Stele of Sculptor Bek with his wife Taheret

The stele of sculptor Bek the chief royal artist is itself a very distinctive product, with two figures contained within a naos but carved almost three-dimensionally. If, as would seem very possible, Bek himself carved the stele, this would be the oldest self-portrait known. The inscription of this stele also mentions him being taught by Akhenaten.

The sculptor Bek followed the king to Akhetaten, the city founded by Akhenaten. He oversaw the construction of the great temple statues of the king and the opening of the Aswan and Gebel el-Silsila stone quarries, from where the stone was transported. Bek was succeeded as Chief Sculptor by Thutmose (creator of the famous bust of Nefertiti).

Stele of the sculptor Bek Self-Portrait with his wife Taheret
Stele of the sculptor Bek Self-Portrait with his wife Taheret. Neues Museum, Berlin

Bek or Bak (Egyptian name for “Servant”) was the first chief royal sculptor during the reign of king Akhenaten. His father Men held the same position under Akhenaten’s father Amenhotep III; his mother Roi was a woman from Heliopolis. Bek grew up in Heliopolis, an important cult center of Re.

The young prince Amenhotep (who became king Akhenaten) had a palace here, and it is likely that his religious views were formed in part by the Heliopolitan teachings.

Akhenaten seems to have been the guiding hand behind these stylistic changes, as much as the Aten religion itself; indeed, the two are irrevocably intertwined. A dedicatory text of the master sculptor Bek described him as “one whom his majesty himself instructed.”

The Amarna period also produced a number of sculptures of exquisite refinement, including the painted portrait bust of Nefertiti found in the workshop of the sculptor Thutmose, perhaps the most famous embodiment of female beauty from the ancient Middle East.

The Significance of the Amarna Period Sculptures

The sculptures of the Amarna Period hold significant historical and artistic importance. During this period, King Akhenaten introduced a religious revolution by promoting the worship of a single deity, the sun disc Aten, and shifting away from the traditional polytheistic beliefs of ancient Egypt. This religious shift had a profound impact on the art and sculpture of the time.

The Amarna sculptures are characterized by a departure from the idealized and formalized artistic conventions of previous periods. They exhibit a more naturalistic and intimate style, with an emphasis on portraying the royal family in a more human and relatable manner. The sculptures often depict King Akhenaten, Queen Nefertiti, and their children in a more informal and affectionate way, showcasing a sense of familial warmth and tenderness.

These sculptures also reflect the religious and ideological changes of the period. The representations of Akhenaten and Nefertiti often show elongated and exaggerated features, such as elongated heads, slender bodies, and full lips. These stylistic choices were intended to convey the king’s connection to the divine and the Aten’s life-giving rays.

The Amarna sculptures provide valuable insights into the religious, political, and artistic developments of ancient Egypt during the Amarna Period. They offer a unique glimpse into the reign of Akhenaten and the radical changes that occurred in Egyptian society during this time.

New Kingdom, late 18th Dynasty, Amarna Period, reign of Akhenaten, ca. 1353-1336 BC. Now in the Neues Museum, Berlin.