Human Figures in Amarna Period Art

Human Figures in the Art of the Amarna Period

by Jimmy Dunn

This depiction of  Akhenaten reveals his wide hips and prominent breasts. So feminine is  this representation that some scholars believe it to actually be a  statue of Nefertiti.

Most students of ancient Egyptian are aware that the Artwork composed during the Amarna Period under Akhenaten differs markedly from that of other periods in Egyptian history, One of the most visible changes in the art of this period was the manner in which human figures were depicted, specifically their proportions and at its most extreme in that of the king.

Though initially Akhenaten, known at that time as Amenhotep IV, was depicted in a traditional artistic style, later depictions of Akhenaten typically represent him with a large head with drooping features and a long neck. He has a pointed chin and thick lips. His shoulders and waist are narrow, and the small of his back is high, so that the upper torso is small. From the waist down, the body swells out to form large buttocks and curvaceous thighs. His belly droops over the sagging waistband of his kilt, while his breasts are pronounced. His appendages, both arms and short lower legs, are thin and lack any musculature.

This representation of an Egyptian pharaoh is completely and absolutely contrary to all other depictions, which are more normally idealized portrayals of rugged, physically dominating men.

Later during the king's reign, the art of the Amarna Period becomes less extreme, with some artwork returning almost to normal. The style becomes more graceful, evolving into a softer, more naturalistic style. In depictions of the king, his shoulders and waist tend to be slightly wider and the small of his back is lowered, so that there was less contrast between a tiny upper torso and the enlarged stomach, buttock and thigh region.

Outline of a later depictions of Akhenaten and Nefertiti were less stylistically extreme

With all the information we have on the Amarna Period, including considerable correspondence in the form known as the "Amarna Letters", nowhere do we find an explanation for this very dramatic change in Egyptian art. However, most scholars believe that this art form was instigated by Akhenaten, and at any rate, it would have had to meet his approval. A number of explanations have been presented by scholars.

One common reason frequently provided is that Akhenaten suffered from some sort of illness. Dr. Sameh M. Arab, a noted medical scholar from Alexandria believes, for example, that he may have suffered from Hyper-pituitrism (Gigantism or Acromegaly), while others have suggested any number of diseases including tuberculosis of the liver or cirrhosis secondary to Biharzial parasitic infection. Initial arguments against a disease being the reason for his almost cartoon-like depictions was that other human figures were represented in the same style. However, those who argue in favor of disease point out that, because he was king, others figures might be represented in the same manner in order to artistically camouflage his problem.

Fragment of limestone showing Akhenaten (left) and Nefertiti (right), clearly with different treatments of the genital region

It appears that today, many if not most scholars discount disease theory. Others have argued that the art does in fact represent the physical characteristics of the king, but in a caricature style that some have termed expressionist.

In his book, The Art of Ancient Egypt, Art Historian Gay Robins of Emory University suggests that, because the new royal image coincided with the preeminence given to the Aten, the new style was probably meant to make a religious statement. Like others, he believes that the proportions give a feminine appearance to the figure of the king, given the slenderness of the torso, the high small of the back, the prominent buttocks and the swelling thighs. Indeed, early explorers at Amarna thought that the depictions of Akhenaten and Nefertiti actually represented two women. Robins goes on to point out that, since the king was the manifestation of Aten on earth, and Aten was as a creator god was androgynous, the king may have intended that his image should incorporate both male and female elements. He further states that:

"In addition the Aten brought abundance and prosperity to the land, concepts associated with Hapy, [the god of] the Nile inundation, traditionally shown as a fat fecundity figure. Texts identify Akhenaten with Hapy, and his corpulence may be meant to display this aspect of the king. This supposition is strengthened by an extraordinary detail that occurs in the rendering of the king's thighs and genital region. Traditionally, figures of kings and elite males wear opaque kilts that reveal nothing of what is underneath. By contrast, most two-dimensional figures of Akhenaten show the forward line of the near thigh beneath his kilt, as it runs upwards to meet the stomach fold; no genitals are visible. This recalls the way in which fecundity figures are depicted. Like Akhenaten, they too show no genitalia, perhaps in order to enhance the notion of their corpulence through the conceit that the folds of the fat stomach droop so low as to conceal the genitals."

A well known relief of the royal family in the early Amarna style, displaying lsome traces of the grid pattern used.

However, even though the king's figure is somewhat feminine, it is differentiated from female figures. The most obvious difference is in the genital area, apart from the clothing. Female dress is treated as transparent, so that the body is visible underneath, including the stomach, thighs and pubic area, which is totally different than the treatment given to the king's figure. This particular aspect of depicting women was not new to the Amarna Period, since the tight sheath dress outlines the shape of the body and drew attention to the pubic region. Its purpose was probably to produce an icon of female fertility. This was particularly appropriate for Nefertiti's image, since she represented the cosmic female principle.

