Art of Ancient Egypt during Middle and New Kingdom periods – Sculpture and Amarna style


Perhaps the most impressive of all the temples built by Ramesses II is Abu-Simbel in Lower Nubia. It is a splendid “speos” carved into the mountain facing the Nile. Four seated colossi representing the Pharaoh preside its entry.

The so-called speos* were “cave” or “rock” temples carved into the rock and located in Nubia. The limit of Egypt itself was considered to be determined by the first cataract of the Nile; beyond this point was the beginning of Nubia which the Egyptians called Kush. In Nubia were the gold deposits used by ancient Egyptians. The two greatest and best known Egyptian subterranean temples are the two speos of Abu-Simbel. They are on the left bank of the Nile about 40 km north of the second cataract. The larger of the two speos is dedicated to the glory of Ramesses II and in its facade are four colossal statues of the Pharaoh enthroned and carved into the rock. Each one of these statues is little more than 20 mt high. On top of these four gigantic figures is a frieze with thirty-three baboons facing east and worshiping the rising sun. Each one of these monkeys is more than 2 m high. Inside the speos there is a first room with 8 Osirian pillars and reliefs that tell the Pharaoh’s victory over the Hittites at Kadesh. After this first room there is a smaller space which served as the hypostyle hall and finally there is a third square excavation which corresponds to the sanctuary. The other important speos is much smaller and was carved to glorify Ramesses II’s wife, Queen Nefertari, who appears carved on its facade along with her husband’s effigies and statues of the goddess Hathor*.

Just left of the Ramesses II’s speos in Abu-Simbel is the speos of Hathor and Nefertari, also known as the Small Temple, dedicated to the goddess Hathor and Ramesses II’s chief consort, Nefertari.

Civil architecture wasn’t so splendid in Theban Egypt and didn’t have the permanent character that temples had. The palaces were often exclusively built of brick. The large area of ​​the city of Thebes was probably full of simple mud houses, thus it can be explained the fact that the main sanctuaries have been found in the middle of a desert with no trace of urbanization. The houses were of two or three types with a patio or central corridor sometimes in the form of a pavilion surrounded by beautiful gardens.

The temples of the Middle and New Kingdoms were all decorated with reliefs covering the walls: wherever there was an empty space on the wall or columns, the sculptors filled them with reliefs which were later painted in bright colors. These reliefs have admirably drawn silhouettes. During the Middle Kingdom, reliefs were raised above the plane of the wall, but during the New Kingdom the “sunken” reliefs (with the plane of the wall above the relief itself) were preferred.

The sculptors also carved huge statues which often showed a taste for exaggerated colossal dimensions, a characteristic of ancient Egyptian art. Some of the Pharaohs’ statues placed at the doors of their temples were truly colossal.  Sculptors during the New Kingdom demonstrated extraordinary talent to represent the personality of the portrayed: the priests and monarchs. The psychology of each of the great princes of Egypt appears in these family portraits as well as individuals of his family and the royal princesses. These secondary figures rarely have the large dimensions of the portraits of the pharaohs: queens are often close to their husbands, smaller, and next to an ankle of the monarch, their husband and lord. In the reliefs of the temples, the Pharaoh is represented larger than natural size.  He was considered a superior being involved in a battle of pygmies, if we compare his size to the other characters surrounding him. Even the great horses of the Pharaoh’s chariot are also disproportionate in size, thus reflecting a semi-divine nature given to them by its owner, the King of Egypt.

From left to right: the statue of Queen Hatshepsut (Metropolitan Museum, New York), the statue of Tuthmosis III (Egyptian Museum of Turin) , the statuette of Lady Tui (Louvre), the statue of Ramesses II in full gala (Egyptian Museum of Turin), and a relief portraying Queen Tiyi (Royal Museum of Art and History, Brussels).

In chronological order, these are some of the most famous portraits carved by the sculptors of the New Kingdom:

1. The statue of Queen Hatshepsut.

2. The statue of Hatshepsut’s brother, who became her husband and successor, Tuthmosis III.

3. The portraits of Amenhotep III, the builder of Luxor and the Colossi of Memnon.

4. The many beautiful female portraits of Queen Tiyi (young wife of Amenhotep III) and her service ladies, including a relief featuring her nude chest, in the fashion of the XVIII Dynasty, and with two holy cobras on her forehead (Brussels Museum).  Also, the small wooden statuettes representing some ladies of the court of Amenhotep III, including that of Lady Tui (Louvre).

5. To end this royal portrait gallery we have to refer to the great personality of the XIX Dynasty: Ramesses II the Great (1292-1225 BCE). The conqueror of the Hittites in the Battle of Kadesh left a glorious memory of his long reign, that even the pharaohs of the XXth Dynasty (which were not of his lineage) were called themselves without exception also Ramesses. Ramesses II’s portrait in full gala dress and kept in the Turin Museum is noteworthy.

