The relationship between Egyptian rulers and their gods were ever present in many examples of Egyptian art throughout the many changes in leadership. The depictions of these relationships, however, were not always consistent from ruler to ruler, dynasty to dynasty. The Palette of Narmer, Seated Statue of Khafre, and Akenaten and Nefertit and their Children are three prime examples of the differences in depiction from one period to another.
The Palette of Narmer, done around 3000 B.C. in the Predynastic Period, depicts King Narmer as the most important figure of the work. A system of hierarchical proportions is important to this piece. Narmer’s dominating size and central position on the front side of the work point to his importance; whereas, his sandal-bearer and defeated rivals are smaller in size and thus, less important. Horus, the falcon god of sky and kingship, is also very large and is shown at Narmer’s head height, showing his importance as a god. The relationship between the two characters is depicted as that of a partnership. Narmer subdues the ruler of Lower Egypt while Horus holds captive symbols of Lower Egypt, six papyrus plants. Also notable is the frontal views of the heads of Hathor, the cow goddess, whose relationship is depicted as that of a protector of Narmer and is found of either side of the palette. On the reverse side, we again find hierarchical proportions at work as well as Hathor protecting and helping Narmer. The final important note on this piece is of the human form. It is done in a very conceptual approach. The upper body is done in a frontal view while the legs and head are done in profile.
With the Seated Statue of Khafre, we see some continuities from the past but also some changes. The god Horus is again found in this work in an even more protecting role, behind Khafre’s head. We also find standing lions on either side of Khafre’s throne guarding the ruler. Both these figures, like before for Narmer, are use to reinforce Khafre’s divine right of kingship. The noticeable difference between this piece and the Palette of Narmer is the way in which the human form is done. Khafre is much more naturalistic, although not perfectly (Khafre’s kilt and hair are still stylized). Underlying organic structures such as muscle and bone are depicted. This is in contrast to the stylized form of Narmer. Also, Khafre is shown in perfect human condition. His body’s proportions and muscle definition are very idealized. His face expresses no emotion. These qualities are characteristic to sculpture in the Old Kingdom when this piece was done in 2500 B.C.
The small relief, Akhenaten and Nefertiti and their Children, represents unprecedented changes in the depiction of Egyptian rulers. This piece shows a very naturalistic view of the human body in that the proportions are not idealized, but it also parallels previous works with the frontal torso and profiled head and legs. Depictions of leaders in this way were as unseen before Akhenaten. Although the children are shown in unnatural proportions, their freedom of movement and childlike behavior show emotion unseen in previous works. The scene’s depicted intimacy between the ruler and his children reflect the new humanistic approach used during Akhenaten’s time as ruler. So, while the stylization and conceptual pose reflects some previous work, the natural human body and emotion represent serious breaks in traditional depictions of Egyptian leaders. Another very distinct difference in this work is in the depiction of the god. Aten, the sun disk god and the only god recognized by Akhenaten, is depicted as a pure circular shape unlike all previous depictions of gods in human or animal form; But like previous gods, Aten plays a similar as a protector of the ruler.
These three works show relatively well how the depiction of Egyptian rulers, their gods, and their relationships with their gods has developed through the different rulers and periods.
Adams, Laurie. Art Across Time. Vol 1.