them are based on the necessary posing Aton above all others. The circular composition is perfectly presented in Relief Stella of the Amarna Royal Family. Akhenaton is faced with his wife and they are surrounded by their children. Pharaoh and his wife sit while the god is above and between them. In such a way, their figures with the disc of Aton are posed in a circular manner – the highest point of the circle is Aton. The triangular composition is represented in the reliefs, where Akhenaton and his wife are depicted kneeling under Aton whom they in such a manner worship. As Davis states, “The new compositions may point to the existence of a comparatively liberal social hierarchy in Amarna times; the king, in small self-contained Amarna reliefs at least, is less aloof than in traditional relief, and his figure appears to be but one element of a human ontology (Davis, “Two Compositional Tendencies in Amarna Relief” 392). Certainly, the only god which is always above everything (as the sun really is) was the symbol of supreme power in comparison with which the distinctions between the people were not so important.

The Amarna style does not reduce social structure, besides, it shows that god is so high and almighty that even the family of the pharaoh kneels under the shining disc of the sun. Two compositional tendencies mentioned, as Davis claims, are not represented in some reliefs in a pure triangular or circular form, but their role in the Art of Egypt is only established and in a very successful way because of their close connection and interrelation with all main social, political and religious processes that took place in the Egyptian kingdom. On the other hand, because of new art tendencies were introduced along with other changes and innovations of Akhenaton, they could not be safe after restoration of the former theological system. Such composition, that poses the royal persons under the god, requires the cult of the only one god-sun because without this cult such a depiction will be absurd.
Another tendency of the Amarna epoch is embodied in realism of the figures depicted on the reliefs. The mentioned Relief Stella of the Amarna Royal Family depicts the family of the pharaoh in a very realistic way: the children are playing and the father-pharaoh kisses his daughter, who sits on his knees. The scene is a specific contribution of the Amarna style. Previous styles depicted the pharaohs primarily symbolically and were dedicated to religious, political and social aspects of life, in other words – they showed the public side of the pharaoh's life. The reliefs of the Amarna epoch reveal the private side of it and the reasonable consequence of this tendency is the statement that Akhenaton tried to show his people that there is no great difference between the ruler and the ruled. It can be proved by the fact that Akhenaton personally instructed his workers and was the creator of the most pieces of art, when the artists were only the executors of the pharaoh's creative will (“Amarna Style”).

Another example of the Amarnian realism is the manner in which the bodies of the members of the pharaoh's family were depicted: as tall, slim, their hands, legs and necks very thin and unnaturally long. As for the heads, its form is not characteristic for the average head, but is very long and unnatural. There are many versions concerning this specific feature of the reliefs, but the most reliable of them is that the pharaoh had some physical defects and they were transferred on his relatives through the art (“Amarna style”). Even such strange features of the figures depicted do not reduce their realism. On the reliefs made before Akhenaton, most of the pharaohs are depicted in a similar way as a person wearing royal clothes and who has the attributes of the pharaoh (the ritual beard, for example). Besides, Akhenaton and his family are uncommon in this regard: they look different and even have their own faces that are easily recognized among other pharaohs depicted according to the symbolical canons. Neglecting of the former symbolical tradition can be understood as one of many vectors of Akhenaton's “blasphemy”. In the attempt to free the person of pharaoh from the ties of ritual symbolism can be found the main roots of the art realism provided by the pharaoh-reformer.

The Stella mentioned also shows another side of the realism stated: the figures depicted are not static, but they are moving and their moves are perfectly showed through the relief. The children are playing; the pharaoh is kissing his daughter. Besides, before the Amarna epoch the relief depictions were static and the artists of the former times could not or did not want to show that the person depicted was moving. Symbolic art is dedicated to something stable and unchangeable, the reason of the symbol is to show it, be it god or pharaoh. Besides, Akhenaton compulsively creates the new art paradigm which begins to depict the reality in its unstable nature.

The Amarnian tendencies of realism and liberalism are interrelated because of one source from which they were introduced to the art. Certainly, depiction of the pharaoh's family as the people who also have their personal life and do not mystify this fact in order to pretend that they are rather gods than humans, can be understood as the realization of both tendencies, but by the different points of view. That is why, separating of the innovations in the field of the relief depictions into these two categories is more abstract then real. The reformative activity of Akhenaton has to be understood through the complex approach which tries to find the main connections between the different social phenomena and to explain them as the sides of one phenomenon which cannot be searched without such an analysis.

In such way, the main contributions of Akhetaton's reformations in the field of art were the liberal and realistic tendencies that were embodied in the new compositional tendencies, new approaches to the person of the pharaoh and his family and to relationships between humans and the god. The factors stated by Winckelmann (geographical position, political situation, social stability and religious traditions) as the definite for the vector of development of art of the land (in this case – for the land of Egypt) played their role in transforming Egyptian art. Besides, it is doubtfully clear that only one of these factors is partly independent from others, namely, the geographical position of Egypt. Nevertheless, even this independent factor becomes partly socialized by the relationships between the people and the land. For example, not only the river of Nile preconditioned the unity of Egypt, but also the creative initiative of the people. As for other factors, they have not even this partly independence from social factor, while their interrelation is the most important question in the history of Egyptian art which in deeper sense can be understood as ability to change the nature according to human purposes, needs and will.

As was mentioned above, Egyptian art evolved and was developed to satisfy religious purposes of the people. Besides, in certain sense, art is not younger than religion, social structure or political organization. Human becomes human only through finding the new relationship with the nature, something that is not available for animals which are the parts of it. Besides, the artists need to change the world around, this part of human has always opposed to the nature.

The Egyptian art revolution which took place in the Amarna epoch can be understood through this point of view as development of both parts of the average Egyptians. The natural part of them needed to make social world more naturalistic, and, according to this purpose, the artistic part became able to realize it through the realistic art of that epoch. Besides, such psychological approach helps to understand that not only the factors stated by Winckelmann have no direct dominance over the art, but also that art can be understood as the ability to create social world, religion and the state, to change the nature either of the people or of the whole world. The reliefs of the Amarna epoch provide a good example of this new approach.

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