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Akhenaten, Nefertiti, and Three Daughters

Akhenaten changed Egyptian art around 1350 BC by introducing a new religion worshiping the sun god Aten. This shift led to a unique art style, seen in a stone plaque featuring Akhenaten, his wife Nefertiti, and their children. The artwork shows a more intimate, curvilinear style, emphasizing their connection to Aten. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

STEVEN ZUCKER: So around 1350 BC, everything changed in Egyptian art. BETH HARRIS: When we think about Egyptian art, we don't think of change. STEVEN ZUCKER: That's true. The Old Kingdom, the Middle Kingdom, the New Kingdom, and the transitional periods between-- art is consistent for almost 3,000 years. But there is this radical break right around 1350. And it's because the ruler, Akhenaten, changes the state religion. BETH HARRIS: He changes it from the worship of the god Amun to a new god, a sun god, called Aten. So he actually changes his own name to Akhenaten, which means Aten is pleased. The key is he makes him and his wife the only representatives of Aten on earth. And so he upsets the entire priesthood of Egypt by making him and his wife the only ones with access to this new god, Aten. STEVEN ZUCKER: And in fact, after Akhenaten dies, Egypt will return to its traditional religion. So this period is a very brief episode in Egyptian history, but it also marks a real shift in style. And this small stone plaque that we're looking at, this sunken relief carving-- which would have been placed in a private domestic environment-- is a perfect example of those stylistic changes. BETH HARRIS: Right. It would have been an altar in someone's home, where they would have seen Akhenaten and his wife Nefertiti and their relationship to the god Aten. This has always been one of my favorite sculptures. It's so informal, compared to most Egyptian art. We really have a sense of a couple and their relationship with one another and their relationship with their children. And love and domesticity. STEVEN ZUCKER: So let's take a close look. On the left, you have Akhenaten himself. This is the pharaoh of Egypt, the supreme ruler. You can see that he's holding his eldest daughter, and he's actually getting ready to kiss her. He seems to be holding her very tenderly, supporting her head, holding her under the thighs. She seems to be, perhaps, pointing back to her mother at the same moment. BETH HARRIS: We see Nefertiti holding another daughter on her lap, pointing back to Akhenaten, and yet a third daughter, the youngest one, on her shoulder, playing with her earring. And I think it's immediately apparent that there's something wrong with their anatomy. If we look at the children, or we look at Nefertiti or Akhenaten, we see swollen bellies, very thin arms, and elongated skulls, forms that have made historians wonder whether there was something medically wrong with Akhenaten. STEVEN ZUCKER: In fact, we don't think that there was. We think that this is a purely stylistic break. It was meant to distinguish this new age, this new religion, from Egypt's past. BETH HARRIS: Egyptian art had been dominated by rectilinear forms. Here, Akhenaten seems to be demanding this new style dominated by curvilinear forms. STEVEN ZUCKER: Look at the careful attention to the drapery. There is a softness throughout that is an absolute contrast to the traditions of Egyptian art. But in some ways, there are elements of traditional Egyptian sculpture. BETH HARRIS: Right. We still see a composite view of the body. A profile view of the face, but a frontal view of the eye. STEVEN ZUCKER: Right. Or one hip is facing us. But the shoulders are squared with us. So as much of the body is exposed to us as possible, while the figures are still in profile. So let's take a look at some of the iconography here. This little panel really tells us a lot. God is present. Aten is present, here rendered as the sun disk. And from that sun-- which has a small cobra in it, which signifies that this is the supreme deity, the only deity. Akhenaten was a monotheist. And this was in such contrast to the pantheon of gods that traditional Egyptian religion counted on. Here Akhenaten says, no, there is only one true god. So we can see the cobra. We can see the sun disk. And then we can see rays of light that pour down. And if you look closely, you can see hands at the ends of those rays, except for the rays that terminate right at the faces of the king and queen. And there, you see not only hands, but also ankhs, the Egyptian sign of life. And so it's as if Aten is giving life to these two people, and these two people alone. BETH HARRIS: Those rays of light are holding those ankhs right at the noses, the breath of life for Akhenaten and Nefertiti. We can see in the throne of Nefertiti symbols of both Upper and Lower Egypt, indicating that Nefertiti is queen of both. STEVEN ZUCKER: Akhenaten himself is sitting on a simpler throne. It does give a sense of her importance and the fact that they would rule Egypt together.