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Friday, 26 November 2010

Artwork of the day

The Berlin Stela, 18th dynasty, c 1340 BC, Egyptian Museum, Berlin

This relief is part of a unique phase in Egyptian history and art. The Amarna period saw a radical change in religious beliefs with the pharaoh, Amenhotep IV changing his name to Akhenaten and establishing a monotheistic religion. Art changed too to support the religious changes. The picture has two reading. At first, the viewer is invited to witness a tender, everyday family scene. The king and the queen, like every other family, play with their young daughters. This however, was a relief found inside a house shrine in Amarna, a place of worship. Automatically, this ceases to be an everyday scene and becomes religious. The stela was not made to commemorate an event. Instead it served as an icon with the protagonists being elevated to divine status. The young girls, daughters of the pharaoh and his chief wife need to be included in the pictures as pendants to the male and female “principles of the universe” represented by their parents. They play the role of eternal continuity of life and creation under the rays of the new official god, Aten.The children are thus part of the religious propaganda of Aten, initiated by their father. They are part of a religious statement; they become themselves items of worship. Even their egg-shaped heads have been interpreted as another sign of ‘divine creation’ conforming to Akhenaten’s belief that the egg was connected to creation. Even the setting in which the royal family resides seems to be somehow elevated to heaven. Under the protective rays of the Aten the family enjoys a private ‘garden of Eden’ with which the average Egyptian could hardly relate. The fact that stelas similar to this were found in other private places in the city of Amarna supports the claim that this is in fact an icon of a divinised royal family that acted as intermediary between the common Egyptians and the great god.

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