Friday, February 19, 2010
Akhenaten, monotheism and realism
Tutankhamun's daddy, Akhenaten, is known as the heretic Pharaoh. The son of one of Egypt's great rulers, Amenhotep III (or Amenophis III), Akhenaten presided over a downswing in the empire's fortunes. How much he contributed to the decline is a matter of debate.
He's known mainly for raising Aten, the sun god, to the status of chief deity. This was resisted by powerful priests in charge of temples of other gods, which led Akhenaten to abandon the old capital and shift to a new city, named Akhetaten, and now called El Amarna.
The house altar pictured above, shows Akhenaten with his chief queen Nefertiti and three of their six daughters. It's almost the only example in Egyptian art of a Pharaoh depicted in such an informal context. Friezes and paintings from this period are very different in spirit from what came before and after. They show ordinary people going about ordinary things. Strangest of all, they show a Pharaoh who is no remote ideal. Akhenaten has an elongated skull, a saggy abdomen and, in a number of statues, man breasts.
Akhenaten gained a massive reputation in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This was mainly because his exclusive worship of Aten was interpreted as monotheistic. Rather than an eccentric, he was seen as a rebel against the power of the priesthood. A man who gave his queen equal status, he could be see as almost a democrat. For Europeans who saw monotheism as the most sophisticated form of worship, and democracy as the most just form of politics, Akhenaten was the only Egyptian ruler who approached these ideals.
H.R.Hall called him the first example of a scientific mind, James Breasted termed him the first individual in all of history, and Sigmund Freud, in his book Moses and Monotheism, suggested Moses was a priest in Akhenaten's time, who was banished from Egypt after the Pharaoh's death, and founded Judaism on the basis of Akhenaten's monotheistic ideal.
If a chap was a monotheist, and a scientific mind, and a democrat, and a rebel, what artistic ideal would he adhere to? To a 19th century European, the answer was obvious: such a ruler would favour Realism, the most rational and democratic of styles. There was evidence enough of Akhenaten's realistic bent of mind in those casual royal images and the unflattering way he was portrayed.
Following this train of thought, experts took the friezes and statues of this period as accurate representations, and built theories based on them. If Akhenaten looked weird in paintings, it was because he looked exactly like that in real life. Why would he look like that? Froelich's syndrome was the first diagnosis. Problem was, Froelich's syndrome made people sterile, and Akhenaten, as seen in that image with Nefertiti, had quite a few children (six daughters with Nefertiti, and two sons with his other queen, his sister Kiya. One of the sons was named Tutankhaten, changed to Tutankhamun after worship of the god Amun returned to the mainstream).
Two years ago, a Yale university physician, Irwin Braverman, suggested Akhenaten's suffered from Marfan's syndrome, which is associated with long, curved fingers, a cleft palate, and an elongated skull. The latest tests have confirmed the cleft palate, and the longish skull, but have eliminated the possibility that Marfan's syndrome was to blame.
What's interesting to me is the idea that the art of Akhenaten's time was realistic. Didn't people notice he wasn't the only person who was shown with a saggy belly and long face? Not just his wives, but his kids had those features as well. Scholars explained this away by saying that, since Pharaohs married sisters, the same defect probably ran in the family. The problem with this is that the most famous sculpture to survive from ancient Egypt, a bust of queen Nefertiti, has her looking more like a supermodel than a Marfan's syndrome victim. It was among the unfinished works found in the studio of the royal sculptor Tuthmose, which explains the unpainted left eye.
This sculpture is on display in Berlin, as is the frieze at the top of this page, which shows Nefertiti in a rather different light. Which of the two is more realistic?
Once we get over the realism hurdle, one can see the art of Akhenaten's reign for what it is: clearly the inferior of work created in the time of many other Pharaohs, except in the last years when Tuthmose produced some marvels. Just because Akhenaten looks mis-shapen doesn't mean we should admire his sculptures more than we admire those of his father Amenhotep III.
Akhenaten's democratic attitude also crumbles on close inspection. He forced citizens to pray to Aten, abandoning the worship of their traditional gods. How liberal is that?
As for his monotheism, it wasn't exactly what scholars made it out to be. He never claimed Aten was the only God, merely that no other god should be worshipped. Akhenaten was a bit like a staunch Shaivite, who acknowledges the existence of divinities other than Shiva, but insists on Shiva's superiority, and will pray only to Shiva.
So he wasn't a realist, he wasn't a democrat, he wasn't a proper monotheist, he certainly wasn't a patron of Moses, that is a complete red herring dreamt up by Freud. He was an idiosyncratic king, probably not a very efficient ruler, who makes for an interesting diversion from the sometimes boring pomp and grandeur of the Pharaohs. Prejudices about the best form of worship and the best style of art raised him far above his station, and led to some wild theories which presumed everything in sculptures and paintings dating from his reign was an accurate representation. It wasn't. Now CT scans and DNA tests are confirming the fact that those portraits are stylised just like everything else in Egyptian art.