The statue of Akhenaton from the Temple of Aton created between ca. 1353-1335 BCE, whose artist remains anonymous, and the statue of Laocoon and his Sons from Rome, created in the early first century CE by Athandoros, Hagesandros, and Polydoros are two masterfully sculpted pieces of art that come from two different walks of life. During the time of creation, the artists of both compositions were experimenting with new ideas and techniques to portray their subject matter more magnificently.
In comparison these two pieces are extremely different in background, the formal qualities they possess, and their original function. The backgrounds of these art pieces are quite intriguing because of the many significant changes happening politically, religiously and economically when the statues were produced. To fully understand the meaning behind an artwork we must analyze its cultural context. When Pharaoh Amenhotep IV, more commonly known as Akhenaton came to power in the mid 14th century he deserted the worship of most of the Egyptian Gods in favor of a monotheistic belief in Aton, the genderless sun disk.
He erased the name of Amen from all scriptures and emptied the temples of references of other gods, enraging the priests. He moved the capital downriver; to a place he named Akhetaton, where he built a new city and shrines. Along with the sudden change in religion, there were also extreme changes occurring within the art world as well. The artists of the time were deliberately revolting against the traditional way of representing pharaohs and important figures with faultless features.
Influences of the brief, rebellious movement can be seen in almost all aspects of the 13’ sandstone statue Akhenaton. The statue of Laocoon and his Sons made of marble and standing 7’10 ? “ high, was also subjected to influences of the events happening at the time of creation. In 146 BCE Greece became just another province in the ever expanding Roman Empire. There was a renewed interest in the Hellenistic and Classical style by the Romans who flooded the Greek artists with demands for copies of the masterpieces and to create new statues in the Greek style.
This allowed for Greek artists to slightly tweak their recreations so they could better please their Roman patrons. The transformations happening in the societies of the Egyptians and Greeks greatly influenced their artwork. The patron of Laocoon and his Sons, Emperor Titus, was interested in reviving the classical style in that statue where Pharaoh Akhenaton wanted a more unconventional approach to be taken in his honorary statue. The artist of Akhenaton’s statue succeeded in introducing eccentric features within the formal qualities of the piece.
Akhenaton is depicted in a standard frontal pose with his arms folded across his chest holding the Crook and Flail, which represent divine authority; these aspects are all very traditional but the feminine curves, full lips, slender face, and heavy lidded eyes are the exact opposite of the masculine features given to the pharaohs that ruled before him. The body may have been an effort to create a new hermaphroditic style because of the feeble arms, narrow waist, bulging stomach, wide hips and thick thighs.
Art historians argue that this confusing jumble may have been a manifestation of Aton, who had no gender. In contrast the figures in the statue of Laocoon and his Sons can easily be identified as males. The statue features three figures: Laocoon with his sons on either side of him, all three are trying to escape the grasp of serpents, while in the other statue there is only one focal point: Akhenaton. Their faces express pain and fear which contrasts greatly with the serene expression of Akhenaton.
Another obvious difference in the two statues is that the three figures are extremely natural looking, with much emphasis placed on the contours of the muscles, facial features and hair while the statue of Akhenaton pays little attention to these aspects. The cloth wrapped around Akhenaton’s lower body has no resemblance to how material would look in reality but the painstaking details are evident in the folds and drapery of the cloth in the other statue.
We must take into consideration that there is a considerable time gap between the creation of the two works and that over time the accepted style became consistently more infatuated with the idea of making the subject look as realistic as possible. These artworks are obviously very different in general aesthetic and style as well as their original function. The intended purpose of Laocoon and his Sons was to illustrate a scene from Vergil’s graphic poem, the Aeneid, which tells the story of the legendary
Aeneas who travels to Italy and becomes the ancestor of the Romans. The scene takes place shortly after Laocoon attempts to warn the Trojan’s to keep the horse out of the city, he goes to the altar of Poseidon with his sons to make a sacrifice when all three are attacked and killed by two sea serpents sent by the gods. The statue of Akhenaton was created for the Temple of Aton at Karnak. Statues such as Akhenaton’s were very important in Egyptian culture because they provided a resting place for the Ka or spirit of the deceased.
Although Laocoon and his Sons was produced to depict a scene from a poem and the statue Akhenaton was intended to be a Ka statue, they both represent how religion played a dominant role in the artists’ cultures by presenting the supremacy of Gods to the Greeks and the importance of the afterlife to the Egyptians. The symbol of the serpent is another factor that links these two statues. The serpents in Laocoon and his Sons instill fear in the viewer and represent the power that the Greek Gods had over the natural world while the one on Akhenaton’s headdress is meant to worship the snake as equivalent to a God.
I chose the two statues, Akhenaton and Laocoon and his Sons to compare because while flipping through the art history book they jumped right out at me. The statue of Akhenaton is exceedingly different from all the other statues made by the Egyptians and the hydrogenous portrayal of the Pharaoh compelled me to investigate deeper. I like that the pharaoh threw caution to the wind and rebelled against the strict traditions that had taken thousands of years to establish. I have always been intrigued by the Greek style of statuary and they inspire me to take up sculpting and attempt to create pieces that look half as spectacular as theirs.
Laocoon and his Sons is an amazing work that looks as if the figures could walk right off their pedestal and into our world. The excruciating amount of detail in the facial expressions, muscle tone, and drapery are inviting to me and I feel as if I could look at it for hours. Upon scrutinizing each piece I discovered a great deal of things that can only be realized through hours of deep thought and research. For instance, at first I didn’t realize that both sculptures had the motif of serpents or that both are greatly influenced by religion.
While reading about the cultures of each statue I learned a lot of seemingly unimportant things that regular high school history classes don’t normally teach. For instance the art of a specific area and time embodies conspicuously and inconspicuously the values and ideas of a culture. Before I started writing this paper I was very intimidated because I have never attempted to write a five page essay but once I conquered my horrible habit of procrastinating and the juices got flowing, it became easier to express my thoughts on the art pieces.
I have realized that I need time to just sit and observe each statue individually and then compare them with each other so subconsciously I can form coherent opinions. Being someone who enjoys art and really dislikes writing essays, I found that this assignment was actually fun and stimulating. I didn’t realize that there would be so much to say about miniscule details or that after observing each statue for a lengthy amount of time I would start to view it in a different light and actually appreciate it for more than just something pretty to look at.
After thoroughly comparing the statue Akhenaton and Laocoon and his Sons it is safe to say that these outwardly unlike statues are more alike than we may think. Their parallels can be established in their backgrounds, formal qualities and original function. The artists of the sculptures were experiencing changes in their life and those changes were incorporated into the pieces. This Art History class is already proving itself to be a rewarding challenge.