Colossal head of Amenhotep III (British Museum, London), in quartzite, found at the mortuary temple dedicated to him, west of Thebes.


Colossal Statue of Amenhotep IV (Akhenaten), (Cairo Museum).

The truly Egyptian artistic revolution did not come until the reign of the “heretic” Pharaoh Akhenaten. Crowned with the name of Amenhotep IV, Akhenaten dared to think, believe, and make public his faith but without imposing it to his subjects like an inevitable orthodoxy. Akhenaten’s faith was strictly monotheistic which despised the large pantheon of Egyptian gods and saw a representation of the one God in the great sun disk Aten*. The new religion of Aten was more naturalistic and more sentimental than the purely symbolic and geometric mysticism of Amun-Ra. He started by moving the capital of the kingdom to a place farther north now called Tell-el-Amarna where he established the imperial services. Amenhotep IV was surrounded by a group of friends that thought like him and changed his name from Amenhotep to Akhenaten.

Akhenaten changed not only his name but he changed his appearance. At least for the official portraits, he ordered to be represented with entirely opposing factions to the traditional type of strong, muscular, well fit, and athletic Pharaoh. Decisively breaking with the old traditional models, Akhenaten’s representation degenerated into an emaciated, skinny, immaterial character.   In the same way the queen (Nefertiti) and princesses were transfigured with thin necks and elongated skulls.

Statue of Akhenaten (Cairo Museum), it used to be one of the pillars of a temple dedicated to the sun, that this pharaoh built at Karnak at the beginning of his reign. Bek, author of the sculpture, followed the instructions of the young prince and the Amarna style: excessively long neck that is not hidden by a fake beard, slouching shoulders, sunken chest, fragile arms, heavy and lower pelvis, and short legs.

The artistic school we call Tell-el-Amarna, or Amarna style, was created in the short-lived capital of Akhenaten where its masterpieces were produced. This school was short-lived, because at the death of the reformer pharaoh the capital was restored in Thebes.   Amun regained its hegemony and no one else thought of Aten. But the liberating and expansive artistic impulse given by the school at Tell-el-Amarna influenced all the Ramessides era, i.e. the XIX Dynasty. This school was more “naturalistic” and was characterized by a sense of movement and activity.

Among the most important pieces of sculpture of the Tell-el-Amarna school is the polychrome bust of Queen Nefertiti, that undoubtedly is one of the most admired sculptures of all mankind. It is one of the most charming female images that was ever represented in art, with surprisingly modern features enhanced by the elegant royal tiara on her head. Her regular and exquisite features: her long neck, her languid eyes, and her finely arched, full lips, express a serene calm. Several stelae with polychrome reliefs were found also at Tell-el-Amarna. The most famous of these stelae is the so called “The lovers in the garden”. In it, Akhenaten leans on a long cane and seems fascinated by the sight of his beloved. Nefertiti, looking away, offers him the fruit of the mandrake, whose aphrodisiac power was known in ancient times.

The famous Head of the Queen Nefertiti (Berlin Museum), wife of Akhenaten.
The stelae of “The lovers in the garden” (Staatliche Museen, Berlin).

When Akhenaten died he was succeeded by his son-in-law Semenekhkará who married the older of the two princesses, but his reign did not last even one year. His successor would be other of Akhenaten’s son-in-law whose name was Tutankhamun. This 15 year old boy is the famous pharaoh whose intact tomb was discovered by Howard Carter in 1922. The city of Tell-el-Amarna was then completely abandoned and the capital was again restored in Thebes along with the cult of Amun.



Aten: The disk of the sun in ancient Egyptian mythology, and originally an aspect of the god Ra. The deified Aten is the focus of the religion of Atenism established by Amenhotep IV, who later took the name Akhenaten (died ca. 1335 BCE) in worship and recognition of Aten. In his poem “Great Hymn to the Aten”, Akhenaten praises Aten as the creator, giver of life, and nurturing spirit of the world.

Hathor: An ancient Egyptian goddess who personified the principles of joy, feminine love, and motherhood. She was one of the most important and popular deities throughout the history of ancient Egypt. Hathor was worshiped by royalty and common people alike. In tomb paintings, she is often depicted as “Mistress of the West”, welcoming the dead into the next life. In other roles, she was a goddess of music, dance, foreign lands, and fertility. She was believed to assist women in childbirth. She was also believed to be the patron goddess of miners. Hathor is commonly depicted as a cow goddess with horns in which is set a sun disk with Uraeus. Twin feathers are also sometimes shown in later periods as well as a menat necklace. 

Speos: (Greek for “cave”). A funerary construction carved into the rock which combined a temple and an hypogeum. It was characteristic of Ancient Egypt, although there are also magnificent speos in the ancient Nabatean city of Petra (Jordan) but built in more recent times than the Egyptians.