This turquoise glass inlay preserves the image of the pharaoh Akhenaten, who ruled during Egypt’s Eighteenth Dynasty. The pharaoh is shown in profile to the left, and his facial characteristics are subtly modeled in the glass to depict high cheekbones, fleshy lips, and a long neck. The eyebrow and eye are recessed and were likely once filled with another material or colored glass inlays of contrasting colors. There is also a slight depression on the earlobe, perhaps to indicate the location of an ear stud. Circular bubbles can be seen in the glass, and some encrustation remains in the facial crevices and eyebrow recess. The inlay was once part of a larger composition that depicted the full figure of the pharaoh.
Inlays like this were used to decorate pieces of jewelry, furniture or for relief sculpture. They were inset into carefully carved cavities, and formed parts of highly colorful figural compositions in which parts or the entire figure were made of separate glass elements. The best surviving examples of glass inlays from this period are found in the artifacts preserved in the tomb of Tutankhamen, the son of Akhenaten.
Akhenaten was considered a heretic by the Egyptian priestly caste because he was a monotheist; he rejected the full pantheon of the Egyptian gods and worshipped only Aten, the light of the sun disk. (His name means “spirit of Aten.”) The pharaoh moved the Egyptian capital from Thebes to the site of Amarna, where an entire city rose from the sands. The city was gradually abandoned after his death, and was rediscovered by British archaeologist Flinders Petrie in the early 20th century.
The works of art created during the reign of Akhenaten broke the long-standing traditional style of Egyptian art which was idealized and severely formal. Human figures were always shown in the same manner, with few individualizing elements. The works of the Amarna period, while often called “naturalistic,” are instead also highly stylized in that the human form seems to be an exaggeration, with sagging bellies, thin arms and legs, sumptuous lips, long oval eyes, and high, carefully carved cheekbones. These physical characteristics are present in the inlay. The long neck, high cheekbone, full lips and long, slanted eye are typical of portraits of the ruling family in the Amarna style.