The royal family were not the only figures presented in this new style of art. Many non-royal people were also depicted with narrow shoulders, slender limbs, short lower legs, dropping stomachs and pronounced buttocks. However, in two dimensional art a deliberate distinction is made between how royal and non-royal feet are depicted. The near and far feet of royal figures during the Amarna Period are differentiated but non-royal figures are depicted with both feet shown from the inside. Though less extreme and certainly not exact copies of the king's figure, lacking his drooping facial features, these non-royal figures point to a possible flaw in Gay Robins' assumptions. If indeed Akhenaten was depicted in this manner for religious reasons due to him being a manifestation of Aten, it seems unlikely that non-royal people would also be depicted in the same style despite the fact that representations of private individuals had always followed the artistic model of the king during their time. Others outside of the royal family could only worship Aten through their king and so the separation between god and the common folk of Egypt was never, nor would it every be greater than during the Amarna Period. Hence, why would others be represented in the same style as Akhenaten. Logically, it would seem that the opposite would be true, though what we perceive as logical in the ancient world can often be in error due to concepts unknown to us.

Logically, it would seem that there must certainly be some connection between the revolutionary art style and the revolutionary religion, though perhaps not necessarily specific to Akhenaten as a manifestation of Aten. One might even imagine that the style of art in the Amarna Period was purposefully altered as a clean break from the older styles when the capital was moved from Thebes to Akhetaten, but in fact, the new style began to evolve prior to the formation of that city. It more parallels the evolution of the new religion itself.

Stylistically, many aspects of the Amarna Art Style were not related to sex, but more to expressionism (A head of a princess from Amarna)

Though prominent scholars often refer to the feminine nature of Akhenaten's depictions, none that we know of have ever expressed the possibility that he might have been subject to alternative sexual preferences. This possibility has not escaped the attention of the gay community, though most of that speculation seems decidedly lacking in any real scholarly pursuit. Nevertheless, among many other possibilities, it is a viable explanation that cannot be discarded offhand. Certainly we are provided with evidence otherwise, such as the loving attitude between the King and Queen so often depicted on the walls of various monuments, but this could have also been a false facade provided to the public, or perhaps even a denial by and for the king himself. Simply because he might have had such tendencies does not necessarily imply that he acted upon them, or even understood, as a member of a line of kings who often compared themselves with bulls to stress their male virility. He most probably fathered the children so frequently depicted in various monument scenes. Certainly Akhenaten's interests seem not to have been as martial in nature as other kings of Egypt. While such a possibility would require more detailed analysis then would be suitable for the context of this article, it might explain his search for religious understanding as well as Nefertiti's equality within the royal family and his various interests that mostly seem contrary to those of previous kings.

Yet, this theory also has problems, mostly in the way that others were depicted in a style that was so utterly different than former periods. All elements of the change were not simply sexual in nature, and we may find, if ever we do, that the art of the Amarna Period was as much a part of Akhenaten's creative imagination as was his new religion.

The king nurturing one of the young princesses

Notably, in addition to the physical portrayal of figures during the Amarna Period, the actual compositions into which they were incorporated were just as differentiated from prior times as the style itself. Totally, and completely unique are the scenes that depict the king lovingly nurturing his children. Many depictions display the king in the company of his family, including their children in scenes that would never have been so composed by prior kings. They frequently represent the family in daily activities. The reasons for this also remain unclear, though there is a definite air of sensitivity and devotion to family never before seen in Royal artwork.

In the final analysis at this stage in our understanding of Akhenaten and the Amarna Period, what seems most obvious is that, even among the best of scholars, there is no absolutely compelling evidence for any specific answer regarding the manner in which figures were portrayed. There might even be an inherent fallacy in the art being directly connected with the religious revolution itself. After all, the rise in this artistic style does correspond with the advent of Akhenaten's new religion, but it also corresponds to his reign and the king may have had other personal reasons for the artistic change unknown to us. We simply have no real contemporary explanations that might clear the muck of what remains, a most mysterious period in Egyptian history and art.


The change in artistic style with regards to figures during the Amarna Period required certain technical changes in the manner in which they were composed. Specifically, ancient Egyptian artists used a grid system in their work in order to create the desired proportions. In previous periods, there was an 18 square grid between the soles of the feet and the hairline. Though few grid traces have survived on Amarna monuments, enough remains to show that standing figures were drawn on a grid of twenty squares. One additional grid row was added between the junction of the neck and shoulders and the hairline to accommodate the long neck and face. The other was added to the torso to allow for the pendulous stomach.

the top of the knee lay on horizontal line six as id did in the eighteen square grid, but in the older system the height of the lower leg was a third of the hairline height, whereas in the Amarna system of twenty grids it was less than a third. The lower legs of Amarna figures therefore appear shorter then those depicted in the old system.

However, despite the changes in proportions, the fundamentals of both two and three dimensional depictions actually remained unchanged. Two dimensional figures were still a composite of their various parts. Objects were portrayed in their most characteristic aspect. Scenes were organized into registers. The illusion of depth was not incorporated, and in both cult and architectural statuary, the formal frontal pose governed composition.






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