Highlights From the Neues: ‘King’ Nefertiti and the Controversial Amarna Stela

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This beautiful stela from Amarna encapsulates the Amarna artistic style and the religion of the Aten in one place. It is not the only one of its kind, but it is one of exceptional workmanship and is in remarkable condition. Along with the bust of Nefertiti, it’s one of the highlights of the newly-opened Neues Museum in Berlin.

The stela, or house altar, shows a relief of the royal family, with Nefertiti on the right, sitting opposite and facing her husband Akhenaten, with their three eldest daughters, Meritaten, Meketaten and Ankhesenpaaten, upon their laps.

They are all seated beneath the Aten, or sun disc, whose rays end in little handsholding ankhs to the lips of the king and queen; presenting them with eternal life.

Although the religion of the Aten is often claimed to be monotheistic, it was in fact hedotheistic, where one god is worshipped whilst still recognising the existence of other gods. Nefertiti and Akhenaten themselves were often depicted as the traditional gods, Shu and Tefnut the deities of the air and moisture, forming a triad with the Aten, the sun. Wherever the image of the Aten is depicted it displays the ureaus representing the goddess Wadjet, who traditionally protects the king from her position upon their crown.

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In this stela,the Atens rays are only reaching the mouths of the king and queen, which was a fundamental part of their religion. There is movement in the tails hanging from the crowns of the king and queen indicating they were seated outside, all the better for soaking up the rays of the sun, and indeed all of the worship of the Aten was performed outside.

Each ray ends in a small hand; some holding the ankh, the symbol of eternal life. This idea was fundamental to the religion of the Aten, as the sun beams were the source of all light and life, and it is no accident that the royal family were the sole beneficiaries of these gifts. The sun nurtured them and through the royal family, the population could obtain eternal life.

This intimacy is not repeated after the Amarna period

The royal family alone were allowed to worship the Aten. Everyone else worshipped the royal couple, who were seen as intermediaries between the Aten and the people. The Aten only spoke to Akhenaten, as an equal. Either Akhenaten had been raised to the position of god or the Aten had been demoted to the status of a king. The latter seems to be the case, as the Atens name is written in cartouches alongside that of the king, and the disc is adorned with the uraeus. In all images of the Aten it is in fact the royal family which dominate and not the god.

The image on this stela is also one of family intimacy with one of the children playing with her mothers earring, whilst another is commenting and pointing to her father as he embraces and kisses the third daughter. This intimacy is not repeated after the Amarna period.

The representation of the royal family has sparked debate for the last 80 years or so, and the grotesque distortion of each member of the family has been interpreted in many ways, with diseases being the most popular amongst lay-people as there seems to be a desire for these images to be true to life.

However it is likely thisstyle of representation is as stylistic as traditional art, just in a different way. The androgynous manner in which Akhenaten is portrayed, with pendulous breasts, a small waist and large thighs are a means of showing his divine nature; encapsulating both the male and female aspects of a god. Nefertiti and the girls are also depicted in this way for exactly the same reason; to emphasise their divinity.

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There are some unusual elements to this scene as the throne of Nefertiti is decorated with the sma tawy, or symbol of the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt which is normally reserved for the king’s throne. Does this indicate perhaps the stela was not finished, or that there was a deeper message being portrayed here? The most fashionable idea at presentis that Nefertiti became co-regent with Akhenaten and changed her name to Smenkhkare, ruling alone after his death. Is the sma tawy on her throne proof of this?

This isjust one of many such reliefs showing such intimatefamily scenes,whichare beautiful and touching but are probably not meant to be viewed as snapshots of their intimate moments. Dominic Montserrat compared these images to the propagandistic images of Queen Victoria and her family group represented most royal families in Europe displaying a united front, or despotic leaders like Saddam Hussain or Stalin with their families and pets presenting an image to the world. Was Akhenaten any different? A deeply unpopular king presenting images of family unity; us against the world? One thing that is clear is that although beautifully carved and sensitively presented these are stylistic images which probably present Akhenatens world more realistically that any art in ancient Egypt.

Is this one of your favourite pieces in the new Neues Museum, Berlin? Check out our top 10, and let us know your top picks.