Great Hymn to the Aten

The Great Hymn to the Aten. A detail of a painted low relief depicts King Akhenaten and his family adoring the sun god Aten. The stele showing Akhenaten and Nefertiti offering to the Aten, followed by their two eldest daughters shaking sistrum.

The stele was completed but here is still a grid of red draft lines suggesting that it is a model for craftsmen, maybe for a larger relief. This panel with a scene of the adoration of Aten was found in the rubble blocking the royal tomb of Akhenaten.

A detail of a painted low relief depicts pharaoh Akhenaten and his family adoring the sun god Aten
A detail of a painted low relief depicts king Akhenaten and his family adoring the sun god Aten

It is difficult to say what role it played in the funerary moment. Traces of the squaring used by the artist to compose the scene remain on the surface between the figures, and this has led to an interpretation of the work as a model to be used in the execution of the decoration of the tomb (probably made by the sculptor Bek, the chief royal artist in the earlier years of Amarna).

The scene recurs with some frequency in the Amarna Period and shows the royal family worshiping Aten. The solar disc is placed in the top right corner of the composition and sheds its light on the rest of the scene. All the rays terminate in small hands, some of which are holding was (power) and ankh (life) hieroglyphs; the hands that come into direct contact with Akhenaten of the offering table placed in front of him below the image of Aten are empty. This alteration of empty and full is not casual and corresponds to the method of transcribing in hieroglyphs the actions of giving (full hand) and receiving (empty hand).

In this way, the reciprocal relationship between the king and Aten is depicted in pictorial form. The scene thus provides us with an iconographical presentation of the classic form of the Egyptian prayer in which the king receives ‘life, prosperity and power’ from the god, in exchange for charitable acts (in this case the offerings).

The rays of Aten, moreover, serve to set all the elements on three different planes. They pass behind the members of the royal family and in front of the offering table, attributing a different value to each. Akhenaten, Nefertiti and their two daughters, Meritaten and Meketaten (the relative importance of whom is indicated by decreasing dimensions) are placed in the foreground, while Aten is set behind them but in front of the offering table in the background.

The contents of the table are almost completed obscured by the rays of the solar disc. The bodies and the facial features of the royal family are depicted in accordance with the distinctive canons of the artistic style of the early part of the reign of Akhenaten.

New Kingdom, 18th Dynasty, Amarna Period, reign of Akhenaten, ca. 1353-1336 BC. Painted limestone, from a royal tomb at Tell el-Amarna (Akhetaten). Now in the Egyptian Museum, Cairo. TR